Last Friday night was just like old times, sort of. I never saw Coach Mark Bray chest-bump a player after a big win or enjoy a freezing Gatorade shower from his players quite like Justin Hollis did last Friday. But who can blame the second-year Vardaman Ram head coach? He’s headed to the first North Half Championship game of his life.
“This is the first one for me, as a player, as a coach, as anything,” a soaked Hollis said after the Rams’ 13-7 overtime playoff win against Coffeeville. “It’s incredible.”
After two first quarter touchdowns, it appeared this Class 1A quarterfinal game might turn into a shoot-out. Little did we know that would be the last points scored in regulation. For the next three plus quarters, both the Ram and Pirate defenses seemed to make every play when they had to. Then in the end, it was the Rams that came up with the biggest plays of all.
The Pirates had fourth and goal at the Ram 1-yard line. Coffeeville QB Dannie Smith attempted his second straight quarterback sneak. All 22 players on the field converged in a mass of humanity. The officials had no idea where the forward progress was until they unpiled the players one at a time. They spotted the ball inches short of the goal line. The Ram defense leapt off the field in excitement. I wanted to leap myself, but my feet were stuck in the still muddy sidelines of Carter Field.
Vardaman was 10 yards away from victory. The Ram offense took its turn from the 10 and put the ball in the hands of possibly the smallest player on the field – 5’7” and 160 pounds of determination, otherwise known as junior RB Chris Armstrong.
He looked like he might catch the corner on first down, but was pushed out at the 5-yard line. On third and goal from the four, he wouldn’t be denied.
One quick move and through the hole he went, diving across the goal line into the “land of milk and honey” as famed MSU announcer Jack Cristal likes to say. When Chris touched down in the end zone, a wild celebration ensued. The Ram sideline charged the field with Hollis out in front, arms stretched to the heavens, leaping and running at the same time.
Senior RB Willie Lee, who had to sit out the game with a wrist injury, ran right out of his sweatshirt, oblivious to the 45-degree weather.
Across the field, hearts sunk as Bruce Trojan great and now first-year head coach of the Coffeeville Pirates Jamal Jackson saw his team lose a heart-breaker. The pride in his own team and the pain of football season coming to such a halt was evident in his eyes after the game. But Coach Jackson has built an impressive foundation for his program. Their first game of the year – a win against Calhoun City – may have been the most impressive performance I saw by any team all season.
That didn’t mean anything standing in the middle of Carter Field with the scoreboard reading 13-7 Rams. Football was over, and for coaches and players that can be a particularly hard pill to swallow.
But for the Rams, another game under the lights awaits. Mighty Durant, ranked number one in the state, comes to Vardaman this week. As big a challenge as they may pose, it didn’t matter to the Rams last Friday night.
It was like old times in the Sweet Potato Capital of the World. Just another thrilling chapter of Ram football.
You may email Joel McNeece at firstname.lastname@example.org