Things could’ve easily taken a turn for the worse for the Van Horn football team, even with a 13-point lead.
Standout running back J.J. Rivers, who accounted for 2,178 of Van Horn’s 2,654 total yards this season, hurt his knee early in the second quarter after a 17-yard loss and was noticeably limping on the sideline.
Things looked grim.
But luckily for the Falcons, he had a trio of teammates help pick up the team. Big plays from Sylvester Newman and Stephen Mason accounted for three scores and a turnover, and Rivers’ replacement, Rasean Weathers, stepped in and delivered a workmanlike performance to help boost their team to a 34-20 triumph over crosstown rival William Chrisman at Independence All-School Stadium.
Rivers opened the game with a 6-yard TD on the first drive to give his team an early 7-0 lead. It was on the next drive when he got hurt. He saw a wall of Bear defenders, tried to run backward and ran to the other side of the field before getting taken down for a big loss at the Chrisman 21. Falcons coach Jeff Tolbert had the senior carry the ball two more times in the second half before deciding to sit Rivers for the remainder of the game.
“It wasn’t worth it to me to risk further injury,” Tolbert said.
After a turnover on downs on that drive, the Falcons (7-2) immediately responded when Domonique Winston recovered a Chrisman muffed snap, setting the ball up at the Bear 8. Two plays later, Samila Sua’s plunge from the 1-yard line increased the edge to 13-0.
Bears running back D’Vontae Brown got his team back in it when he broke a big run and ended up on the Falcon 21. That eventually set up his 2-yard score to bring his team within seven.
The Falcons had an instant answer following the score. Newman took the ensuing kickoff, ran to the far right side of the field, reversed to his left, and found a seam in the middle for an 88-yard touchdown return. A two-point conversion on Sua’s pass to Winston made it 21-6.
“My blockers created that big hole, and I just had to beat one more person and I did,” Newman said.
On the Bears’ next drive, Brown scored a second time on a 4-yard run. Gannon Ogle’s pass to Chris Anderson on the conversion sliced the lead to 21-14. with 5:29 left in the first half.
When it looked like that score may hold at the break, Newman made another huge play. A mishandled snap on a Chrisman punt attempt set up Van Horn at the Bear 29, and the visitors took advantage when Newman made a miraculous diving catch off a Sua pass for a 19-yard score with just 13.3 seconds left to make it 28-14.
“I knew I was going to have to dive for that one because the defender was right on my hip,” Newman said. “I just put my body out there and made the catch.
In the second half, it was Mason’s turn to be the hero. The Bears (1-8) had the ball at the Falcon 47 midway through the third period when Mason leaped in front of Anderson for a highlight-reel pick to halt a potential scoring drive.
“It was just tough to come back after the turnovers and the kickoff return,” Chrisman coach Scorpio Horn said. “We were on defense most of the night. But hey, our kids fought and they’re getting better. I definitely saw some improvement tonight.”
At the 4:34 mark in the fourth, Mason helped seal it when he hauled in a fade pass from Sua while keeping his feet inches inbounds for a 34-14 advantage.
“I just gave great effort,” Mason said. “The team told me I would be the go-to guy because of my height. I knew I had to step up.”
“We’ve been waiting for this out of Stephen,” Tolbert added. “We’ve known for a while that he’s had this kind of ability. He hasn’t always delivered in games, but I was happy to see him do well tonight.”
Ogle’s 16-yard pass to James Bailey made it 34-20 with 1:43 left, but at the end, it was the Falcons celebrating as Rivers dumped the water cooler on Tolbert and the Falcon faithful rushed the field in a frenzy to greet the team.
Weathers played a big part in that celebration, as he filled in admirably for Rivers, carrying the ball 21 times for 102 yards.
“Our backup Rai’Reco Miller is out with the season with a knee injury, and with J.J going out, Rasean was the last guy standing,” Tolbert said. “He did good job filling in. I was proud of him.”
The teams, which have not played each other in several years, may have rekindled the rivalry which featured a few personal fouls and some chippy play.
“I think these teams haven’t played each other since the early ’80s, late ’70s,” Tolbert said. “The physical play is something you expect in a rivalry even not having played each other in a long time.”