HINESBURG – Essex High School football coach Charlie Burnett stopped short of calling Week 4 a must-win game.
But after three losses by a combined 18 points, the window on the Hornets’ 2015 playoff hopes was closing.
So a chance to dissolve the memories of the first three weeks of the season arrived Saturday against Champlain Valley.
“I told the kids, ‘you don’t haul suitcases around with your record in them,'” Burnett said. “The kids knew it was a big prize and they know they can’t do anything about the past, all they can focus on is right in front of them.”
And the Hornets responded.
Essex forced four turnovers — including three fumbles in the first half to deny CVU scoring bids — and the offense came through with just enough big plays to push past the Redhawks for a 20-14 victory.
Win No. 1 for Essex.
“It feels good to finally have our hard work pay off and get a win,” Essex senior quarterback Eli DiGrande said. “The coaches have done a great job motivating us, keeping us positive. It has been frustrating, losing three close games.
“I think the main thing is, we have confidence in ourselves, we know we are a good team.”
DiGrande tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Hines on the Hornets’ first possession and galloped 42 yards for a second-quarter score, while Elliott Boutin (team-best 63 rushing yards) broke free for a 42-yard TD in the final minute of the third quarter as Essex built a 20-0 advantage.
The Hornets also forced CVU fumbles on three straight possessions, leading to seven points on DiGrande’s long score and, in a game largely played between the 20s, halting promising Redhawk drives.
CVU (2-2) tacked on two TDs in the final seven minutes, both times Andrew Bortnick finding Trevor Kingston (five catches, 96 yards). The second score came with less than a second on the clock.
“Hats off to Essex. They wanted their first win more than we wanted our third win. That’s what it came down to,” CVU coach Mike Williams said. “The fumbles didn’t help, but they played sound defense against us and we couldn’t really get ahead of the chains because of penalties or fumbles or whatever else was going on.
“It was frustrating for me because we are doing things that we should be beyond.”
After forcing CVU to punt on its first possession, the Hornets marched quickly for the opening strike. DiGrande, rolling to his right, hit Colby Trudeau for 18 yards on a third-down pickup. Then Hines scampered off tackle for 28 yards to set up his 3-yard TD catch from DiGrande.
In CVU’s series of fumbles, the middle turnover proved costly on the scoreboard. Thanks to a pair of personal foul penalties, Essex moved into CVU territory and DiGrande, from shotgun, found the edge and legged out a 42-yard TD down the Essex sideline.
“They were crowding the box and we were able to get enough blocks picked up right at the point of the attack,” Burnett said of DiGrande’s TD dash. “He’s worked so hard to develop into an exceptional quarterback and when he can run like that, it just creates a lot of problems for defenses to account for.”
Although CVU attempted to rally with two fourth-quarter TDs and a recovered onside kick, the Essex defense smothered a couple late drives. One with freshman Grady Corkum’s interception and another on lineman Nat Ballif’s fourth-down tackle.
Rich Lowrey, one of nine CVU ballcarriers, had 75 yards on 12 carries. Jacob Gribbs totaled 57 yards on four carries and Kingston hauled in TDs of 30 and 14 yards.
Both teams hit the road next weekend — Essex travels to BFA on Friday; CVU heads to St. Johnsbury on Saturday.