This wasn’t the way it was supposed to begin for the Vineland High School football team.
With hopes of earning the program’s first winning season in nine years, the Fighting Clan hit a sour note Friday in the opener with a 20-6 loss to Buena Regional before a good crowd on a warm summer night at Gittone Stadium.
Vineland, which lost its first season-opener under third-year coach Josh Hedgeman, will look to regroup before it hosts Pleasantville next week.
“This is tough loss,” senior Ben Anderson said. “But we will get back on schedule. We had a lot of tempo early, we just couldn’t keep it going.”
“We played hard, but just didn’t execute on all the plays that we needed to,” senior lineman Ben Henderson said.
Expectations coming into the game were higher than in years past for this Vineland team, even if the program had finished over .500 only once during the past two decades.
Despite the Group V Fighting Clan moving down the smaller-school National Conference in the Cape-Atlantic League, it’s clear that school-size doesn’t matter.
Vineland’s mood was tempered a bit by a Group II Buena squad.
“We’re a young team and this isn’t the end of the world, but it’s definitely a tough loss,” Vineland coach Josh Hedgeman said. “Now, we have to say to ourselves, ‘What did we learn from it?’ You play the way you practice. We had an up-and-down week of practice and we had an up-and-down game (Friday).”
Down 7-0 at intermission, Vineland got the home crowd going as it climbed back into the game when sophomore Isaiah Spencer ripped off a 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The kick failed, but the Clan only trailed 7-6.
Spencer, who was silenced for most of the game with only 22 yards on his first 11 carries, showed off his explosiveness when he darted through the middle of the line. In the open field, he needed to beat two last defenders in the secondary and it only took one super-sweet cutback move that sprung him free for the final 20 yards untouched.
However, Spencer, who finished with a team-high 69 rushing yards, was forced to the sideline along with several other Vineland players, all succumbing to cramps late in the game; he didn’t return.
One of Vineland’s biggest concerns coming into the season was the lack of strong tackling on defense — it turned out to be the team’s downfall against Buena.
“We got fatigued late in the game and that’s going to cause tackling to go down,” Hedgeman said.
Buena scored on a 4-and-11 play early in the fourth quarter and added another score late to ice the game.
“We have good tacklers on this team, we just didn’t get the job done in certain spots,” junior cornerback Chris Atoki said.
Vineland’s offense sputtered through most of the first half, accumulating 81 yards (60 rushing) on 24 plays. It finished the game with 199 total yards.
The Fighting Clan opened with a surprise as junior Angel Rodriguez handled the opening snaps at quarterback. Rodriguez finished 3-for-13 passing for 36 yards and one interception. Atoki saw time at QB for several possessions, too, and was 0-for-2 passing.
Vineland gave up the lead in the second quarter when more missed tackles sprung a Buena ball carrier to paydirt.
One play after Zach Banks and Eric Bluitt combined for a big sack for Vineland, the Fighting Clan surrendered a long TD run on the very next play, missing three tackles on Quadir Albright, who got to the left sideline and rumbled 63 yards for the game’s first score.
The Fighting Clan had dodged trouble earlier in the game when Buena moved the ball deep into their territory. Anderson ended the threat when he picked off a pass in the end zone on a fourth-down play.
The good news: Vineland has to wait only seven more days to get redemption.