With more than 200 yards on 33 carries through three-plus quarters, South Burlington’s Tanner Contois had yet to reach the end zone in Friday night’s rivalry game against Essex.
“He’s a special player and you wonder if it’s a matter of time before he lets one go,” said Essex coach Charlie Burnett of the Rebels’ highlight-reel, touchdown maker. “We were hoping we would get out of here holding him out of the end zone.”
The Hornets could not.
Breaking three tackles — the last on a stiff arm down the right sideline — Contois’ speed and elusiveness were on display on a 78-yard touchdown dash. And it was also the decisive score to thwart Essex’s second-half comeback bid.
Contois finished with 353 yards on 39 carries — with 241 coming in the second half — as the Rebels outlasted the Hornets 35-21 to snare the No. 2 seed for the upcoming Division I high school football playoffs.
“It was a little old-school-ish,” said South Burlington coach Joe McDonald of Contois’ heavy workload. “Absolutely, we rely on him. He’s a great player and the other guys help him out for sure — he can’t do it all himself — but he works hard.”
Hunter Riehle tossed for 130 yards and two touchdowns, Max Smith caught a TD pass and also returned a fumble for another score as the Rebels guaranteed at least one home playoff game. South Burlington (7-1) will play host to the to-be-determined No. 7 seed next weekend.
“The key for us was we really wanted to have a home game. That was the motivation,” McDonald said. “Plus playing against Essex is always a motivation within itself, always that rivalry between the two schools. They will be dangerous in the playoffs as well.”
After Essex cut the deficit to 27-21 on Cody Greene’s 21-yard TD catch with 5:29 left in the fourth quarter, Contois and the Rebels wasted no time quieting the home crowd.
Contois shifted between the tackles and broke free down the visiting sideline for insurance points the Rebels needed.
“He’s just too fast, too good to have that happen,” Burnett said.
South Burlington took a 7-0 lead on its first possession, Jeremy Clements rushing for a 44-yard score on a delayed handoff up the middle.
Essex struck back after recovering a SBHS fumble later in the quarter. Brendan Gleason capped the short drive with a 1-yard score on a QB bootleg.
The Rebels took a 21-7 lead into halftime on Smith’s 31-yard fumble return and Cam Nolting’s 34-yard TD catch, the latter of which on Riehle’s heave into the end zone with 15 seconds left.
Essex sliced the deficit to one possession on two occasions in the second half. First, Joey Robertson capped a drive engineered by Philip Wilson’s 27 rushing yards with a 9-yard gash.
The second was on Robertson’s rainbow to Greene in the corner of the left end zone. Then Contois put the game out of reach on his 78-yarder.
“It was exciting with a lot on the line (tonight),” Contois said. “It was a great game, I carried the ball a lot, but our passing game was great and players stepped up and it showed.
A year after finishing 4-5 and losing in the quarterfinal round, Contois said the senior-laden Rebels have put it all together.
“We really got it together this season because we knew we are a better team,” Contois said. “It showed this season — look at our record now.”
The Hornets drop to 5-3 and wait today’s results to find out if they will garner the No. 4 or No. 5 seed.
“Our kids fought hard, but that’s a great club,” Burnett said. “They have a lot of tools, a lot of speed and they took advantage of the little mistakes that we made.”
Robertson finished with 173 yards of offense, including 68 on the ground.