SALEM — Through the first 42, 40 seconds of Friday night’s game between Effingham and Salem, the Hearts had exactly zero pass completions against the Salem Wildcats.
Passes had been sailing over receivers’ heads, landing at their feet, bouncing off their hands, and that was only when quarterback Nathan Vail was actually able to field a snap cleanly in the rainy, muddy conditions.
But, a simple out route by Caydin Vaughn with 5:20 left in the fourth quarter changed everything, leading to a dramatic, come-from-behind 14-13 overtime victory for the Hearts.
Vaughn caught Vail’s pass, turned up field, and 11 yards later, picked up a first down.
From that point, until the end of the game, Vail and his receivers were in sync, connecting on passes and drawing pass interference penalties en route to game-tying 25-yard touchdown pass to Drew Levitt with 1:12 remaining.
Just like that, a disappointing, penalty and mistake-riddled game was wiped out, and the Hearts began anew.
With the score knotted at 7 at the end of regulation, the squads headed into an overtime period, which began with a 5-yard touchdown run by running back Paul Moskal on the Wildcats’ possession.
But Jacob Maxey missed the extra point, and the Hearts took over with four downs to score a touchdown and extra point to win the game, or face the possibilitiy of a harrowing 0-5 start to their season.
They’d only need one play. That simple out route from Vail to Vaughn, the same play that started the dramatic turnaround, again worked to perfection, going for 10 yards and the game-tying touchdown.
Effingham kicker Zach Miller then drilled the extra point, straight and ture through the uprights and was mobbed shortly thereafter by a group of teammates, the weight of their 0-4 start lifted with a thrilling victory.
Head coach Mike McDonald said he was proud of his team’s perseverance in the face of adversity.
“They kept after it,” he said. “We overcame 10-plus penalties, turnovers and bad snaps.”
He was especially proud of his defense, a unit that stopped the Wildcats’ offense at the 1-yard line as time expired in the first half, forced an interception by Marcus Robinson and had several other big stops.
“I think there were a lot of turning points in this game, but that was huge,” McDonald said of the stop just before halftime. “Our defense was the one constant tonight.”
Offensively, even though not much was working with a slippery ball and poor field conditions, McDonald said getting the ball to Vaughn was a top priority.
“Caydin’s a guy we want to get the ball to,” he said. “We were having trouble doing anything all night long, but we finally relaxed enough to hit some simple passes, and Caydin’s a great runner with the ball.”
Now, with the pressure of winning that first game off their backs, the Hearts will shift their focus to next week’s homecoming game against Paris.
McDonald said he doesn’t expect much to change in practice this week, since his team has never lost focus even with a tough start to the season, but acknowledged that the win would probably help team morale.
“It’s huge for these guys,” he said. “To be able to come on the road and get a win, especially being down like we were, that’s just huge.”