VERO BEACH — Three first-half touchdown runs paced Vero Beach High’s Fighting Indians to a hard-fought 28-10 victory over the Sebastian River High Sharks in the Dollars for Scholars Football Classic before a capacity crowd of 7,500 at the Citrus Bowl.
The contest appeared to be decided when Vero Beach went into halftime with a 21-0 advantage.
That changed suddenly when Sebastian’s Stephan Clark grabbed the second-half kickoff and sprinted 82-yards down the south sideline to pull his team to 21-7, sending Sharks fans into a frenzy.
And the game was on.
Vero struck first on the opening possession of the game, taking eight plays to go 72 yards. On third-and-two, quarterback Todd Fennell executed a perfect option pitch to running back Jormonte Hunter. Fennell held the ball until the last split second before Hunter took the pitch and did the rest, slicing 35 yards to the end zone.
The Sharks also chewed up eight plays on their first possession, with quarterback Wesley Wilson completing 4-5 passes for 53 yards. However the three rushes on the drive lost a total of 15 yards, and despite advancing from their own 20 to Vero’s 39, Sebastian gave up the ball when they failed to convert on a fourth-and-one.
That gave the Indians decent field position at their own 42. Six plays later, running back E.J. Pryor went the final 28 yards for a score to make it 14-0.
Wilson once again was able to move the ball through the air, going 3-4 for 21 yards in his team’s second series on offense. Aided by a pass interference call, the Sharks drove from their 20 to the Indians 30 only to give up the ball on downs for a second time.
Both teams then went three-and-out and were forced to punt. Todd Fennell’s punt pushed Sebastian back to their own 11 yard line. The Sharks ensuing fourth down punt from the end zone was fielded at the 38. A 10 yard return gave Vero the ball a mere 28 yards from pay dirt.
After a sack lost seven, Hunter burst through for 25 and then finished off the short drive by going the final 10 for his second touchdown of the night.
Clark’s electrifying kickoff return shifted the momentum instantly seconds into the third quarter. Their lead cut to 21-7, the Indians gained one first down before becoming bogged down with yellow flags. Three infractions, including one that negated another first down, found Sebastian back on offense with over seven minutes left in the third.
Sharks head coach Randy Bethel successfully gambled on a fourth-and-three from his own territory, keeping alive a five minute drive that culminated in a 35 yard field goal by Michael Nottage at the 2:29 mark.
At 21-10, the Sharks defense stiffened. Vero gained two yards during a three-and-out and went into punt formation from their own 37 with under a minute left in the third. That punt proved to be one of those keys to success that often go unheralded.
Fennell lofted one high and deep, reminiscent of the old coffin corner kick days. When the ball trickled out-of-bounds, the Sharks were back in the shadow of their own goal post. Starting at their seven, the Sharks gained three yards before preparing to punt from their own end zone for the second time.
This time it seemed like the entire student body rushed the punter. The kick was blocked. Defensive back Sean Paul pounced on the ball in the end zone for a 28-10 lead less than a minute into the fourth.
The teams exchanged punts before Sebastian River gained control with 6:52 left. With Norris Rogers taking over at quarterback and passing for 45 yards, one last gasp found the Sharks at Vero’s 15 with three minutes to go.
Any hopes of a miracle comeback were dashed when defensive lineman Cody Horstman sacked Rogers for a nine-yard loss on third down. A fourth down pass fell incomplete and Vero was able to run out the clock.
Bethel felt that his team was simply unable to get over the hump.
“We didn’t capitalize on the momentum we seized in the second half,” he said. “We had opportunities through the air, but we missed too many tackles on defense. Vero was a very good opponent, but we had our chances.”
The Indians first half spark came from the running game.
“Hunter and Pryor ran hard and the blocking was good,” running backs coach Pete DeLuke said. “Both of them don’t stop moving their legs. There is always second effort, especially from Jormonte. He gets going and he doesn’t want to stop. E.J. has grown a lot in these last two weeks and he really does a great job for us.”
Naturally, head coach Gary Coggin was pleased with the outcome, and also the atmosphere.
“It’s been a long time since the Citrus Bowl has been this packed,” he said. “It was just wonderful to be associated with an event like this and to be here with our kids to enjoy it. I think it will be a great, great memory down the road.”
About the game itself and specifically about the three first-half scores, Coggin said, “You want to have those big, explosive plays. You want to take advantage of opportunities. And we did. We didn’t quite do that in the second half, but we didn’t have as many opportunities. They kind of rolled up their sleeves and got after us a little bit. I knew they would and I compliment coach Bethel and his staff.”
Coggin felt that his special teams made enough positive plays to offset Clark’s kickoff return.
“Todd Fennell just hit some absolute boomers tonight,” he said. “That’s huge when you back people up and then don’t allow them to make big plays. The kicking game was very, very big for us. Getting that last touchdown on the blocked punt was a huge factor in the game.”
The exclamation point to signal the finish was provided by the defense. Any doubt was erased by Horstman’s sack.
“It was crunch time,” the 6-foot-3-inch 250-pound senior said about what he intended for the opposition. “I told myself before the play that I was going to have to get off fast and get around the offensive tackle. I was ready to make the sack. It was great. Sometimes great things happen.”
Vero stays outside the district again next week for a home match-up with West Boca Raton. Sebastian River takes a week off before hitting the road to face another Class 6A foe, St. Lucie West Centennial High School.