By Stephen Bubalo
Fort Osage head football coach Ryan Schartz liked what he saw during the offseason from running back Ezra Vaoifi as he prepared for his senior season in an Indian uniform, and it looks like it's already paying dividends.
Vaoifi was a force in Fort Osage's season opener Friday night at home against Park Hill South, leading the offense to the tune of 313 yards on 30 carries with two touchdowns in a 25-7 victory.
“Ezra had the best offseason I've ever seen him have,” Schartz said. “He totally rehabbed his knee, lost 10 pounds, and he's back to where we thought he would be as a sophomore (before he got hurt).”
After the win, Vaoifi could hardly take all the credit.
“My linemen opened up some holes you could drive a truck through,” he said, surrounded by his five linemen. “They gave me some nice cutback lanes. I can't do it without them.”
And despite Vaoifi's big game and an 18-point margin of victory, the Panthers gave the Indians all they could handle.
The Indians scored on two of their first three possessions with new starting quarterback Skylar Thompson.
Thompson found Bailey Williamson on a pass across the middle from 19 yards out on a fourth-and-7 on the opening drive, then ran one in from 1-yard out two drives later to give Fort Osage an early 12-0 lead.
But the Panthers would take some momentum going into the locker room at halftime thanks to a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown from Bryan Robinson to make it 12-7.
That score remained into the fourth quarter with Park Hill South driving into Fort Osage territory, facing a fourth-and-4 at the 29. The Fort Osage defense had helped the Panthers enough on the drive with four penalties – the unit's only major mistakes of the game – but made up for it by forcing an incomplete pass.
The offense would capitalize, as Vaoifi found the end zone from 32 yards out five plays later to give the Indians some breathing room at 19-7.
“I think we caught our second wind,” Fort Osage linebacker Nathan Iliolo said of the defense. “Early on we came out pumped up, and then we got a little gassed. We came back after being tired.”
Added Schartz, “You can't say enough about the defense. To me, that's a shutout. We gave up some yards, but they didn't allow them to score. That stand was as big a play as any. Park Hill South had some momentum.”
But the momentum clearly shifted back to the Fort Osage sideline after the score, and it would build on it, getting a quick three-and-out on defense. The offense would strike quick again, as this time Vaoifi scored from 24 yards out to make it 25-7.
“We always seemed to make a mistake,” Panthers head coach Mark Simcox said of his offense, which managed 16 first downs but zero points to show for it. “Early in the game we had third-and-one and then all of a sudden it's third-and-17. We're not explosive enough to make up for that.”
But the Indians, and Vaoifi, were.
In a play that epitomized just that, the Fort Osage offense was backed up on its own 4-yard line late in the third quarter facing a third-and-10, and Voaifi sprung for 41 yards and got his team out of a deep hole.
“We had them where we wanted them on third down, and we've got to get him to the ground,” Simcox said.
It was just what the doctor ordered, and might have been the key play to move the Indians to 1-0.
“We had to do something,” Vaoifi said. “I like being backed up like that; it gives you a chance for a bigger play.”
And none may have been bigger than that one.
Fort Osage will look to build on the win when it travels to Blue Springs South next Friday, while the Panthers will play host to Blue Springs.