MONROE — Before doing his postgame interview, Mount Vernon football coach Nic Vasilchek said he needed a moment to catch his breath.
After all, his Bulldogs had just spent the previous two-and-a-half hours trading blows with Monroe in a dizzying, back-and-forth contest filled with big plays.
The Bearcats simply wouldn’t go away, repeatedly clawing back to make it a one-possession game.
But seemingly every time, Mount Vernon had an answer.
The Bulldogs rushed for 412 yards and continued their massive turnaround with a 45-34 win over the Bearcats in an action-packed Wesco 4A clash Friday night at Monroe High School.
“When you get (a lead) early, every team can do that,” Vasilchek said. “But when you get punched back in the mouth, it’s how you respond.”
Mount Vernon kept responding, and in doing so earned a signature victory.
Just two years ago, the Bulldogs were a struggling program coming off back-to-back winless campaigns in 2015 and 2016. But since Vasilchek took over prior to last season, Mount Vernon has undergone an impressive transformation.
With Friday night’s win, the Bulldogs improved to 4-1 for the first time since 2013 and avenged last year’s 58-7 loss to eventual Class 4A state-quarterfinalist Monroe.
“It’s an absolutely huge win,” Vasilchek said. “Last year, they were one of the best teams in the state and they really took it to us. … Our kids believed, and we really wanted to prove that we belonged in this league and belonged in the playoff picture.
“It’s just an amazing and resilient win for our kids on the road. I couldn’t be happier. I know the whole town of Mount Vernon is going nuts right now.”
CRAZY END TO 1ST HALF
With Mount Vernon holding a 10-7 lead late in the second quarter, a low-scoring affair suddenly turned into a back-and-forth shootout, with the two teams combining for three touchdowns in the final minute of the first half.
The Bulldogs (4-1 overall, 2-1 Wesco 4A) began the scoring spree, extending their lead to 17-7 on senior Seth Tercero’s 4-yard touchdown run with one minute left in the half.
Monroe (1-4, 1-2) answered with a long kickoff return and a quick two-play drive, capped by junior receiver Efton Chism III’s leaping 19-yard touchdown grab with 36 seconds remaining.
On the second play of Mount Vernon’s ensuing possession, junior receiver Carlos Garcia hauled in a deep 35-yard pass from senior Reilly Olmsted, moving the ball to the Monroe 19.
Then, after spiking the ball to stop the clock with six seconds left, Olmsted scrambled left and dived just inside the pylon for a 19-yard touchdown run as time expired to give the Bulldogs a 24-14 halftime lead.
“It was a funny play, because we were trying to throw the ball one more time to see if could get it in the end zone, and (if not) we were going to kick a field goal,” Vasilchek said. “So when Reilly tucked it down, we were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ And then it turned into, ‘Yes, yes,’ and we all got crazy.
“These kids have been through a lot. They’ve worked really hard, and something went their way. And I think that’s karma. When you do things right, things go your way. That was one of those plays that made a huge difference, and the football gods were smiling on us.”
BACK-AND-FORTH 2ND HALF
The teams continued trading blows in the second half, with Monroe three times cutting a double-digit deficit to four points or less. But the Bearcats were never able to pull in front.
After Monroe junior running back Blake Rybar scored on a 28-yard swing pass that trimmed the margin to 38-34 with less than eight minutes to play, the Bulldogs answered with a back-breaking 11-play, 81-yard scoring drive.
Olmsted capped the touchdown march by scoring on an 8-yard quarterback keeper with 3:19 remaining, giving Mount Vernon an 11-point lead that proved too much for the Bearcats to overcome.
MOUNT VERNON’S 1-2 PUNCH
Monroe had no answer for a two-headed rushing attack of Tercero and senior Landon Edwards that averaged a combined 8.4 yards per carry.
The hard-running Tercero served as Mount Vernon’s primary workhorse, rushing for 236 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Edwards, who kept the Bearcats’ defense off-balance with a heavy dose of jet sweeps, provided 144 yards and a score on 17 carries.
Olmsted added 32 yards rushing and three touchdown runs, including his back-breaking 19-yard score on the final play of the first half.
“We just weren’t able to stop them,” Monroe coach Michael Bumpus said. “They ran three plays really good — that jet sweep, that counter and that quarterback sneak. That’s all they really needed on us.
“They found the mismatch and exploited it. … They’re good up front. Size matters, and they’ve got some size on us.”
MONROE’S BIG-PLAY PASSING ATTACK
Junior quarterback Gio Fregoso completed 21 of 27 passes for 378 yards, four touchdowns and one interception to lead a big-play aerial attack that kept the Bearcats in the game.
Sophomore receiver Trey Lane caught five passes for a team-high 170 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown reception and a 69-yard catch-and-run that set up Monroe’s first score.
Chism III continued his big season with six receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns. He also intercepted a pass on defense.
BEARCATS STRUGGLE ON THE GROUND
Yet while Monroe’s passing attack shined, the Bearcats struggled mightily to establish any sort of running game.
One week after rushing for 175 yards and four touchdowns in a rout of Mariner, Rybar was held to just 36 yards on 14 carries against Mount Vernon’s stout defensive front. The Bulldogs sacked Fregoso four times and limited Monroe to just 12 net rushing yards on 25 attempts.
“When you have to rely on the passing, you’re not going to win football games like that,” Bumpus said. “We had to establish the run, and we just weren’t able to do that. (Mount Vernon) was tough in the box, and I think they’re going to shake up the league this year.”
MONROE’S TOUGH START
After graduating numerous players from last year’s state-quarterfinal team and facing a challenging opening stretch this fall, the 1-4 Bearcats already have as many losses this season as the previous two years combined.
Monroe looks to rebound against Jackson next Friday night at Everett Memorial Stadium in a battle between teams that are 1-2 in Wesco 4A play. Though it’s not quite a postseason elimination contest, the loser would face a difficult road to reaching the Week 10 playoffs.
Mount Vernon hosts Mariner next Friday night in a matchup of teams that are 2-1 in Wesco 4A. The Marauders beat Jackson 25-20 Friday night.