McARTHUR — After the first quarter on Friday, Vinton County’s River Hayes experienced cramping and constant tightness throughout his body.
But in the biggest moment of the game, no cramp, tightness or anything else was going to stop him from making the biggest play of his football career to date.
As Unioto attempted to win the game, Hayes stepped in front of the intended receiver and intercepted the pass with 13 seconds left in the back of the end zone, securing the 12-7 victory for the Vikings, their first season opening victory and first win over Unioto since 2013.
“Man, this is such an unreal feeling. I can’t put into words how much this win means to me and the team,” Hayes said. “That final play, it was a bit of a broken play, and the quarterback rolled out, so I knew he was coming my way. I found one of the windows and just camped there until the ball was thrown. It came right at me and I fell to the ground, body cramping up and everything but I wasn’t dropping that ball.”
In addition to the victory, it was the first win in the head coaching career of coach T.J. Carper.
“It was instant relief, just like a huge burden was completely lifted off of my shoulders,” Carper said. “All of the emotions I’ve had, and just being in this moment means everything to me. It’s a humbling feeling, but it makes you hungry for more, and I hope the kids feel the same way.”
After fielding the opening kickoff and taking it all the way down to the Unioto 27 yard line, Vinton County proceeded to chew up nearly seven minutes of clock.
But the pace paid off as Zayne Karr found the end zone on a four-yard touchdown for a 6-0 lead following a blocked kick.
The Vikings controlled every aspect of the game and also caught some fortunate breaks along the way.
Unioto drove the ball right down the field before facing a fourth down on the Vikings’ 6-yard line. However, the pass hit right off the receivers’ hands and fell to the ground incomplete.
Next Shermans’ possession, they went deep and threw a 50-50 ball only for it to be intercepted by Brady Woltz. That was followed by a turnover on downs on the next two Sherman possessions.
“We kept our minds focused and did our best to make sure we didn’t get too excited or hyped,” Karr said. “We had the lead, but there was still a long way to go so we just had to keep fighting and hang in.”
They faced fourth down again as the half was closing but this time, Newton Hoops found Connor Dollison down the field and he proceeded to tightrope his way 32 yards into the end zone for the touchdown. A successful kick gave them a 7-6 lead at halftime.
Panic never set in though. Instead, the Vikings just continued to hang on and keep fighting before finally having their moment.
On their final offensive drive, they faced a 3rd-and-10 and Braylon Damron connected with Hayes on a 12-yard catch on the sideline to keep the drive alive.
After Broc Moore converted a 3rd-and-6, he was rewarded once again with the ball and crossed the goal line from four yards out to put the Vikings up 12-7.
“This game was all about the seniors and how they rose to the occasion in the biggest moments,” Carper said. “Braylon, River, Zayne, Broc and everyone else. They’re such a tight knit group and in a way, it somewhat had a Super Bowl type of feeling because beating Unioto is something they’ve never done. A win like this can go a long way, and I’m so proud of them.”
However, Unioto still had one more chance. With 2:04 left, Vinton County was set to punt, but the snap went over the punter’s head before being downed at the 22.
The Shermans chewed up the rest of the clock, slowly taking their time and executing every play. The ball eventually got to the four-yard line, but that’s when Hayes became a Viking legend and sealed the envelope with the interception.
“This is just unbelievable. We haven’t gone 1-0 in eight years,” Karr said. “All the offseason work we put in makes this moment completely worth it. Simple incredible.”
Karr finished the night with 16 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown, while Moore added 14 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, the Vikings forced five turnovers.
Vinton County returns to action on Friday at home against Crooksville.