Rustin 42, Oxford 34
● By Steven Hoffman
Under head coach Mike St. Clair, the Rustin football team is a perennial powerhouse in the Ches-Mont League. So when Oxford fell behind Rustin, 14-0, early in their Sept. 15 game, it did not seem like a comeback would be in the offing. When that lead grew to 28-7 in the second quarter, and Rustin’ strong running attack featuring Nick Benoit and Michael Covert was producing big gains on nearly every play, a comeback seemed even less likely.
But there’s no quit in the Hornets, who entered the game against Rustin on a five-game winning streak spread out over two seasons under head coach Mike Means. Oxford's players were determined to not only put on a good show for the large Homecoming crowd, but also to make a valiant effort to improve to 4-0 during the 2017 season.
So after a pep talk from Means and the position coaches during halftime, the Hornets went back out on to the field with renewed energy.
On the second play of the second half, quarterback Chandler England threw a short slant pass to wide receiver Brandon DeShields, who cut up field and raced 72 yards before he was stopped at the two-yard line. Two plays later, running back Brandon Holz fought his way into the end zone, making it 28-13.
Oxford’s defense showed its mettle, standing firm against Rustin’s powerful running attack. The Golden Knights managed to get close enough for a field goal try on its first drive of the second half, but when the attempt was no good, the Hornets got the ball back on their own 20-yard line. England connected with tight end Julian Nadachowski on a nine-yard gain that moved the chains. On the next play, Holz took the hand-off and raced 61 yards for a score, making it 28-20.
The large Homecoming crowd showed its appreciation by cheering wildly—the cheers grew and grew, and when Rustin got backed up to start the next drive, they grew some more. With each play that the Hornets’ defense stopped Rustin, the crowd roared. Two running plays resulted in minimal gain for the Golden Knights, and then a penalty on Rustin backed them up even more. Facing a third-and-20 deep in their own territory, Rustin quarterback Steven Pileggi looked to pass. He lofted the ball and Oxford safety Justin Neskie plucked it out of the air near the 35-yard line for the interception. Neskie returned the ball to the ten-yard line of Rustin.
It took Oxford one play to score—England fired a pass to DeShields in the end zone. Just like that, it was 28-26. The Hornets went for a two-point conversion, but they couldn’t convert it—a penalty on Oxford took the opportunity away, anyway, so the score stayed at 28-26.
The Hornets had scored three touchdowns in just over seven minutes of play. But, in football, momentum can turn the next time the ball is snapped. On Rustin’s next offensive series, facing another third-and-long, Pileggi threw a screen pass toward Benoit. The standout running back made a nice play to haul in the pass. Once Benoit got into the open, he was gone, racing 65 yards for the score. That boosted Rustin’s lead to 35-26. With five minutes left to play in the game, Rustin added another score—Benoit made it into the end zone for a fifth time—so it was 42-26.
Oxford continued to battle, driving 77 yards to score a touchdown with 2:13 left to play in the game. Chandler threw a 29-yarder and a 13-yarder to Brandon McWilliams during the drive, and England scored the touchdown from four yards out. The two-point conversion was successful this time as Holz ran the ball in from two yards out, making it 42-34.
Rustin was able to run out the clock and win the game by that score, but the Hornets could take pride in how they battled in the second half.
Means is not a big believer in moral victories on the football field—with an unmercifully quick ten-game schedule, what football coach is?—but he said that he was very proud of how his 3-1 team played in the second half against a very good Rustin team.
“I challenged them at halftime to see what kind of character the team has,” Means said. “It didn’t take us long to get back into the football game. I’m proud of the effort. I like how we responded to adversity tonight.”
Means said that while Oxford has played well at times this season—including during the team’s three wins—Oxford still has not played as well as it can play yet.
“We haven’t played four quarters yet this season,” Means said. “I’m excited to see it when we do.”
Oxford is now approaching the middle part of the third season under Means. The coach said that he’s pleased with the progress the football program is making, especially the hard work that the players are putting in during the off-season training program. That off-season work has been critical to Oxford's success.
“It’s taken time,” Means said. “We’re finally at the point where we feel confident in what we're trying to do out there. We’ve learned how to win close games.”
The next step, Means said, is for Oxford to learn how to finish off a game and defeat one of the Goliaths in the Ches-Mont League—a Rustin or a Unionville.
Means said that he's looking forward to seeing how his 2017 team responds to the challenge of bouncing back after a defeat.
“Now, we’ll find out how we respond to a loss,” Means said. “It doesn’t get any easier with Unionville next week.”