Cavaliers stand alone atop South Central Conference after
Carlinville nearing first outright conference title since 2007
By Jackson Wilson
With the 2018 South Central Conference title potentially on the line, state ranked powerhouses Carlinville and Vandalia squared off in an all-out battle to be the last undefeated team left standing in the conference. The competition was fierce and the noise level from the Vandalia fans was ear-splitting. There were several storms to weather but the Cavaliers still went out and played “lights out” football for 48 minutes and boarded the buses with final 64-28 win.
“Our gameplan, our preparation by our coaching staff this week, was phenomenal,” said Carlinville head coach Chad Easterday. “Our kids absorbed it – it was very complex – and it showed in their level of football IQ.”
Coming into this game, Vandalia knew of Carlinville’s incredible ability to pass the football and came in ready to shut it down. This meant that the Cavaliers needed to build momentum with the running game.
Colton DeLong was a man on a mission from the opening kickoff. He rushed for a career high of 125 yards on 15 carries and was the catalyst that ignited the opening scoring drive for the Cavies. The Carlinville defense held the Vandals to a quick three and out after deferring on the coin toss. After several solid carries from DeLong, Jarret Easterday found the end zone on a clutch quarterback keeper on fourth and four from the Vandalia five yard line. Kyle Dixon connected with Jake Ambuel in the back-left corner of the end zone for a successful two-point conversion on a flea-flicker trick play. With 6:07 to go in the first quarter, the Cavaliers had an early 8-0 lead.
It didn’t take long for the Vandalia offense to respond. After a false start penalty pushed the Vandals back a few yards, Garrett Austin would break loose from the Carlinville defense and carry the football from his own 42 all the way down to the Cavaliers’ 11-yard line. Two plays later, Matthew Wells found the end zone with a quarterback keeper touchdown of his own. Cameron Withers kicked the extra point through the uprights successfully, trimming the Carlinville lead to 8-7 with just under five minutes to go in the first quarter.
DeLong and Easterday picked up where they left off on the next offensive drive. DeLong moved the Cavies into Vandal territory with a 19-yard rush, then followed it up by picking up 20 more yards through the air on a brilliant pass from Easterday. Then, it was Easterday’s turn to run the football. The senior quarterback slithered his way through the Vandal defense all the way to the goal line before being brought down a yard short of the end zone. Easterday handed the ball back to DeLong, who fumbled and recovered at the line of scrimmage on first and goal. After a Vandalia timeout, DeLong redeemed himself and punched the ball into the end zone for another Cavies touchdown. Matt Schmidt converted his first extra point attempt of the night to put Carlinville back up by eight, 15-7.
Vandalia refused to call it quits. Blake Morrison nearly returned the Carlinville kickoff for an immediate touchdown answer but was dragged down near midfield by a trailing platoon of Cavaliers. With the help of a Carlinville face mask penalty and a couple of big third down conversions by Trevor Smalls and Wells, Vandalia found the end zone again. However, the Vandals would come up empty-handed on the extra point, keeping the Cavalier lead at 15-13 with just under 11 minutes left in the half.
After both teams traded defensive stops, the Cavalier passing game started to come alive. With great field position near midfield, Easterday found Dixon for a first down pass at the Vandalia 41-yard line. Easterday’s communication skills would prove to be huge later in the drive, as he was able to draw the Vandal defense offside on a critical fourth down and one near the red zone. A few plays later, Easterday executed yet another quarterback keeper play to perfection, scoring his second touchdown of the evening. Schmidt was flawless on the extra point once again, giving Carlinville its largest lead of the night 22-13 with three minutes remaining in the half.
The Vandalia defense was struggling, but the offense remained determined to keep the game close heading into the second half.
The Carlinville defense caught a major break early in the next drive when Morrison broke free from coverage on a trick play. With nothing but daylight in front of him, he failed to pull in what would have been 65-yard touchdown flea-flicker pass from Smalls. This would later turn out to be a very costly miscue. Despite the missed opportunity, the Vandals were still able to get in a reasonable position to score another touchdown before the half.
Wells used back-to-back quarterback keeper plays to move the ball up to the Carlinville 33-yard line. The Cavaliers were hit with another huge penalty that moved the Vandals 15 additional yards to the 18. Wells took a huge risk on the next play and paid the ultimate price. On third down and ten from the Carlinville 23, he took a shot at the end zone while throwing off-balance into tight coverage. He was intercepted by Kyle Dixon for a 97-yard pick-six touchdown. A raucous Vandalia crowd was stunned in disbelief as Carlinville took a commanding 29-13 lead into the halftime break.
The Cavaliers wasted no time putting a stranglehold on this game in the second half.
In the opening seconds of the third quarter, Easterday hit Ambuel for a 58-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass. This would turn out to be a special moment for Easterday, who had just put himself over 5,000 passing yards for his career. Another successful extra point by Schmidt extended the Cavalier lead to 36-13.
The Vandals would answer yet again. Beginning from his own 35-yard line, Wells avenged Dixon’s pick-six and kept his team afloat. He hit Thomas Ritchey for 21 yards to the Carlinville 44, then Caleb Slater for 16 more yards to the 28. With the game ultimately hanging in the balance on fourth down from the 23, Wells threw the ball to Ritchey again. The junior wide receiver would take care of the rest, dodging the Carlinville defense all the way to the end zone. Withers redeemed himself for his earlier miss and knocked the extra point through to make it a 36-20 game with 9:07 to go in the third quarter.
It was at this moment when the Vandals’ luck started to run out. The offense was making big plays, but the defense couldn’t put the tourniquet on the Cavalier offense. As a result, the Carlinville Cavaliers were able to put together a dominant 28-8 run in the final stretch of the game. The Cavalier defense put the finishing touches on the statement victory by holding the Vandals scoreless in the fourth quarter.
After passing for 66 yards in the first half, Easterday became unstoppable in the second half. The senior quarterback would finish 21-26 for 278 yards and three passing touchdowns. He also rushed for 74 yards on 18 carries, while earning a career-high four touchdowns on the ground. The Carlinville offense scored touchdowns on eight of nine possessions while putting up 488 total yards. “You never come into a game expecting that. It’s just how the game went and it’s what the defense gave us. We just took it,” J. Easterday said.
After six weeks, the first place tie at the top of the South Central Conference is finally broken.
Carlinville, who came in ranked number two in the Illinois High School Association’s 3A state poll, improved to 7-0 with the win. Vandalia, ranked number eight, fell to 6-1.
The Carlinville Cavaliers are one win away from at least a share of the conference title as they travel to Staunton next week. Two more victories in a row would earn Carlinville its first undefeated regular season since 2001. The Staunton Bulldogs (4-3) are one win away from a postseason berth after cruising to a 55-14 victory at Gillespie (3-4) on Friday. The Cavaliers will return home for the Senior Night regular season finale against Greenville on Oct. 19.