Hornets impressive, but stung by late field goal
● By Steven Hoffman
The Oxford Hornets and West Chester Henderson Warriors combined to win just four games in 2015, but this is a brand new day for the two vastly improved squads. A 30-yard field goal by Bryce McElhiney with just over six minutes to play in the fourth quarter propelled Henderson to a 24-21 victory over Oxford in an entertaining and hard-fought season-opener on Aug. 26. Both teams could take away plenty of positives as they look toward the rest of their schedules in the rugged Ches-Mont League.
Oxford head coach Mike Means said that his team had a very good off-season of work, and it showed early on as the Hornets delighted the large home crowd by marching 88 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game. The drive got off to a sputtering start—the Hornets were flagged for three pre-snap penalties that backed them up inside their own five-yard line. But on third down, quarterback Chandler England threw a nice screen pass to Gavin Baumgardner in the middle of the field for a 14-yard gain that moved the chains and kicked the offense into high gear. Six plays later, the Hornets were in the end zone as running back Tim Davis scored on a four-yard carry.
With a strong offensive line and a fired up, attacking defense, the Hornets dominated at points in the first half. Defensive lineman Cole Gruver was in on a couple of nice plays, including dropping Henderson quarterback Joe Saulino for a three-yard loss in the backfield on one play. Defensive tackle Mike Weber forced Saulino into an incompletion with a big hit. Oxford's defense swarmed on the ball carrier on several other plays.
Henderson capitalized on a short field late in the first quarter when running back CJ Preston picked up 41 yards on four carries, including a 24-yard gain for the score. The game was tied, 7-7, after one quarter.
Momentum swung back toward the Hornets when they recovered a fumble on a punt return at the 21-yard-line of Henderson. After a nice pitch-and-catch from England to Nolan Benke that moved the ball eight yards, Brandon Holz picked up the first down with a three-yard gain to the 11. On the next play, England saw some running room in front of him and he raced through Henderson’s defensive line, avoiding defenders and reaching the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. Oxford led 14-7.
The Hornets scored again on its next drive when Holz took a hand-off, broke a couple of tackles, and worked his way to the left sideline. He raced 31 yards to the end zone. When Ryan Hannum kicked the extra point it was 21-7.
Henderson answered right back with a big play as Saulino fired a pass to Preston, who eluded tacklers in the middle of the field and rumbled down to the 39 of Oxford. Five plays later, Preston scored on a run from one yard out. That cut Oxford's lead to 21-14.
A few minutes later, Saulino and Preston combined on another big play—a 48-yard pass play that resulted in another touchdown. With 34 seconds left in the first half, it was a tie game, 21-21.
England engineered a good drive on Oxford’s first possession in the third quarter. On first down, the quarterback rolled to his right and found Holz in the open for a 14-yard gain. Davis added a couple of nice runs and the Hornets moved the ball down to the 12 of Henderson. After a penalty against Oxford, England looked to get the ball to a receiver in the corner of the end zone, but Henderson defensive back Myles Cooper managed to get a good position and picked off the pass.
“You have to give them credit. The kid made a good play on the ball,” Means said of Cooper’s interception. “It was a huge play.”
The play was made even bigger when Henderson embarked on a 14-play drive that took up the rest of the third quarter and the first few minutes of the fourth quarter. Oxford’s defense rose to the challenge and kept the Warriors out of the end zone, but Henderson was close enough for a field goal attempt. McElhiney booted the kick through the uprights, giving Henderson the 24-21 lead.
The field goal, which came with 6:16 left to play, turned out to be the difference in the game.
The Hornets pushed the ball across mid-field one more time in the game, but a penalty left Oxford with a difficult fourth-and-long situation that Henderson successfully defended.
The Hornets were hindered by penalties, and Means said that they need to improve that going forward.
“We put ourselves in bad spots a lot of the night,” Means said. “You can’t do that against a good team.”
Even so, there were plenty of positives for Oxford to take away, from the hustle and hard work of players like Holz, Josh Freese, Mike Weber to the running of Davis to the play of England, a junior who was starting his first varsity game at quarterback.
“He’s a gamer,” Means said. “He comes to play. I thought, for a first varsity game, he played tremendously well.”
Despite the hard-fought loss, Means was proud of the effort—it reflected what he had seen from his players during the off-season, and he’s looking forward to seeing how his team will play against Avon Grove on Sept. 2.
“We are who I thought we would be,” Means said. “We had a great off-season. We have some great kids. The one thing left for us to change the culture is that we just need to learn how to win. That’s a big thing for these kids.”