CAMDEN — Heading into the season, longtime VVS football coach Gary Oliver warned there would be plenty of teaching moments after graduating three-fourths of last year’s squad.
But the Red Devils clearly had a growth spurt in Friday night’s season-opener against Class B East rival Camden.
Scoring five unanswered touchdowns after falling behind 7-0, VVS pulled away for a 34-14 victory as junior running back Kyle Burback efficiently rushed for 169 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 13 carries.
Burback is one of only seven players back from last year’s 6-3 VVS team which advanced to the Section III semifinals. Against Camden, though, the inexperienced Red Devils didn’t seem to miss a beat, especially after a first half that ended with the teams locked in a 7-7 tie.
“I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen when we got out here, because I think we have 11 different starters on defense this year and a lot on offense,” said Oliver, who is in his 17th year at the coaching helm. “It’s a group that works very hard in practice, and I’m glad that it paid off for them.”
Burback’s explosive 60-yard touchdown run down the left sideline early in the second quarter that came on the first play from scrimmage after Camden had taken the lead on Michael Clark’s 3-yard scoring burst got the Red Devils even before they took command after halftime.
“It was gigantic,” said Camden coach Jake Bates about Burback’s big run. “It’s all momentum in high school football. We talk to these kids all the time about it.
“Last year’s game was very similar,” added Bates, referring to the Blue Devils’ 31-20 victory. “We scored, and then they came back on a kickoff return, and our team last year was able to gain the momentum back with big plays on defense. This year, we didn’t make those plays.”
Camden mounted a 10-play drive after Burback’s score before it stalled out after a pair of penalties for an illegal shift and a false start, and the Blue Devils had another chance to take the lead back late in the half on a drive start at the VVS 41. But after a 16-yard scramble by junior quarterback Eric Mitchell, the drive ended on a pass from Mitchell to Clark that fell incomplete at the left pylon of the end zone.
It was all VVS in the second half. Starting out deep in their end of the field after a well-placed squib kick by Camden’s Austin Fountain, the Red Devils quickly marched 89 yards on eight plays. A 41-yard cutback run by Burbank highlighted the go-ahead drive, which ended with junior Trenton Wong’s 9-yard run through a huge hole through the left side of the line. The second of four conversion kicks by senior Phoenix Weydig made it 14-7.
“We made some changes at halftime, and they worked,” said Burback. “Our zone (run) was working very good, so we stuck with it and kept running it, and we got a lot of yards off that play.”
Added the 5-foot-7 Burback, “The running game was working a lot better in the second half, for sure....You probably could have drove a truck through a few of those holes.”
Another long touchdown run by Burback, this one from 28 yards out, allowed VVS to extend its lead early in the fourth quarter before freshman James Wheeler IV scored his first varsity TD on an 11-yard run and senior tight end Brayden Yauger caught a 10-yard scoring pass in the middle of the end zone from sophomore Benjamin Wittman to widen the gap to 34-7.
“Towards the end of the game, we might have wore them down a little bit,” said Oliver. “We just kept playing hard.”
Camden finally ended the VVS scoring spree when Mitchell and junior wideout Kyle Kirk hooked up for a 35-yard scoring pass with less than two minutes left before Kirk kicked his second extra point. The drive began across midfield after a 43-yard kickoff return by junior Evan Hildenbrandt.
It was a great way to start the season for a VVS team that is in rebuilding mode.
“It’s huge, definitely,” said Burback. “It definitely gives us a lot of confidence during our next few games, for sure.”
Defensive leaders for the Red Devils included junior lineman Keagan Borasky-Mills and junior linebacker Derek Tudman, who each had fumble recoveries, and sophomore Bryce Palmer, who had an interception. Defensive end Yauger had a team-high eight tackles, including seven solo stops, and senior linebacker Andrew Fox was credited with 6 1/2 tackles.
VVS plays its home opener next Friday night when it takes on Chittenango at 7 in another Class B East contest. The Bears opened with a 32-8 win over Mexico last night.
Bates, meanwhile, is hoping the Blue Devils use the loss as a learning tool.
“Coming into the game both teams had a lot of youth in a lot of key spots, inexperience, and their young guys outplayed our young guys,” said Bates.
“They made some mistakes too, and when they did we didn’t capitalize. They capitalized on ours in the second half. The biggest concern I have for our team is we just have to learn not to quit, because they’re not (20) points better than us. But they’re a very good team.”
Mitchell was 8-of-22 passing with 101 yards and an interception and a touchdown for the Blue Devils, and senior Tyler Pelton ran 13 times for 52 yards and was also in on a team-high seven tackles from his linebacker spot.
Camden visits Mexico next Friday night at 7 in another Class B East matchup.
Oneida wins opener
Oneida kicked off its Class B East campaign with a 19-7 home win over Central Valley Academy. Game details were unavailable.
Oneida plays at Cazenovia next Saturday afternoon at 1:30 in another Class B East contest. The Lakers last night opened their season with a 33-14 loss to New Hartford.