By Ryan Costello
CNHI News Service
HENNESSEY – Round three, Vian.
Rylee Simon scored on a goal-line quarterback sneak with 38 seconds left to complete a rally from a 20-0 second-half deficit on Friday, and the Wolverines beat host Hennessey for the second straight season in the Class 2A quarterfinals, 21-20.
Eric Casey rushed for 117 yards and returned a punt for a score, and A.J. Rodriguez recovered a fumble at midfield with 3:01 left to set up Simon’s game-winning touchdown, completing a 21-point run to close the game and send Vian to a semifinal rematch with Davis. The Eagles beat Vian two seasons ago in the quarterfinals on their way to a second straight state title.
Hennessey forced two first-half turnovers and twice stymied the Wolverines in the red zone in the first two quarters, scoring a long touchdown late in the second quarter to take a 14-0 lead and adding another score early in the third to push its advantage to 20-0.
“We knew the game wasn’t over,” Simon said. “We just knew we had to get it done.”
Vian’s hopes at a rally were at their lowest on the Wolverines’ ensuing drive. After forcing a Hennessey punt, Vian took over at its own 14, driving to its 48 before Hennessey lineman Jorge Ortega pressured Simon into a pass that was deflected by Carlos Torres on fourth-and-eight to give the Eagles possession in Vian territory with 7:35 left in the game.
Vian forced a three-and-out, and Casey took the ensuing punt 90 yards for a score, dodging two defenders and outrunning the rest to pull the Wolverines to within 20-14 with 5:10 left.
“I’m sure people were (tensing up after the punt return),” said Hennessey head coach Rick Luetjen. “How could you not? But we needed to come back out and move the ball, and we weren’t able to do that.”
Hennessey sophomore Tabor Johns gave the Eagles one first down on the ensuing drive with a 12-yard run, but fumbled two plays later to set up Rodriguez’s recovery and the eventual game-winning drive.
Vian took six plays to reach the Hennessey 18, and a Casey sweep across the right end went 15 yards to the Eagle 3 to set up Simon’s game-winner two plays later.
“It’s the most wonderful feeling,” Casey said. “That’s just glory, just so much glory. It’s the most wonderful feeling I’ve had in my life.”
Hennessey earned a chance at its own potential game-winning score in the final 35 seconds. Mendoza, who finished 8-of-14 for 106 yards and a touchdown, completed a 27-yard pass to Stephen Matousek and brought the Eagles to the Vian 21 on a 15-yard scramble.
But Mendoza’s pass to Brady Fipps on the final play was low to end the game.
“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” Simon said. “A tear rolled down my eye when we recovered that ball, cause I knew we could get in. I knew we had it in us.”
Johns carried the ball seven times for 50 yards on a 13-play drive that started at the Hennessey 12 yard-line, capping the game's first scoring possession with a 3-yard run. Hennessey converted two third downs on the drive, first on an 8-yard pass from Mendoza to Abraham Ortega on third-and-6, then on a 23-yard completion to Fipps to the Vian 12 on third-and-6. Johns scored two plays later.
Mendoza's first three passes all were completed for first downs, and the junior – a backup at the start of the season – hit on five of eight first half-attempts, the last completion giving Hennessey a 14-0 lead with 38 seconds left in the first half.
Edgar Fierro intercepted a Simon pass and returned it 21 yards to the Vian 29 with 1:07 left and caught a jump ball from Mendoza in the left corner of the end zone three plays later to give the Eagles that 14-0 halftime lead.
Hennessey received the ball to start the second half, and added to its lead on its first opportunity on an 11-play, 66-yard drive capped by a 2-yard Mendoza run. But the snap on the ensuing kickoff was too low to handle and the Eagles’ conversion failed, giving Hennessey a 20-0 lead but eventually providing Vian's one-point margin of victory.
“We knew we were messing up, but coach just told us to stick to our game plan, and that’s what we did,” Casey said. “We just had to come out and battle adversity. We’ve been doing this all year. This ain’t nothing new to us.”
Vian’s first score came on the next possession, when Simon hit a leaping Shamal Evans for a 30-yard touchdown pass.
The loss ended an unlikely seventh-straight run to the quarterfinals for Hennessey, with Mendoza and Johns taking over for injured seniors Dylan Hatchel and William Arndt after season-ending injuries. A third crucial two-way starter, Steven Lott, also left the team to heal from a nagging ankle injury.
Vian will play Davis, which also edged its way into the semifinals with a 28-27 come-from-behind win against Adair, next week. Vian lost to Davis in the same round last season, 22-0.
VIAN 21, HENNESSEY 20
VIAN 0 0 7 14–21
HENNESSEY 0 14 6 0–20
HHS: Tabor Johns 3 run (Johnathan Suarez kick), 11:21
HHS: Edgar Fierro 24 pass from Tony Mendoza (Suarez kick), 0:22
HHS: Mendoza 2 run (conv. failed), 6:10
VHS : Shamal Evans 30 pass from Rylee Simon (AJ Rodriguez kick), 3:34
VHS: Eric Casey 90 punt return (Rodriguez kick), 5:10
VHS : Simon 2 run (Rodriguez kick), 0:38
First Downs 14 15
Rushing 197 175
Passing 114 106
Total Yards 311 281
Passes (C-A-I) 7-16 18-14-0
Fum/Lost 1/1 2/1
Pen/Yards 5/25 3/25
Punts/Avg 2/45 3/41.7