BRISTOL — If the Mount Abraham/Vergennes cooperative high school football team wanted to establish itself as a legitimate Division II playoff contender, it had to beat somebody besides opening day victim Montpelier, a program that forfeited its most recent game.
On Saturday, the Eagle offense came alive after a slow start for 267 rushing yards, and senior Cody Alexander’s touchdown with 20 seconds to go and gave Mount Abe a dramatic 27-21 win over visiting Windsor, a D-II finalist in 2011.
Alexander, who moved from tailback to quarterback in the second quarter and scored all four Eagle touchdowns, described what the win meant.
“We’re 2-1, and we just beat Windsor, who were second place last year,” he said. “So hopefully we’ll go to the state final this year.”
Another factor was in play on Saturday. In 2011, on the way to Mount Abe’s first-ever 11-man playoff berth, the team suffered a 53-8 loss at Windsor in which the Eagles and Coach Ernie Senecal felt the Jacks ran up the score.
“Our guys have a lot of pride,” Senecal said. “The guys remembered that, so they were motivated pretty good.”
On Saturday, the Eagles did not record a first down until their fifth possession, which began at 3:55 of the second quarter in a 0-0 contest.
At that point, the Eagles had only eight yards of offense despite winning the field-position battle after the Jacks had fumbled the opening kickoff.
The Jacks and QB Luke TanCreti looked more dangerous, but the Eagles slowed Windsor with four first-half sacks and a Mike White interception.
At 3:55 two things changed: Senior lineman Justice Fanning returned to the Eagle lineup after being hurt early on, and Senecal replaced sophomore QB Aaron Benway with Alexander.
Senecal said the Eagle coaches believed by putting the three best Eagle runners on the field — Alexander, junior fullback Austin Lafayette and junior tailback Tommy Lee Hodsden — they could move the ball.
They were right: With that trio in the backfield and Fanning back on the line, Mount Abe quickly marched 84 yards in nine plays to take a 6-0 lead at 1:00. Lafayette (12 carries, 44 yards) ripped off three runs for 24 yards, Hodsden ran for five, and Alexander rambled 16 yards to the Windsor 41.
Then Alexander tossed deep down the left side to Hodsden, who outmuscled a defender for the ball at the Jacks’ 6-yard line. Three plays later, Alexander snuck it in from the 1, and the Eagles led, 6-0.
The Eagles took the second-half kickoff and moved 64 yards to take a 14-0 lead. Hodsden (16 rushes for 118 yards, 13 carries for 102 in the second half) ran twice for 38 yards, and senior receiver Cody Driscoll tacked on 13 on a reverse. Alexander covered the final three yards on a sneak, and Hodsden ran in the conversion to make it 14-0 at 9:05.
But Windsor scored on its next three possessions as TanCredi began to get a little more time and heat up. He finished 13 for 19 passing for a net of 187 yards, once the six Eagle sacks for minus 46 yards were factored in.
Tailback Ethan Hill (16 carries for 73 yards) also proved to be a handful. His two-yard run at 5:05 of the third and the first of three Shawn Pinsonault kicks made it 14-7. A 26-yard TanCreti-to-Pinsonault strike on fourth-and-17 had kept that drive alive.
Mount Abe also scored on three straight drives, the next one a 68-yard march that ended at 1:18. After four Hodsden carries netted 25 yards, Alexander broke tackles, reversed field and ran 48 yards down the left sideline for the score. Lafayette’s kick made it 21-7.
Hill returned his bobbled kickoff 38 yards to the Windsor 40, and soon caught a short pass over the middle and turned it into a 34-yard gain to the Eagle nine. On third and goal from the 11, Hill ran wide right for the score at 10:49 of the third.
Mount Abe went three-and-out, and before long Windsor moved 64 yards to tie the game on a 27-yard pass from TanCreti to Tyson Boudro.
The Eagles moved to the Jacks’ 21, but Alexander fumbled on third-and-one, and the Jacks recovered.
But the Eagle defense made a stand. Eagle linebacker Josh Cyr batted away a second-down pass, and on third down good pass coverage forced a scramble, and Alexander stopped TanCredi. The Jacks’ punt went out of bounds at midfield at 2:34.
The Eagles quickly moved on runs by Alexander and Hodsden and a facemask penalty to the Windsor eight. Lafayette ran the ball to the one, and Alexander punched in the winning score from there.
Senecal praised the Eagle line — Wade Steele, Lucas Nezin and Gary Caldwell rotating on the left side; center Scott Mullin; and Fanning, Paul Sabourin and Mike Aube taking turns on the right side
“I think our line just kind of wore them down a little bit,” Senecal said. “That’s what we hope to do.”
Each team netted 307 yards of offense. Recording sacks for Mount Abe were Caldwell (three), Dan McGrath (two) and Steele.
That kind of pressure will be key for the team’s pass defense, which Senecal said will be an Eagle focus.
“We try to bring pressure and tell our secondary to keep it in front of you,” he said. “That’s obviously something where we’ve got to look at the film.”
But Mount Abe’s big takeaway from Saturday was a gritty victory, which Senecal hopes can be repeated on Saturday at Mill River, another 2011 D-II playoff team.
“If we can come away with a win next Saturday, we’re in a good position,” Senecal said. “But this was huge for us. We needed to establish ourselves as, ‘We’re a playoff team.’”
Alexander said the Eagles would be confident after their effort this past Saturday.
“I’m pretty positive,” he said. “I think that we’ll have a great year.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.