SECTION IV FOOTBALL: VESTAL DOWNS HORSEHEADS 40-14 IN HEATED CLASS A FINAL
By ANTHONY GOSS
Broome County Sports Report
VESTAL —— Tempers flared in the second half of Friday's Section IV Class A final between No. 2 Horseheads and No. 1 Vestal. Navigating a mess of ejections and penalties, the Golden Bears handled their opponent 40-14 on their home field and earned the sectional crown.
"Not the way you want it. Not all those flags, not all that extracurricular stuff. It got away from both teams I think," Vestal head coach Jim Crunden said. "The moment, the intensity, whatever it was we don't like to play that way."
Vestal set the tone on the ground on the first drive, giving the ball to star running back Liam Nealy five times. On the seventh play of the drive, Cam Schaffer launched the first pass of the game, a 34-yard strike to Noah Kintner.
The Blue Raiders utilized its own ground attack on its first drive, but Finn Scanlon Shaw came up a yard short on a fourth and five attempt in Vestal territory. Vestal went right back to its lead ball carrier.
Nealy amassed 44 scrimmage yards on the next drive, ending with a two-yard touchdown run, giving the Golden Bears a 14-0 lead with 2:09 to play in the first quarter.
Vestal had begun to assert its control of the line of scrimmage on both sides, but Horseheads needed an answer. Two plays after receiving the kickoff, quarterback Dom Cardinale spotted a busted coverage, finding Bradock Salisbury for a 61-yard touchdown connection.
"That first touchdown they caught us," Crunden said. "We had a stunt on and a missed assignment and they bit us on that one."
In response, Vestal turned to its bell-cow back on a 10-play scoring drive where Nealy touched the ball on nine plays. A six-yard scamper into the endzone would end the drive and Vestal led 21-7.
"We saw Liam. To have the ability to give the ball to a running back and have that patience, that downhill acceleration," Crunden said. "It really helped grind it out."
The Golden Bears' momentum would soon escalate. Horseheads possessed the ball once again and Cardinale found Mosher on a play out of the backfield. The Vestal defensive front hit the running back immediately. The ball popped loose and Brody Crowley scooped up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown.
The massive defensive play put the Class A one seed in front 28-7 with 8:38 remaining in the first half.
"Our defense is quick. One of the fastest I've been a apart of," Crunden said. "With that ability, quickness, that closing speed, those things aren't expected, they're going to happen. They just create turmoil on defense with their speed."
Cardinale had his response ready, firing a series of passes to receivers Scanlon Shaw and Salisbury to move the ball into the red zone. But the Golden Bears held strong, forcing another turnover on downs.
The Blue Raiders made their stand and a punt return set them up at their own 48. Cardinale found another receiver stranded behind the Vestal secondary, this time hitting Scanlon Shaw to cut into the deficit with 1:13 left in the half.
Vestal moved quickly to sneak in one more score before halftime. A combination of efforts from Schaffer, Nealy and receiver JT Gannon positioned the Golden Bears at the Horseheads six-yard line with 12 seconds left.
The Golden Bears handed off to Nealy who made it five yards before a fumble that bounced into the endzone to the Blue Raiders resulted in a touchback.
Horseheads would move the ball to start the second half, but another failed conversion attempt on a fourth down returned the ball to the home team. The Golden Bears went right back to their successful scoring formula from the first half and kept the ball on the ground.
Nealy punched in a 10-yard touchdown and, despite another blocked point-after-try, Vestal led 34-14 at 5:14.
"One of the things we tried to do all year was have long, sustained drives and tonight with him carrying the rock we were able to accomplish that," Crunden said. "We got a lot out of him tonight and he's a huge part of this team."
But the game soon took an ugly turn. Cardinale dropped back on third and 16, scrambling to his left after finding no open receivers. Nealy, in at linebacker for Vestal, charged at the quarterback and landed a forceful hit on Cardinale near the Horseheads sideline.
The officials declared a targeting penalty on Nealy and ejected him from the game.
Vestal immediately protested the penalty and a review of the play will commence to determine if the ht warranted a targeting call, according to Crunden. This means Nealy's status for next week's NYS quarterfinal matchup is unconfirmed.
Colton Cox entered the game at quarterback for the Blue Raiders, but threw an interception on the next play from scrimmage. The Golden Bears ensured better coverage in their secondary in the second half.
"We did a much better job in the second half of adding some depth to those guys and allowing those under throws to take place," Crunden said.
Vestal gained only 11 yards on its next drive, but a litany of penalties committed by Horseheads drove the Golden Bears down the field. Schaffer passed to Gannon for a two-yard score and Vestal took a 40-14 lead to open the fourth quarter.
Officials ejected Horseheads head coach Kevin Hillman on that drive after he received a pair of unsportsmanlike penalties.
Both sides settled and finished the game. The Golden Bears clinched their first official Section IV title since 2018 with the victory.
"I feel ecstatic for this team," Crunden said. "They've worked so hard for the last 12 weeks. It's been a while since we've had one and we're just glad we sealed it up tonight."
The Golden Bears will host the winner of tomorrow's Section III final next Friday at Dick Hoover Stadium.
PHOTOS BY ANTHONY GOSS
HH: Salisbury 12-37; Mosher 8-15; Cardinale 5-13; Scanlon Shaw 4-10; Thomas 1-5; Cox 2-(-2)
VES: Nealy 27-160-3; Winslow 4-41; Hines 9-24; Schaffer 2-24; Devaughn 2-3; Gannon 1-1
HH: Cardinale 9-12-197; Cox 0-1-0
VES: Schaffer 10-11-162
HH: Salisbury 4-136-1; Scanlon Shaw 3-56-1; Woodhouse 1-10; Mosher 1-(-3)
VES: Gannon 6-79-1; Nealy 3-49; Kintner 1-34-1
VES: Kintner 34-yard pass from Schaffer, 8:34 (PAT GOOD)
VES: Nealy two-yard run, 2:09 (PAT GOOD)
HH: Salisbury 61-yard pass from Cardinale, 1:48 (PAT GOOD)
VES: Nealy six-yard run, 10:08 (PAT GOOD)
VES: Crowley fumble return, 8:38 (PAT GOOD)
HH: Scanlon Shaw 52-yard pass from Cardinale, 1:33 (PAT GOOD)
VES: Nealy 10-yard run, 5:14 (PAT BLOCKED)
VES: Gannon two-yard pass from Schaffer, 11:56 (PAT BLOCKED)
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