In what was mostly a defensive battle, the Fair Grove Eagles managed to edge rival Strafford 17-14 Friday night to win the Mid-Lakes Conference championship in front of an overflow crowd. They were both 5-0 going into the contest, with Fair Grove being 3-0 in league play and Strafford 2-0.
“It was what I expected,” said Fair Grove coach Bill Voorhis. “I thought it would be a defensive game with somebody getting just enough offense to win. Fortunately that was us.” The victory also most likely assured Fair Grove the top seed in district play following the regular season. Strafford is in the same district, so the two teams could meet again.
Strafford started out strong, driving all the way to the Fair Grove 13-yard line following the opening kickoff. However, on a fourth-and-two play, a measurement showed that the Eagles’ defense had held.
The Eagles responded by driving from the 11 all the way to the 49, but then they had to punt. One advantage for Fair Grove was the kicking game, and the reliable Cole Gilpin placed his punt out of bounds at the Strafford 13-yard line with 4:01 left in the opening quarter.
On a third-and-six play at the 17, Cody Gunder sacked the Strafford signal caller, Wyatt Maples, for a loss, and the Indians had to punt. This resulted in the Eagles starting at their own 46, but they had to punt again. This time Strafford was forced to start from its six-yard line with 10 seconds left in the quarter.
Less than two minutes into the second quarter, Strafford got on the scoreboard on a 50-yard pass play from Maples to Mason Foley, and the two-point conversion failed. Strafford led 6-0 with 10:15 remaining in the half.
After the ensuing kickoff, which went out of bounds, the Eagles started at the 35. This time they went 65 yards in six plays, and Elijah Young galloped 11 yards to the end zone. The Eagles were going to kick the extra point, but a flag against Strafford put them closer to the goal, so Darin Oplotnik ran the ball in to give Fair Grove an 8-6 lead with 7:47 remaining in the quarter.
A 26-yard run by Young and a personal foul penalty vs. Strafford played major roles in the drive.
Strafford later mounted a long drive, scoring on a 10-yard pass from Maples to Vance Mullins. Maples then connected with Trayson Lawler for the two points, and Strafford led 14-8 with just 46 seconds remaining in the half.
There were several huge defensive plays by Fair Grove in the second half. One big one took place when Darin Oplotnik blocked a Strafford after a low snap, and the Eagles ended up starting on the Indians’ 14.
However, Fair Grove fumbled on the Indians’ one-yard line, and Strafford recovered. On the next play, though, it was Darin Oplotnik again. This time he broke through and tackled Maples in the end zone for a safety, and the score was now 14-10.
Fair Grove had another great opportunity to score when Strafford had to kick off from its 20, and Darin Oplotnik returned the ball to the Indians’ 35. Strafford’s defense held, however. Not only that, but on their next possession the Indians moved the ball all the way to the Fair Grove 16 before the Eagles recovered a fumble.
Fair Grove started from its six-yard line and drove 94 yards in 16 plays to score. The drive was climaxed by a four-yard pass from quarterback Rhett Hill to Gilpin, and the PAT kick was good for a 17-14 lead with 10:05 left in the game.
“I would like to take credit for the touchdown play,” Voorhis said, “but that was something that Rhett and Cole put together after they saw a weakness in the Strafford defense.”
Strafford moved the ball well the last 10 minutes, but the Fair Grove defense rose to the occasion time and time again. An interception by Bryce Thornton and a fumble recovery by the Eagles preserved their lead.
Hill completed 16 of 25 aerial attempts for 190 yards and one touchdown, and Young carried the ball 17 times for 47 yards and a TD. Gilpin caught four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown.
Young grabbed four passes for 78 yards and Dominick Hoskins had four catches for 36 yards.
“Between Elijah and Dominick we were able to convert four third-and-long plays into first downs,” Voorhis said.
On defense, Darin Oplotnik had two quarterback sacks, one forced fumble, a blocked punt and a tackle in the end zone for a safety.