There were cheers of jubilation throughout Gittone Stadium on Friday night. And a huge sigh of relief was mixed in, too.
Down 16 points in the second half, the Vineland High School football team pulled off a dramatic victory, aided by Isaiah Spencer’s electrifying three-touchdown performance, en route to a thrilling 26-22 decision over Pleasantville.
Vineland (1-1) will look to keep the momentum going when it travels to St. Augustine Prep on Friday.
However, don’t fault the Fighting Clan for wanting to savor this win first.
“This feels a whole lot better,” Spencer said. “We were getting tired of losing. We did what we had to do to get the W.”
“We needed this,” senior linebacker Lance Bryant said. “It didn’t look good for a while, but we kept working. This is big for us.”
Spencer’s thrill for the dramatic was on full display as he returned the game’s opening kickoff 81 yards for a score, started the second-half comeback with a 37-yard TD run and gave Vineland the lead in the fourth quarter with a 61-yard punt return for a score. Of his 11 career scores, seven have come from 50 yards or further.
The team was staring at one of the biggest disappointments in recent memory when Pleasantville, which entered the game 0-23 since 2009, scored three consecutive touchdowns to take what looked like an insurmountable 22-6 lead in the third quarter.
“We were definitely concerned,” Bryant said. “But we stuck right in there and never gave up. We got the momentum and never gave it back.”
Pleasantville (0-2) took a 22-6 lead with 4 minutes, 7 seconds left in the third quarter.
However, much like Vineland’s comeback win at Pleasantville last season when it scored 35 points in the final 16 minutes, the Fighting Clan rattled off the points in quick fashion, scoring three touchdowns in the span of eight minutes.
Vineland made it a one-possession game when Spencer ripped off a 37-yard touchdown down the right sideline with 4 minutes left in the third. The two-point conversion pass from Rovell McArthur to Jeremiah Atoki cut the deficit to 22-14.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Bryant stripped the football out of the Pleasantville quarterback’s hands and ran it back 21 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the third quarter.
“(The ball) was right out there, I just snatched it away,” Bryant said. “I didn’t make enough plays last week and this was my opportunity to step up and make something happen.”
Three plays later, Spencer put Vineland ahead for good when he took a punt and blazed down the left sideline for a 61-yard score.
Asked if his eyes lit up when he got the ball, Spencer said, “Oh yes, sir.”
The victory, albeit thrilling and important, was definitely not pretty. Vineland still committed too many penalties (12) and too many turnovers (5). The team also had three players exit the game with injuries. But a win can never be considered bad for the Fighting Clan.
“It was ugly, real ugly at times, but it’s a win,” Vineland coach Josh Hedgeman said. “We put ourselves in an early hole, but we stayed calm and that was the most important thing. We realized we could get right back in the game if we stayed calm and executed.”
Vineland couldn’t have grabbed the momentum in the game any quicker as Spencer returned the opening kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead.
It was vintage Spencer as he fielded the ball on a couple of bounces and took off up the middle, breaking one tackle before finding a clear lane to the end zone for the quick six. The point-after kick failed, but the Fighting Clan had their first lead of the season.
Pleasantville, which didn’t record a first down on any of its first three possessions in the first quarter, reversed its fortune in the second quarter as the Greyhounds found the end zone for the first time in seven games, dating back to last season.
After a Vineland muffed punt set Pleasantville at the Clan 25, the Greyhounds needed just three plays to hit the paydirt. Wideout Tariq Adams slipped free of the Vineland secondary and went untouched on a 29-yard slant pattern.
Vineland’s offense generated just three first downs in the opening 24 minutes with two coming on the same drive right after the Pleasantville score.
Vineland’s quarterback carousel continued to turn as junior Chris Atoki earned his first starting assignment. He ran the offense on the first three drives, completing two passes, but also throwing a pick.
Rodriguez took over the next two possessions but exited the game in the third quarter with an injury. Senior Rovell McArthur took over and played the rest of the game.