Eldon football hangs on to beat St. James in home finale

MICHAEL LOSCH, Lake Sun Sports Editor
Eldon freshman quarterback Hunter Hees looks for an open lane in the home finale against St. James on Friday, October 23, in Eldon.

When this group of seniors look back on the final home game of their Eldon careers, they’ll mostly remember just one thing. 

It won’t be all the miscues such as penalties, how both teams coughed up three turnovers or the six combined turnovers on downs. It will be the fact that despite all of that, this group of seniors and the Mustangs found a way to win 21-18 over St. James in the final game at Victor Field this season. 

“The seniors who have put in four years to this program, you get a chance to go out with a win in your last game on your home field. Not many players can ever say that so I told these guys how important it was and it is only our third home game of the year,” Eldon coach Chad Hult said amidst a wild season in the middle of a pandemic that forced the Mustangs to cancel two games this season, including one last week. “It was nice to be in front of our home crowd and put on a show for those guys.  

“It was a sloppy win, definitely, but at the same time it is a win which is always good. Our kids made the big plays when we had to which was nice.”  

One of those big plays came on the final play of the game. 

After St. James forced a turnover on downs on 4th-and-2, preventing Eldon from running out the clock, and got the ball back with 8.4 seconds left in the game on their own 41-yard line, it came down to one last play. The Tigers opted to run a hook-and-ladder kind of play and it initially worked, but with Eldon defenders in pursuit the ball had to be lateralled again and it fell to the ground around Eldon’s 40-yard line where a pile quickly ensued and ended the game. 

“We were trying to stay back not give up the big plays and kind of run the clock down so we could secure the win,” said Eldon junior Baylor Pearson who helped make the stop on the last play. 

A valiant effort from St. James, considering the Tigers were down nine points with just 2:54 left in the game. Senior quarterback Preston Schmidt hit senior receiver Kadin Guese for a 17-yard touchdown pass with 1:07 left on the clock to put the Tigers in striking distance. 

“In the second half we played our guts out and we came up a little bit short,” St. James coach Josh Rodriguez said. “We were not very consistent in the first half, came out really flat, got behind the 8-ball and were not able to overcome it.” 

Penalties put St. James in a tough spot from the start and two early turnovers quickly resulted in a 14-0 lead for Eldon by the end of the first quarter.

The Tigers started the night coughing up a fumble on the opening possession of the game at their own 20-yard line, giving Eldon’s offense short field to work with that led to a 5-yard touchdown by freshman quarterback Hunter Hees who found some space on the bootleg to put the Mustangs up 7-0 early. Another St. James fumble with just over three minutes remaining in the quarter gave Eldon short field once again and the Mustangs drove 38 yards and capitalized with another Hees bootleg run from seven yards out.  

“I think they did a really good job stepping up,” Hees said of his offensive line. “We had guys get quarantined and they were next up so they did a good job getting us the win.” 

It is not every day that a wide receiver becomes the starting left tackle, but in this strange new era of COVID-19 the Mustangs adjusted and in many ways, it still looked like the same Wing-T offense with the way the team was able to run the ball Friday night.  

“Ian has done a great job and he is a senior for us who will step up and do anything we ever ask of him,” Hult said of Ian Birdno who was the wide receiver that became a tackle. “It is a little different when you move from wide receiver to left tackle to play a game, but he did a great job for us and those guys did a good job up front all night for us.” 

The second quarter was practically a stalemate for both sides. 

St. James turned the ball over on downs three times, twice at Eldon’s 43-yard line and another at the Mustang 44-yard line on a drive where Schmidt hit junior receiver Peyton Maylee on a 47-yard strike. Meanwhile, Hees threw an interception, the Mustangs turned the ball over on downs on St. James 4-yard line after a Hees pass fell just short of junior Owen Levesque’s hands at the goal line and a fumble at midfield gave the Tigers one last shot at scoring in the first half. 

St. James did not do anything with that final possession, but the Tigers made sure to do something with their next one. After forcing an Eldon three-and-out to start the second half, St. James drove 93 yards thanks to a 71-yard run from sophomore running back Cody Wilfong and finished the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run from senior running back Zach Achterberg to cut the gap to 14-6 after a botched extra point. 

“We had a very intense motivational speech about getting off the ball, holding your edge or making your block. We got very intense at halftime and I think they got the message of what direction we needed to go and they responded,” Rodriguez remarked. 

The Tigers forced another three-and-out on Eldon’s ensuing possession, but the next offensive drive resulted in a turnover after Schmidt’s pass was intercepted by Pearson. St. James took care of business the next time, though. 

A fumble recovery on Eldon’s 46-yard line led to Achterberg’s second touchdown of the night on a 4-yard run to cut the deficit to 14-12 at the start of the fourth quarter. Just to get to that point, Schmidt completed a 5-yard pass to Guese on 4th-and-4 at Eldon’s 16 and Wilfong plowed ahead for a first down at the goal line on 4th-and-2. The Tigers went for the 2-point conversion to tie things up but Schmidt’s pass fell to the ground near the back of the end zone. 

Eldon responded with perhaps its best offensive drive of the night. Starting at their own 40-yard line, the Mustangs ate up over six minutes of clock with its consistent rushing attack and it ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore Krystopher Shepard who gave his team a 21-12 lead with 2:54 remaining in the game. 

“The kids have not seen that before in that fashion. Nobody we play runs that so it was a new kind of a shock for them of what we see,” Rodriguez said of Eldon’s dedicated rushing attack in the Wing-T offense. “Once they tightened up, especially in the second half, we played much better against it. We needed to start that way and we just did not respond at the beginning of the game.” 

St. James responded quickly with the 17-yard strike to Guese that took just 1:45 off the clock, but Eldon senior Fisher Snelling was able to recover the ensuing onside kick which eventually left the Tigers with 8.4 seconds for one last play. A tough ending for a team that showed some flashes of its potential.

“We know we can play well at times and there were points where we were clicking and doing things right,” Rodriguez noted. “And then we’ll completely shut the switch off and do dumb things. That has been our achilles heel all year of penalties, fumbled snaps or poor decisions on pass routes and throws.” 

St. James (1-8) will have to get things corrected quickly with the district playoffs set to begin next week.  

“We’ll just have to clean up the little things and we’ll be competitive with anybody we play. We have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties and little turnovers that kill drives,” Rodriguez said. “That has been our thing all year and it has cost us in a couple of games we probably should have won, but next week we are going to have a really tough opponent and we cannot afford to do that.” 

Eldon (2-5) gets to walk away from Victor Field one last time in 2020 with a win and that sounds pretty good to seniors like P.J. Bledsoe with all the uncertainty this season has brought.

“It was amazing. You can be a senior and go by how you win your last game on your home field,” he said. “I’m proud of everyone on this team, even with the makeshift line we had this week. It was crazy, too, with two days to prepare but I’m proud of all our guys. I could not ask for a better group of teammates this year.” 

Now, Bledsoe and his teammates will be looking to extend their season a little longer. With how the final district standings lined up, the Mustangs are set to visit Osage (3-6) in a rematch for the first round of the playoffs next week. 

“It is going to take everything we have. We played them earlier and we played them good the first half but shut down in the second,” Bledsoe recalled. “We just have to bring everything that second half and play a full game. It is a rivalry so we’ll be hyped.” 

After the first meeting, which Osage won 41-26 on September 11, there are a few things the Mustangs may have learned. 

“We just have to limit the big plays. We were competitive with them in the first half and we gave up too many big plays in the second,” Hult said. “We have to find a way to match their speed and tackle a little bit better.”