An offseason that stretched more than 15 months. An abbreviated practice calendar coming out of the winter sports season. A string of February snow and ice storms. A new head coach at Monticello and a new starting quarterback at Western Albemarle. No scrimmages.
Were these factors noticeable as the spring 2021 football season kicked off on Monday night? The stat sheet says yes. But even still, the Mustangs and Warriors delivered down-to-the-wire drama befitting a rivalry game usually played in the heart of the Jefferson District slate. After three-year starting running back Austin Shifflett propelled Western’s offense to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Monticello’s three-year starter at quarterback Malachi Fields rallied his squad for 10 fourth-quarter points to force overtime. Fields called his own number on a quarterback draw for the go-ahead score, and then forced a fumble that teammate Mitchell Gunnerson to seal a 17-10 victory.
“That’s what he does; he’s a beast,” said Monticello’s Chase Hummel of fellow senior Fields, who completed five of his last six passes for 67 yards and picked up 36 yards and two touchdowns on his last four rushes of the game. “He’s built like that.”
All of those plays came after the 5:00 mark in the third quarter. Indeed, Monticello had managed only 19 yards of total offense when Fields and company took over at their own 18 just over midway through the third. Fields connected with Jason Armstrong and Tony Frazier to convert a couple of third-and-longs, and then a trio of ball carriers picked up some yards on the ground. Toss in a couple of offsides penalties, and Fields capped the 16-play, 82-yard drive with a four-yard keeper with 9:25 in the fourth.
“We wanted to be dynamic and explosive, but those things take time and reps,” said Monticello coach Matt Hicks. “We knew we would have to be patient. Our offensive line really stepped up and did a heck of a job in the second half.”
Still leading 10-7, Western tried to work the clock, but Monticello loaded the box and forced a punt after just one first down. Taking over near midfield, Fields quickly moved his squad back in the redzone with completions to Phillip Estes and Armstrong for 17 and 25 yards, respectively. Western’s defense stuffed three rushes, forcing a game-tying field goal attempt.
“I had ice in my veins, simple as that,” said Hummel of his 23-yard kick, which sailed right down the middle with 0:52 remaining. “That’s the mentality.”
The drama only inched higher as Joey Burch, just a day after placing fifth in the Class 3 state wrestling tournament, gave the Warriors great field position with a 42-yard return of the ensuing kickoff. With all three timeouts at their disposal, Western was happy to keep it on the ground as runs by three different players picked up 20 yards to the Monticello 35 with 0:21 left. Sophomore quarterback Hudson Toll completed his second pass of the night for seven more yards before a sack-fumble nearly ended the drive. The ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds with seven seconds remaining. Dakota Howell then took a handoff and gained three yards, but Monticello’s defensive front was able to force him to move laterally, and time expired in regulation before the Warriors could call their final timeout.
Monticello was on offense first in overtime and lost a yard back to the 11 before Fields dialed up his own number on third down.
“We knew what they were going to do if I dropped back to pass,” Fields said. “I told coach, quarterback draw, and I saw the middle open up.”
“He called it, he wanted it, and we were going to let him have it,” Hicks said.
On the second play of Western’s possession, Toll rolled out to his right and found Howell in the flat inside the five. Senior defensive back Will Trent made first contact to stop him around the two, while Fields charged from the endzone and jarred the ball loose for Gunnerson to slide in and recover.
“It was a pretty good execution of a play, and the ball just happened to pop out,” said Western coach Ed Redmond. “Sometimes trying to get that extra yard, things happen.”
It was definitely a disappointing outcome for the Warriors after a fantastic first quarter. The offense started its first two series in Mustang territory thanks to a botched snap on a punt and a Monticello holding penalty that nullified a 77-yard touchdown pass and tilted field position with the line of scrimmage back at the 10 before a punt. Western junior Embry Pulich clanged a 34-yard field goal through off the inside of the right upright to open the scoring, and Howell capped the second series with a 2-yard touchdown plunge. Shifflett showed flashes of brilliance in those early stages before getting banged up, with half of his 12 first-half-carries going for 7-plus yards. He had 73 of Western’s 96 total yards at the break, when the scoreboard showed 10-0 and the home team appeared in firm control.
“I thought the kids came out with some energy, and we had some early rhythm,” said Redmond. “When the team loses momentum, it takes a mature group to be able to rally, and we just didn’t have that answer tonight.”
For the Warriors, Howell finished with 49 yards on 11 rushes and sophomore Kyle Keyton, who spelled Shifflett in the second half, carried six times for 14 yards. Toll completed 3-of-4 passes for 19 yards, all after halftime. Western’s offense managed just 44 yards without Shifflett, finishing the night with 140.
In a mirror image, Monticello finished with 151 yards of total offense after having just 17 at the break. After Fields (10 rushes for 38 yards; 6-of-18 passing for 73 yards), Will Trent rushed eight times for 13 yards. Armstrong led the receivers with two grabs for 38.
Monticello (1-0) heads into another rivalry game as its home opener when Albemarle travels across town for a 2 p.m. kickoff on Saturday. Western (0-1) has an early-season bye before hosting Fluvanna (0-0) on March 5th.