Rangers rise in prophetic rally

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Forest Park’s Joe Mesaris, left, and Bryce Bettag celebrated after teammate Reece Heilers recovered a Ranger punt that deflected off Heritage Hills on Friday in Ferdinand. Trailing by a touchdown on their final drive of the fourth quarter, the Rangers knotted the game on a 99-yard scoring drive, then pulled off a 24-21 double-overtime victory to defeat the Patriots for the first time in program history. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Editor

FERDINAND — Someone get Ross Fuhs a Powerball ticket or on a plane to Vegas. Stat.

 The Forest Park football coach, staggering in delirium toward his team’s postgame huddle Friday night, was practically laughing and crying and shouting all in the same breath. And why not? His team had just laughed in the face of the odds, driven 99 yards for a game-tying touchdown, weathered two wild overtimes, and slayed neighboring foe Heritage Hills for the first time in program history.

And Fuhs called the whole thing.

“What did I tell you the score was going to be?” Fuhs bellowed.

“Twenty-four, twenty-one!” roared a flock of elated Rangers.

“And who was gonna win?” Fuhs exclaimed.

“We are!” the response fired back even louder this time.

Fuhs was in Dakota Begle’s ear all week, telling the Ranger kicker that Forest Park was going to beat Heritage Hills 24-21 and he was going to boot the game-winning kick. OK, so it was two overtimes. But Fuhs nailed everything else. The score. And the final play, which was Begle’s 27-yard field goal on the Rangers’ first play of the second OT.

So, Ross, ’bout some stock tips or a visit to the casino? And, after the Rangers had been bullied in defeats of 34, 40, 47 and 64 points to PAC foes this season, where the heck did this premonition come from?

“No idea,” Fuhs said. “Actually I was in church Sunday morning (in Evansville) and I was kind of thinking about the game, I said ”˜Hey, I think we’re going to win 24-21.’ Maybe I need to go back down to that church.”

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Forest Park’s Alec Hassfurther hoisted the football after scoring the game-tying touchdown with 1:10 to play in regulation. Hassfurther was one of four Rangers to corral two passes.

Divine assistance, a jolt of toughness, a realization of the type of team the Rangers (2-6, 1-5) thought they could be. Whatever it was, it turned around a game that appeared grim at best for the Rangers on their last drive of regulation.

With just over 5 1/2 minutes remaining in regulation, Heritage Hills punter Sam Collins booted a 42-yarder that backed the Rangers up to within inches of their own goal line. There were 99 yards to travel, it was big yardage or bust, and the Rangers had executed just three pass completions to that point.

That’s when the Trent Bayer redemption tour began.

Entering the night, the Rangers’ senior quarterback hadn’t fired a touchdown pass this season while being intercepted five times. The starter at the season’s outset, he was shifted to a defensive role and only reappeared at QB when Ben Wendholt, the guy who supplanted him, suffered a broken ankle. Friday, Bayer fluttered three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter.

Bayer also fired a pick to start his night. But he followed by hitting Reece Heilers for a 40-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Throwing from his team’s endzone to begin the game-tying drive in the fourth, Bayer calmly found Austin Egloff for a 17-yard gain. Then, he coolly tiptoed out of the pocket for running gains when receivers weren’t free. Bayer completed four passes worth 17 yards or more on the series, locating Alec Hassfurther on a 19-yard TD pass with 1:10 to play.

“It’s an emotional one, I’ll tell you that,” said Bayer, who finished 8-of-19 for a career-best 160 yards; he’d thrown for 148 yards on the season before Friday. “I threw three interceptions and I came in two plays on defense and gave up a touchdown. I thought I gave the game away. We just kept fighting back, didn’t give up. All week, we worked on not giving up and playing all four quarters.”

Bayer feared he was the goat since he was in coverage when the Patriots (2-6, 2-4) gained the lead with 10:38 to play in regulation. Collins jetted by two Rangers on a 74-yard touchdown odyssey in which he cradled a pass from Logan Wilkerson on the right sideline, cut the ball across the length of the field and crossed the goal line in the opposite left corner. Collins also burned the Rangers on the prior possession, when he slipped behind coverage for a 29-yard score.

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Heritage Hills’ Sam Collins cut across the field to score a touchdown with Forest Park’s Bryce Bettag in pursuit. Collins accounted for both Patriot touchdowns on pass plays of 29 and 74 yards. 

It looked to be another maddening chapter in Forest Park’s season of getting torched on big plays. But the Rangers didn’t crack, since they’d accomplished some steady work on defense — outside of the Pats’ two touchdown plays, they averaged 2.9 yards per play.

“We told these kids, ”˜Man, they’ve been putting together some spots in some good games.’ They’ve been putting together a quarter and a half, two quarters of great football,” Patriot coach Todd Wilkerson said. “We told these kids we didn’t want to play them on the night where they string it all together.”

Ranger senior Josh Voegerl gained 67 yards on 17 carries, his last coming on a 10-yard scoring sweep around the right end on the first play of overtime. The Patriots punched back with a third-down score from Jacob Pund (25 carries, 107 yards). But when the Pats started the second OT with the ball and Voegerl swooped in to intercept Wilkerson, that was Begle’s cue to finish off his coach’s vision.

The Rangers didn’t mess around with running any plays. Fuhs made sure Begle knew: We stop Heritage Hills, and we’re kicking on our first down.

“I love the fact that Coach Fuhs has that much confidence in me,” Begle said. “I didn’t want to let the team down, didn’t want to let him down, so I just did what I had to do.

“Can’t even put words on this game. The team needed it more than you can imagine.”

It came at the expense of a Patriot squad that’s similarly floundering.

Heritage Hills played without its top two rushers on the season, as a bum ankle limited Gabe Konerding to playing mostly defense while Zack Jones swapped his No. 2 jersey for No. 68 to help out on an undermanned line.

The Pats didn’t notch a first down until the final minute of the first half, and exacerbating the offensive outage were other issues, which included eight penalties in excess of 100 yards.

“We dropped some balls in the first half, we made some bad throws in the first half. And we talked about coming out here and getting a great start tonight, and it didn’t happen,” Todd Wilkerson said. “That’s been this team’s problem all year. They have not been able to bow their backs and make the big play at the big time. And that’s the way it was again tonight.”

Wilkerson distilled the battle down to one notion: “They’ve got heart,” he said of the Rangers, motioning to their celebration, “and that’s something we need right now.”

The resilience has been similarly elusive at times this year for the Rangers, too. But they uncovered it Friday, just as their coach said they would.

“They’re troopers, man,” Fuhs said. “They’ve been through a lot, and we keep believing in them, and like we always says, ”˜You guys have got to just believe in yourself. If you have confidence in yourself, you can do it.’ And I couldn’t be any prouder of them.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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