by Gary Thornton, Sports Writer
A dramatic comeback drive by St. Johnsbury Academy stalled just a single yard short of the goal line, and the South Burlington Rebels prevailed, 28-20, in a schoolboy football season opener for both teams here Saturday afternoon.
The Rebels stormed to a 15-0 lead in the first quarter and forged a seemingly commanding 28-6 advantage with less than five minutes to play in the third quarter.
But the Hilitopper offense, which had struggled throughout the first half knocked the Rebel defense back on its heels the rest of the game and nearly pulled off the comeback.
Trailing 28-6, SJA kickoff returner Tim Brousseau-Gaffney sparked the Acad offense with a strong return run that put the pigskin at the Rebel 47. Six plays later, 'Topper quarterback Bryan Black fired a 9-yard TD toss to teammate Tom Pinard, who worked his way open in the right corner of the end zone. Black had already thrown a touchdown aerial in the second quarter to Greg Wernecke for 16 air-yards and six points.
Following Pinard's third quarter scoring catch, the 2-point conversion try was an instant replay job - another Black to Pinard pass, and the Hilltoppers had narrowed the gap to 28-14 with 2:27 left in the third quarter.
On their first possession ofthe fourth quarter, the SJA gridders engineered their best offensive drive ofthe game - a 12-play, 86-yard march to paydirt.
On the 12-play march, Black had another completion to Pinard for 16 yards, and the senior signal caller showed he was a threat on the ground, as well as in the air. Black ran for 36 yards on two carries to spark the scoring drive. Gaffney capped the long drive with a short 1-yard plunge for the touchdown. The Rebels smothered the SJA 2-point conversion run attempt, but the Hilltoppers had come back to trail, 28-20, with 4:49 left to play in the game.
The Academy defense, which had surrendered four touchdowns in the first three quarters, stood its ground in the fourth quarter. The 'Toppers allowed only seven Rebel offensive plays in the final period and gave up only 29 total Reb yards in the final 12 minutes.
Still behind 28-20, with only four minutes to play, the Acad defense forced and recovered a South Burlington fumble at the Academy 46. Seven rushing plays later, the Hultoppers had a third down-and-goal at the SB 1-yard line. The Rebel defense stiffened and threw the Acads back two yards.
With time running out and facing a fourth down-and-goal at the SB 3, the Academy hopes for a comeback victory were dashed by a swarming Rebel defense that stopped SJA at the 1-yard line.
Despite the drastic tidal changes in momentum, the final game statistics indicated how evenly matched both teams were. South Burlington collected only one more first down than SJA, 14-13. The Rebels edged the 'Toppers in total yardage by a narrow 324-305 margin, and the Acad running backs outgained their SB counterparts, 258-239, on four fewer carries.
Rebel rusher B.J. Barrett was the standout running back in the game. He led all rushers with 165 yards on 29 carries.
In the rushing department for the Academy, senior signalcaller Black led the way from his QB position with 85 yards on only six rushes, and teammate Tim Brousseau-Gaffney netted 73 yards on 12 carries.
Black added 47 yards to his total offense with four pass completions on 10 tries, including a pair of touchdown tosses.
St. Johnsbury Academy coach Bruce Johnson credited Black with engineering the comeback from his quarterback spot. quot;No doubt about it, he kept us in the game,quot; Johnson lauded.
But in the first three quarters the Rebel offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed the SB offense to run long, time-consuming drives. quot;They werejust able to beat us offthe ball early in the game. Their line was able to get into us and able to hold their blocks,quot; Johnson noted.
Although the gridiron mentor was unhappy with the opening season loss, the fourth quarter offensive renaissance was a positive motivator for the coach and team.
quot;We've dealt with a lot of adversity, because we ve had a lot of injuries in the preseason,quot; Johnson said. quot;I don't think we ever had a feel for the game or any rythym as a team early in the game. But once we were able to get going, we showed a lot of offense. We had a heck of a fourth quarter.
quot;In that fourth quarter we may have found ourselves as a team. I know we learned an awful lot about ourselves. It's certainly not time to fold our tents,quot; Johnson concluded.
The Acads will pitch their gridiron tents on a different South Burlington battlefield next Saturday, when they travel to face the Little Indians of Rice Memorial.
South Burlington 28, St. Johnsbury 20
St. Johnsbury 0 6 5 6-20
South Burlington 15 7 6 0-28
nbsp; nbsp;SJA nbsp;SB
nbsp;First Downs nbsp;13 nbsp;14
nbsp;(Rushes) Yards nbsp;(41) 258 nbsp;(45) 239
nbsp;Passing Yards nbsp;47 nbsp;85
nbsp;Passing nbsp;4-10-2 nbsp;7-12-0
nbsp;Total Yards nbsp;305 nbsp;324
nbsp;Fumbles - Lost nbsp;1-0 nbsp;2-1
nbsp;Penalties Yards nbsp;4-55 nbsp;8-70
First Quarter SB - Quattlander 42 pass from Carney (Quattlander pass from Carney) 8-O, 7:42 SB - Carney 2 run (Barrett kick) 15-0, 2:15 Second Quarter SJA - Wernecke 16 pass from Black (run failed) 15-6, 11:20 SB - Quattlander 12 pass from Carney (Barrett kick) 22-6, 5:08 Third Quarter SB - Barrett 7 ron (kick failed) 28-6, 4:32 SJA - Pinard 9 pass from Black (Pinard pass from Black) 28-14, 2:27 Fourth Quarter SJA - Brouseau-Gaffney 1 run (run failed) 28-20, 4:49