By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- Massanutten Military Academy's football team had every right to feel good about its first half against Patriot Conference rival Randolph-Macon Academy on Friday afternoon.
The winless Colonels had for the most part held firm on defense, had moved the ball some on offense and looked to enter the halftime break trailing by just two touchdowns with the prospect of getting the ball first to open the second half.
It could have been a lot worse -- and just like that, it was, as R-MA's Kevin Slaton picked off a Derik Duklis pass on first down and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown with just less than 23 seconds left in the first half. That score came just six seconds after the Yellow Jackets' had tallied their second touchdown, and proved to be the back-breaker in R-MA's 41-0 victory.
"We were studying all week in practice," said Slaton, a cornerback on defense. "I just kind of read that slot guy and knew he was usually outside, so I just stepped inside and intercepted the ball."
Only seconds before Slaton's game-changing defensive play, R-MA (3-4, 2-1 Patriot) had gained some breathing room when quarterback Garrett Cavanaugh connected with wideout Carson Holder for a 19-yard touchdown pass to cap a nine-play, 82-yard drive that took less than three minutes and put the Yellow Jackets up 14-0 with 27 seconds left in the half. Hard on the heels of that came Slaton's pick-six, just in time to completely deflate MMA (0-7, 0-3 Patriot).
"I thought we played a lot better than we have been playing in the first half," Gilliland said. "Our defense held them a few times, and our offense was moving the ball a little bit. Hat's off to their quarterback -- that's a perfect pass. He threw it to the back of the end zone, and the kid went up and made a play."
The Colonels made some plays early, holding R-MA scoreless through the first two possessions and then coming up with a big special teams play when Duklis recovered a fumbled punt in Yellow Jackets' territory. MMA's drive stalled at the R-MA 20-yard line, and the Yellow Jackets finally woke up when Jonathan Moore broke loose for a 51-yard touchdown run. Moore, who finished with a game-high 124 rushing yards, said R-MA was a bit rusty after having not played since Oct. 4.
Yellow Jackets coach Frank Sullivan thought so, too, and quickly shifted his offense to no-huddle mode.
"We just thought we'd go no-huddle, stop thinking so much and change the pace," Sullivan said. "We got some confidence, and the kids started making some plays. That's what we want, is for those guys to calm down a little bit. Sometimes we have to speed things up to accomplish that."
The Colonels tried to answer on their next possession, as Duklis delivered a deep strike to John Love for a 58-yard completion deep in R-MA territory. That drive petered out as well when the Yellow Jackets' Ayebalayefaa Eke-Spiff sacked Duklis for a seven-yard loss on fourth down.
From there, the Yellow Jackets marched down the field for Holder's eventual touchdown reception and Slaton's ensuing interception.
"It was tough," Gilliland said. "The kids were a little upset at halftime. But we came out in the second half, and I thought at least we fought hard. I know they had a couple big plays, but we're young. A lot of the kids are learning."
R-MA stretched its lead to 28-0 early in the third quarter on Slaton's 34-yard touchdown run. Slaton finished with 105 rushing yards on 13 carries, while Moore needed only 10 for his 124. R-MA totaled 315 rushing yards, while MMA had minus-12.
"We just wanted to totally make them one-dimensional and just deal with the pass, and I think we did a good job doing that," Sullivan said. "They kept throwing it and made some plays, give Massanutten credit, but we buckled down and held them out of the end zone."
Cavanaugh capped R-MA's next offensive possession with a 7-yard touchdown run, and Eke-Spiff added a 45-yard touchdown run the next time the Yellow Jackets had the ball to get the running clock going.
It was a good win for the Yellow Jackets, who have missed out on three games from their schedule this season -- Brunswick Academy forfeited the season opener, Bishop Walsh (Md.) dropped football in late July and R-MA's homecoming game against Hargrave Military School scheduled for last week was cancelled due to rain despite two attempts to make it up. The Yellow Jackets will host The Potomac School -- currently ranked No. 1 in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II -- on Nov. 2 in their regular-season finale.
"We played good -- we needed the win," Moore said. "In two weeks, we're about to shock the world at Potomac."
Duklis finished with 131 passing yards for MMA. Houston Walls had six catches for 40 yards and Love added three for 82. R-MA's offense outgained the Colonels, 397-119.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>