Patriots stave off late Wildcats' rally

Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Heritage Hills' Gavin Vaal runs the ball during Friday's football game in Lincoln City. Vaal rushed for a game-high 122 yards and a touchdown in Heritage Hills'  17-14 win over Jasper. 


LINCOLN CITY — If you talk to Heritage Hills coach Todd Wilkerson and Jasper coach Tony Lewis, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out exactly which team won Friday night’s rivalry football game. To be sure, as far as the coaches were concerned, they saw plenty their respective teams need to work on before the season progresses much further.

Wilkerson, to be sure, was happy his Patriots are still undefeated in four games after grinding out a hard-fought 17-14. Likewise, Lewis recognizes his Wildcats must improve, and that a 1-3 record is not acceptable.

“We always learn a lot about ourselves when we play [Jasper],” Wilkerson said. “I felt like we created a lot of adversity for ourselves tonight by putting the ball on the ground a few times where we had some nice drives, and we just put the ball on the ground. I think those were the first fumbles our varsity kids have had this year. We had to overcome that.”

Heritage Hills lost the handle on the pigskin four times on the evening, with Jasper coming up with two of the miscues. But the Wildcats also had two turnovers, one with a fumble and one on an interception.

“Our kids played hard, I’ve got to do a better job,” Lewis observed. “They were the more disciplined team. We jumped offsides a few times defensively, that hurt us, that kept their drives going, which was big. Offensively, we’ve got to be able to sustain a drive. We have to be able to run our regular stuff, and we did there in that last drive. We made some silly mental mistakes at the start of the game that cost us, on our first drive, our opening drive. We don’t line up right on two of our three plays, and that can’t happen, we’ve just got to do better.”

While turnovers proved costly for both teams, Lewis pointed out that time of possession was a determining factor.

“It was a tough, hard-fought game, but I thought our defense was on the field entirely too long.”

The Patriots controlled the time of possession, holding the ball for 27:31, compared to 19:56 for the Wildcats.

But the possession that sealed the verdict for Heritage Hills came on the shoulders of quarterback Cole Sigler. The senior signal caller sat out last week’s game nursing a sore shoulder, and Wilkerson says Sigler was about 85% for the Patriots’ biggest game of the young season. But after Jasper scored a touchdown to pull to within 17-14 and then couldn’t convert the onside kick attempt, Sigler kept the ball in his hands on five consecutive snaps, including runs of nine and 10 yards for the first down to ice the game.

“The offensive line, at least there at the end of the game ... we drove the ball up and down the field at times, so they obviously are doing some good things,” Wilkerson said. “Getting that big first down to ice the game ... so many things can happen if you don’t get that first down — you’ve got to punt it, you gotta worry about not getting it blocked, and then you’ve gotta play defense with us a little short-handed anyway. So I’m really happy with our offensive line.”

Heritage Hills found itself at a disadvantage after its first possession. No. 1 running back Jacob Wetzel piled up 31 yards on six carries to put the Patriots in position for Ethan Hill to kick a 27-yard field goal with 5:54 left in the opening quarter to give Heritage Hills a lead it never relinquished. But Wetzel, who is the defensive captain as well as an offensive workhorse, got bruised up and was sidelined for the remainder of the game.

In his stead, Phoenix Rodgers, Gavin Vaal and Noah Mundy stepped up to keep the Patriots in high gear.

“I thought Phoenix Rodgers did a great job stepping in to that role,” Wilkerson said. “Phoenix already starts on defense, so he kinda had to be the captain over there. And then he also had to play fullback, and did a good job of helping us keep the ball moving. Gavin Vaal and Noah Mundy, two guys who are kinda our third and fourth guys, and tonight they had to be one and two, or at least two and three, and they both stepped up and made good plays for us.”

Vaal finished with a game-high 122 yards on 11 carries, and both Vaal and Rodgers scored the Patriots’ two touchdowns.

Owning its 3-0 lead, Heritage Hills opening the second stanza on the doorstep of the endzone. Two plays into the quarter, Rodgers barrelled in from a yard out. Ethan Hill’s PAT made it a 10-0 count.

But the Wildcats were not going to let the game get away from them. Running back Lance Dawkins and quarterback Nathan Rillo chipped away at the Heritage Hills defense, setting up Elliott Hopf for the biggest run of the night. Hopf took a pitch from Rillo on the left side, and rumbled 64 yards to paydirt with 7:48 showing. Jackson Kabrick added the extra point to put Jasper back into contention.

That’s when the Patriots found the football hard to hang onto. At their own 36 yard line, Rodgers lost the handle, but the fumble was recovered by offensive lineman Spencer Vaal. But two plays later, Sigler couldn’t connect on a handoff, and the Wildcats pounced on the ball at the Heritage Hills 42 yard line.

But Jasper held the ball for only three plays before Sigler intercepted a Rillo pass at the 20 yard line.

The Patriots recorded four consecutive first downs — two on a 17-yard run by Rodgers and a 35-yard run by Vaal — but Rodgers lost the handle on the ball again, and Jasper was back in business deep in Wildcat territory.

But two penalties marred the possession, when ended when Rillo fumbled away the ball with 24 seconds remaining before halftime.

Heritage Hills opened the second half with a methodical running game, capped by a four-yard touchdown run by Vaal with 4:33 left in the third period. Hill’s kick made it 17-7.

After the teams traded long possessions, Jasper put the ball in Rillo’s hands for an 11-play drive the length of the field, which ended with Dawkins toting the ball the final seven yards to the endzone. Kabrick’s kick made it 17-14 with 2:26 remaining.

Jasper’s onside kick ended up in Mundy’s hands, and Sigler did the rest for the Patriots.

Heritage Hills heads to North Posey Friday for a Pocket Athletic Conference showdown, and Jasper goes to Vincennes Lincoln for a Big Eight Conference matchup.

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