ASHLAND – The 2020 Old Dominion Athletic Conference football season, delayed, but not denied, reached its pinnacle in historic fashion Saturday as Day Field hosted the first-ever ODAC championship game, a game which pitted Randolph-Macon against Emory & Henry, the two remaining unbeaten teams in the conference.
Fittingly for a classic contest which needed overtime, a game whose outcome hung in the balance all afternoon, ended on a play where the football itself – for a fleeting moment – also hung in the balance.
The Wasps went first and kicked a field goal in their extra possession. On the third play for Randolph-Macon, quarterback Presley Egbers, on a read option, tried to snatch the football away from wide receiver David Wallis, a routine maneuver.
“I was holding it for David, and at the last second, I decided to pull it,” Egbers said. “His hands are so good, they get a little grabby sometimes. He tried to grab at it, the ball popped out and, you know, the rest is history.”
That history consists of Egbers catching the ball in mid-air as he began a scamper to both the end zone and Yellow Jacket immortality, a 13-yard touchdown run that sealed the 13-10 victory and, with it, Randolph-Macon’s conference-leading twelfth football title.
“Our kids battled their tails off,” said Yellow Jacket head coach Pedro Arruza. “Our defense did a great job and made some unbelievable stops.”
It would take over 50 minutes of football for someone to finally get on the scoreboard, not surprising in that the game pitted the Wasps’ No. 2 ranked defense in Division III against the Yellow Jackets’ seventh-ranked unit. Every yard was earned, every hit, block and tackle magnified as the heavyweight stalemate unfolded.
The first defensive denial from Randolph-Macon came in the first period. On fourth-and-1 at the Yellow Jacket 19, Grayson Overstreet was stonewalled by Jace DePriest and Aaron Cox. The Yellow Jackets moved into Emory & Henry territory but were forced to punt.
On Randolph-Macon’s next possession, Egbers hit Wallis on a 43-yard pass to get the Yellow Jackets in field goal range. But Chris Vidal’s 41-yard attempt sailed wide left. The rest of the period was dominated by defense, and it was scoreless at the half.
Emory & Henry quarterback Hunter Taylor, who passed for 299 yards, enjoyed a relatively clean pocket in the first half. The second half was quite different.
Taylor absorbed hit after hit as the Yellow Jacket defensive front, led by DePriest, Cox, Tyler DeBerry and Jacob Hutchinson, wore down the Wasps. But the gutsy signal caller forged on, and, early in the fourth quarter, put Emory & Henry in scoring position.
With a fourth down and 3 at the Randolph-Macon 18, Wasp head coach Curt Newsome first sent out the field goal unit, then called timeout. After conferring, Taylor and offense reappeared. But Taylor’s pass found the arms of Randolph-Macon’s Cade Jones, who intercepted it at the 15 and returned it to the 37.
Another Egbers-to-Wallis connection, this time of 32 yards, put Randolph-Macon deep in Emory & Henry territory. Two plays later, Ivan Phillips knocked the ball out of Egbers’ hands, and Dalton Wilson recovered for the Wasps at the Randolph-Macon 22.
Yet again, the defense dominated. A quick three and out, and a 7-yard punt off the side of Ethan Muncy’s foot, gave the Yellow Jackets a first down at the Wasp 29. On the fourth play of the drive, Egbers rolled to the left as he had done several times before but turned and threw to tight end Tim Hanratty on the right side, who spun into the end zone just inside the front pylon for the game’s first points. After 50 minutes and 23 seconds of a scoreless, titanic struggle, it was 7-0 Randolph-Macon.
Despite the raging pass rush, Taylor drove his offense 76 yards in 12 plays in response, finding T.J. Tester wide open for a 5-yard touchdown reception to tie the game at seven with 4:21 left.
This game could have ended very differently, were it not for one more defensive stand from the Yellow Jackets. An Egbers pass intended for Wallis, slightly underthrown, was tipped and intercepted by Ryan Gibson, who returned the ball to the Yellow Jacket 37. It was up to Hutchinson and the defense to preserve the tie.
“We had certain plays that they couldn’t stop, and weren’t able to pick up,” Hutchinson explained. “I think, at the end of the day, we just wanted it more.”
Four Taylor passes yielded just one completion, and the Wasps turned the ball over on downs with 2:40 left. Their defense answered in kind. Then, defense ended regulation, as Cox sacked Taylor, and Emory & Henry took a knee.
The Wasps started overtime quickly, Taylor completing an 18-yard pass to Kashawn Cosey at the 7-yard line. They stalled at the 5, and this time, on fourth down, Zach Baber came and stayed on the field, kicking a 22-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
Randolph-Macon’s possession started with a 9-yard Egbers run, then Wallis for 3 yards and a first down at the 13, setting up the stunning finish. The fans saw a snap, then a ball pop high into the air and into the waiting arms of Egbers. An Ivan Phillips tackle try from the left side was inches short, and Egbers scampered untouched into the end zone.
A sea of black and yellow burst onto the field, its destination its quarterback and leader. But the sophomore from Clifton, Virginia, gave credit where it was due.
“It was an exhausting game. The defense played lights out,” Egbers said. “We can’t give enough credit to this defense. They’ve had our backs all year long.”
It was appropriate that the first ODAC title to be decided with an actual game for that purpose featured the two teams with the most conference championships. Each had 11 entering the afternoon.
With Emory & Henry leaving the ODAC in 2022 to move up to Division II and join the South Atlantic Conference, it was their final attempt for title No. 12. No doubt that the Wasps, scheduled to come to Ashland in the fall, will want to spoil the Yellow Jackets’ hopes of a 13th title, since they’ll be ineligible to win the 2021 championship as they leave the conference.
For Arruza, the game’s crazy ending allowed him a celebration, and a bath in electrolytes, but minutes later you could see his mind moving forward to the next task ahead.
“We’ve got a lot to improve upon. We’ll give them the week off, then we’ve got to get stronger. We’ve got to get some size on these guys,” Arruza said.
Hutchinson, reflecting on the sacrifices the team made during the COVID-19 pandemic to even have a chance to play football this academic year, recalled cold autumn mornings in the reimagined “weight room”, which was located on the old tennis courts across the railroad tracks from Day Field to allow for social distancing.
“I hope we do it again next year,” Hutchinson said with a smile as wide as the field. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Rob Witham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.