Vaal met with cheers, chants following return to field

Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Heritage Hills' Gavin Vaal, center, and Hunter Wetzel enter the field before Friday's Class 3A state championship football game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Bishop Chatard defeated Heritage Hills 34-3. For more photos from the game, click here.


INDIANAPOLIS —  Gavin Vaal walked off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium and back to the sidelines full of emotion on Friday as Heritage Hills fans gave him an ovation while chanting "Gavin Vaal" over and over again.

Vaal tore his MCL during the Patriots' Nov. 1 sectional semifinal game against Gibson Southern while running with the ball on a kickoff return. His teammates blocked a Titans field goal attempt to win the game, giving the senior the possibility to return. A doctor told him that, with rehab, he could maybe return if Heritage Hills made it to the Class 3A state championship game.

Vaal knew the Pats would make a long run, and sure enough they made it to state, and sure enough, he sported his dark blue, No. 6 jersey one last time against Bishop Chatard. Heritage Hills sent Vaal out late in the fourth quarter on offense. He had to mentally prepare himself to try to add on to the 499 yards he had previously accumulated off of carries.

"I went out and told my (offensive) line, I said, 'Let's do it one more time boys,'" an emotional Vaal said.

Carry No. 56 went for four yards, and also a first down following a penalty against the Trojans.

Vaal hugged coach Todd Wilkerson and other coaches and teammates with tears in his eyes with the fans embracing him after he sat out his team's prior three games.

"It meant the world to me," Vaal said. "I love my community and they love us.

"For them to do that, just meant everything, and I'm glad that they were behind me, and that they had my back," Vaal later added, while choked up with tears in his eyes.

Wilkerson hoped Heritage Hills would have been leading in the game by the time he sent Vaal out there, but was glad that it all worked out. He was happy Vaal got to experience it. He didn't think a few weeks ago that his running back and safety would have been able to do what he did, but Wilkerson said Vaal worked so hard in rehab to return.

"To have to sit there and watch your team go on a run like this, he was so strong, such a strong leader for us, and...keeping the energy up for us," Wilkerson said. "I can't say enough about him."

Heritage Hills middle school coach Matt Goffinet, left, hugs Gavin Vaal after Friday's Class 3A state championship football game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Bishop Chatard defeated Heritage Hills 34-3. For more photos from the game, click here.

Vaal's role with the Pats included helping fellow senior Noah Mundy transition from free safety to his position at strong safety. He said he helped Mundy every night in practice by telling him keys as Heritage Hills got ready for its games against Lawrenceburg and Danville. Vaal said he helped Mundy run plays and picked up on keys on the sideline during games.

He said he had great people around him as he recovered from his injury. Vaal thanked Heritage Hills athletic trainer Jessica Knies. He said the rehabbing wasn't too hard and he just had to practice bending his knee and getting his range of motion back. Vaal called it a long process, but did everything he could to get back.

All the while, the Pats won a sectional title, 27-7, against Southridge. They went to Lawrenceburg for regionals, getting a 22-0 shutout, and a strong second half propelled them to a 33-17 win in semistate at Danville. The two-way starter and special teamer had to watch the run on the sidelines while on crutches.

"That's not really something I had done my whole life," said Vaal, who began playing flag football in third grade. "It was just a change for me."

Vaal said, though, that he loves his teammates like brothers and that the ride was amazing. All that mattered to him was that his team won, and added that if the team wins, everyone wins.

Being on the sidelines helped him understand the game he loves more. He learned that not every play was going to be perfect, and that a play doesn't need to be perfect to be good. It made him appreciate his teammates. He loved watching them go out and play hard for him and the whole community.

He said it's an experience he'll never forget as it was his last run ever. Vaal said he won't play in college. He said playing the game has been his favorite thing to do since he was a little kid. Vaal said he'll mostly miss the coaches and getting yelled at by them. He'll miss playing the game with his brothers. Vaal said there's something about football that brings teammates together.

Vaal hopes to study civil or electrical engineering at the University of Southern Indiana.

"I love my team, I love my community," he said. "Patriot forever."

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