ELDON — He didn’t dash through Cardinal Comet defenders as easily as Dennis Halverson did five years ago. He also didn’t put up the same gaudy numbers Halverson did on that same field in that same uniform back in 2008.
No, Van Buren junior Garrett Sanders didn’t have the same kind of jaw-dropping night on Friday that Halverson, a Van Buren senior in 2008, did when he led the Warriors to a season-opening 54-0 triumph over Cardinal. From the opening kickoff, which he returned 90 yards for one of his four touchdowns, to any of the seven runs he made from scrimmage for another 166 yards Halverson owned that night in a way few players can with 331 total yards of rushing, receiving and returning offense.
That night, however, was the last time Van Buren walked off the field after opening a football season with a victory. Unlike Saunders, Halverson didn’t have to go through the virtual rebuilding of the entire Warrior team that included sitting out a whole season just two years after that incredible 2008 opener.
So on Friday, after gaining 226 total yards of his own including 52 yards on a touchdown run that proved to be the difference, Saunders finally helped Van Buren finally win its football opener since that 2008 campaign. The 14-13 triumph Friday left Saunders, and the rest of his Warrior teammates, feeling a very unique sense of pride.
Pride that, for at least one night, Van Buren fans could celebrate like it was 2008 all over again.
“There’s not a lot left to say after a game like that. It was probably the most motivational game any of us will ever play in,” Saunders said. “We showed 100 percent effort no matter who was out on the field. We might not be the most talented or have the most numbers, but we’re going to play our hearts out every play.”
“The kids never hung their heads. They kept themselves in this game all the way,” Mike Hurley said after winning in his debut as Van Buren head coach. “Mitch Garrells stepped up for us on the defensive line. Jordan Hagans stepped up on the defensive line. Garrett did a great job obviously at quarterback. He ran the offense most of the game and I couldn’t be more proud of his effort.”
Saunders did his best impression of Halverson just when it looked like Cardinal might be ready to duplicate the results of last year’s season opener between the two teams. Back-to-back touchdowns by Tyler Albert put the Comets up 13-0 in less than two minutes midway through the second quarter, putting Cardinal almost on pace to repeat the 28-0 victory earned over the Warriors last August in Keosauqua.
Not this year. Not if Saunders could help it. The senior quarterback sparked the Warriors with a 46-yard run down the Comet sideline for Van Buren’s biggest play of the night.
Three plays later, after a Cardinal time out, Saunders handed the ball off to a Van Buren senior hoping to make a big play against the Comets. Aaron Clemons made that play, heading to the sideline before turning up field for a 17-yard scoring run. Fellow senior Mitch Garrells powered in two points and, suddenly, the Warriors were in the game down 13-8 at the half.
“We just never gave up. This year was about eliminating the mistakes for us,” Hurley said of his team’s first scoring drive of the season. “We just needed to come out and make a response. We just kept working at it.”
“A lot of people would have laid down after being down 13-0. This team just doesn’t care,” Saunders added. “It’s not just about numbers or talent. Motivation can carry you a long way if you let it.”
Van Buren’s chance for its first lead of the season came after receiving the second half kickoff. Signs were positive for the Warriors as Clemens made the return, bringing the ball back shy of midfield.
Four plays later, all signs including the scoreboard were pointing in Van Buren’s favor. Saunders made it so as he ran to the left, looked at a possible pitch, then turned up field and darted past Comet defenders before dashing 52 yards downfield for the go-ahead score.
“It was supposed to be an option, but (Cardinal) just ran that way figuring it was going to be an option,” Saunders said. “When they cheated outside, I just tucked it in. There was a huge lane there. That’s all you can hope for. We got lucky and had some great blocks, even with kids that have never played before. They came in and tried to pick up blocks to help spring me on that play.”
Twice, however, those road blocks were directly thrown up by Van Buren defenders as Cardinal twice drove deep into Warrior territory needing any score to get the lead back. Rather than try a possible go-ahead field goal, the Comets tried twice to convert fourth downs.
Once was on a pass by Cardinal quarterback Tyler Batterson, which was knocked down by Warrior cornerback Brandon Plecker.
“Our run game was good early, but when they started to take that away we couldn’t answer with the passing game,” Cardinal head coach Adam Hadenfeldt said. “They just didn’t allow us to do what we wanted to do. They came out and we’re physical. They did what they wanted to do and we didn’t.”
The second try, on fourth-and-two inside the Van Buren 20, turned into a three-yard loss as Comet back Michael Owings was caught by Garrells and Hunter Coffman late in the third quarter.
“We have a ton of kids that have to play both ways. We had 26 kids come out and four got hurt on the first day of practice,” Hurley said. “Kids like Mitch. Kids like Hunter. Kids like Brandon all have to play both ways, but they found a way to step up when they were called upon.”
Cardinal’s last two chances to drive for the win in the fourth quarter also were snuffed out by the Warrior defense. Batterson was picked off on a third-and-17 pass at midfield by Saunders and with two minutes left, the Warriors forced the Comets to back up from its own 20 to the 1 in the final minute.
“They were the better team, but I told them at the end they had a chance to win this in the final two minutes,” Hadenfeldt said. “I take that nine times out of our nine games this year.”
While Cardinal (0-1) will look to bounce back next week at Danville, Van Buren (1-0) will be returning home to Keosauqua for its home opener against West Burlington/Notre Dame on Friday at 7 p.m. It will also be the first athletic event held at Van Buren High School since Van Buren’s baseball’s final regular-season home game back on July 1.
A lot of magical things have happened for the boys of Van Buren County since that day. The Warrior baseball squad went on to not only made it to the program’s first state tournament, but made a run all the way to the Class 1A State Championship game.
And after this past Friday night, there’s no reason to think there isn’t still a little magic left as summer turns to fall.
“Ever since we made that run in baseball, everyone’s been talking about how we’re a team that never gives up,” Saunders said. “We practice hard. We condition a lot. We have so much motivation that I don’t think anybody can get tired right now.”
“We’re looking to improve with each game. After losing 28-0 last year in this game, I’d say we’ve done just that after one game.”
“We’ve dedicated this season to a fallen teammate of ours, Jordan Baker, so kids have been so motivated for this season,” Hurley added. “They’ve been busting their tails off. I couldn’t be more proud then I am right now of these kids.”
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Van 14, Cardinal 13
V.B. 0 8 6 0 — 14
Card. 0 13 0 0 — 13
Scoring By Quarters
C — Tyler Albert 59 yard pass from Brandon Potts (kick failed), 9:24
C — Albert 33 yard run (Brennon Elder kick), 7:26
VB — Aaron Clemens 17 yard run (Mitch Garrells run), 5:36
VB — Garrett Saunders 52 yard run (run failed), 10:41
First downs 4 9
Rushes-yards 43-225 31-134
Passing yards 84 76
Total Yards 309 200
Comp-Att-Int 5-14-1 3-14-1
Return Yards 4-71 6-121
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-Yds 5-25 8-55
RUSHING — Garrett Saunders 23-142 yards, TD, Aaron Clemons 14-72 yards, TD, Jacob Heisel 3-6 yards, Mitch Garrells 2-4 yards, Braxton Bainbridge 1-1 yard.
PASSING — Saunders 5-14, 84 yards, INT.
RECEIVING — Brandon Plecker 5-84 yards.
INTERCEPTIONS — Saunders 1-0.
TACKLES — Garrells 13, sack, Hunter Coffman 12, Justin Hagans 10, sack, Brayden Starnes 9, Aaron Clemens 8, Dakota LaRue 7, Sam Dickinson 5, Bainbridge 4, Plecker 2, Heisel 2, Gavin Heald, Noah Whitten, Saunders, fumble recovery, Jesse Fuller, Noah Stovall, Wyatt Cole.
RUSHING — Tyler Albert 17-106 yards, TD, Mike Owings 8-40 yards, Nathan Yeager 3-5 yards, Tyler Batterson 3-(-17) yards.
PASSING — Brandon Potts 1-3, 59 yards, TD, Batterson 2-11, 17 yards, INT.
RECEIVING — Albert 1-59 yards, TD, Cole Campbell 1-15 yards, Yeager 1-2 yards.
INTERCEPTIONS — Potts 1-12 yards.
TACKLES — Yeager 13, Potts 8, Brennon Elder 5, Quinn Honomichl 4, Blake Wright 4, Josh Ramos 4, Brandon Eklofe 3, Batterson 2, Owings 2, fumble recovery, Trenton Durflinger 2, Kaleb Durflinger 2, Logan Laughlin 2, Justin Conger, Bailey VanBlaircom, Adam Giltner, Miguel Santiago.