It was a cold, rainy, miserable and absolutely wonderful Friday night for Talawanda High School’s football team.
The Braves finished the season by avoiding a perfect 0-10 record, securing their first win by fighting off Southwest Ohio Conference rival Ross 10-8 at Talawanda Field.
“It was a great way to end the season,” said sophomore linebacker Dalton Norris, Talawanda’s defensive leader. “I remember as soon as the clock ticked zero just falling down, crying, just because (it was) pure joy. We’re just happy that we could send the seniors out with the win.”
J.D. Vonderheide, whose team hadn’t won since beating Ross in Week 10 last year, described Friday’s win as “very gratifying” with a sophomore-powered group.
“Nobody wants to go O-fer, and we stayed out of the cellar in the SWOC,” Vonderheide said. “We’re on a one-game win streak, so we can once again live the whole offseason feeling that and motivating us moving forward.
“I’m super, super encouraged about where we’re going. The kids can really hold their head high and be proud of what they accomplished this year. Even though one win is not what we wanted, we found a way to get the one win, and I couldn’t be any more proud.”
Talawanda took advantage of some Ross mistakes to grab a 10-0 halftime lead, then withstood a late charge in the annual Butler County showdown.
Both teams finished 1-9 overall. The Braves were 1-5 and the Rams 0-6 in the SWOC.
“First of all, a tip of the hat to Talawanda,” first-year Ross coach Kenyon Commins said. “They’re 0-9 coming into this and those kids played that hard … I think it says a lot about Coach Vonderheide and his staff.
“I was very proud of our defense. It was a bend-but-don’t-break type of night for them. The defense played well enough to win, the offense didn’t, and Talawanda played hard enough all the way around.
“It came down to turnovers. This game was kind of a microcosm of how the season went. But we’re definitely headed in the right direction. The big thing this year was to create a family atmosphere and to understand what work means, and I’m indebted to these 12 seniors for doing that. The next group better be ready to roll. On Nov. 27, we’ll be back in the weight room and getting ready for Badin.”
Talawanda tallied all of its points in the second quarter. Norris recovered a fumble at the RHS 16 to set up the Braves’ only touchdown, a 5-yard run by quarterback Adam Crank.
The Rams’ second roughing-the-punter penalty of the night kept the Braves alive for a 32-yard field goal by Tyler Engelhard on the last play of the first half.
Ross fought back and notched a safety late in the third stanza after a Joe Valentine punt buried the hosts at their 1-yard line. Blake Bryan was tackled in the end zone on the next play.
Quarterback Nick Arno finished the ensuing possession with an 18-yard touchdown run for Ross, but Valentine was stuffed on a conversion-run attempt.
“They brought in 44 (Valentine), who’s a defensive kid. That kind of tipped us off,” Vonderheide said. “Our kids stayed true to their roles and did what they did and really got all over him.”
The Rams had one more possession, but turned the ball over on downs at the Talawanda 44 with 2:13 remaininng. The Braves needed one first down to run out the clock and got it when Crank scampered 17 yards on third-and-12.
“Once I got that 10 yards, I knew I got my first win starting Friday night,” said Crank, a sophomore. “It’s pretty amazing. It feels pretty special.”
Crank paced Talawanda with 71 yards on 24 carries. He was 3 of 6 for 27 yards through the air.
Dylan Caldwell (20 carries, 94 yards) and Arno (15 carries, 55 yards) led the Rams’ triple-option ground attack. Arno didn’t really throw a pass all night — he had a pitch intercepted by Tim Roberts.
Vonderheide wasn’t surprised that Ross fought back in the second half.
“We anticipated that,” he said. “If you looked at their games all year, they continued to get better and better. The last couple weeks they’ve gone down early a couple scores. They’ve grinded it back out and got there just staying true to who they are. That’s a testament to them and what they’re all about.”
Luke Richardson and Norris topped the Braves in total tackles with nine and eight, respectively. Andrew Marcum had two tackles for loss.
“Ross is a great-coached program,” Norris said. “Coach Commins has some great things going there. Their guys fought hard. I have nothing but respect for that team.”
Vonderheide was thrilled that his eight seniors got to celebrate a last-game victory.
“When they were freshmen we were a playoff team, and then they went through a couple tough seasons,” Vonderheide said. “But they were kind of the glue that held this thing together. They did whatever we needed them to do.
“Obviously getting the taste of victory with these young kids on a Friday night is super, super important for the future of the program. It was really good to see our kids grind it out, find a way, because it got a lot closer than we wanted towards the end. When we needed them, they stepped up big for us.”
T: Adam Crank 5 run (Tyler Engelhard kick)
T: Engelhard 32 field goal
R: Safety, Talawanda’s Blake Bryan tackled in end zone
R: Nick Arno 18 run (Run failed)