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Monday, May 2, 2016

Vikings win HAAC championship

Monday, November 14, 2011

Freshman Jonathan Hicks' 57-yard punt return gave the Vikings a 20-0 second-quarter lead at Central Methodist.
(Chris Allen/Democrat-News)
FAYETTE -- All-America defensive end Richard Wick let the words chime in his ear: Heart of America Conference football champion.

"Sounds great," said the fifth-year senior, who arrived the season following Missouri Valley College's last league title. "We finally got the whole team put together all year."

The seventh-ranked Vikings did what they needed to do Saturday to claim the crown with a 33-7 victory at Central Methodist: run the ball and control the clock, have contributions from special teams, and keep their opponent from feeling it had a chance at the upset late in the game.

The win also propelled Valley into the NAIA Championship Series after a one-year absence, which Wick and his teammates understood would be put into jeopardy with a loss: "We knew coming in we had to pound it at them."

Pound it Valley did, chewing up 265 yards on the ground while holding the nation's fifth-ranked rushing offense to 139 yards, 60 percent of its average.

The Vikings moved the ball from the start, freshman Nijel Daw breaking off a 17-yard run on the game's first snap and freshman Bruce Reyes hooking up with freshman Chris Smith for another 17 clicks. However, senior Darius Parish forced a fumble recovered by senior Tom Walker at the CMU 16-yard line.

A 35-yard punt return by sophomore Tyler Davis set Valley up at the Eagles' 10, but freshman Chase Capron missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.

The Vikings scored on their final possession of the first quarter, staging an 11-play, 80-yard drive, sophomore Keith O'Neal gaining 18 yards on a carry and 10-yard with a third-down catch. Reyes scrambled for 21 yards and sophomore Rahfee McClee capped the series with a 15-yard touchdown run.

Runs of 20 yards by O'Neal and 19 from Reyes set up a first down at the Methodist 15, but senior Travis McDowell got his seventh interception of the season on a pass into the end zone.

"I felt like we did some good things moving the ball, but couldn't get any points," noted MVC head coach Paul Troth about scoring once on four trips into the "red zone." "You worry about that."

Davis' 22-yard punt return again gave Valley good field position for its next series. Reyes found junior Daniel Gray for 18 yards and senior Gareth Brown on a 15-yard swing pass for a score.

"We had to figure out their defense, first of all," senior guard Rommel Reed explained. "As we went on, we found their weaknesses."

The Vikings increased their lead to 20-0 on freshman Jonathan Hicks' 57-yard punt return, his second of the season for a touchdown.

The Eagles got on the board with a minute remaining in the half, senior Caleb Haynes setting them up with a 32-yard run. The scoring play itself, though, was controversial.

Junior Bryant Jackson floated a pass toward the near right corner of the end zone, giving MVC senior cornerback Wayne Williams time to get inside position on senior wideout Bradley Carter. However, Carter grabbed Williams' shoulder pads with both hands, threw him down and made the 21-yard reception.

Troth argued that it was a textbook case of offensive pass interference, confronting the officials even after the half ended, but to no avail. Fortunately for Valley, it didn't matter.

After freshman Ezequiel Rivera missed a 48-yard field goal attempt to end Methodist's opening possession of the first half, the Vikings got 25 yards on five O'Neal carries -- the last with a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on. O'Neal broke two tackles on the next play, a 24-yard TD run.

"That was huge [because] they had gotten a little momentum back" at the end of the half, Troth remarked. "Our offensive line did an outstanding job. We wanted to run the ball and we were able to."

The Eagles (5-5, 5-4 HAAC) got only one more first down the rest of the game, while Valley added a touchdown on a 3-yard McClee run to conclude an 11-play, 75-yard drive that consumed more than six minutes of the fourth quarter.

"I'm just so happy for the seniors," Troth said. "They've spent a lot of time and a lot of effort."

The Vikings (9-1, 8-1) will host their first playoff game since 2006, the last time they won the league title, Saturday against ninth-ranked St. Francis (Ind.). They began preparing Sunday after receiving the news, but the previous night was one for celebration.

"I love this team!" Reed exclaimed. "I love everything about this school."

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