MOUNT AIRY - Several Gamber-Smallwood and Mount Airy youth teams bolstered their chances to be Mountain Valley Football League playoff contenders as the two clubs met in mid-season combat Sunday at the Mount Airy Carnival Grounds.
Gamber's pony team moved to 3-1 in the league's Valley Conference in the opening game of the afternoon when it held off winless Mount Airy, 19-13.
Then, in a battle of junior varsity unbeatens, Mount Airy broke through in the final minutes for a 6-0 verdict over the stubborn Mustangs, who had been unscored upon this year.
The 4-0 Bulldogs are now first in the jayvee's Mountain Conference, while Gamber is 3-1 in the Valley loop.
The varsity game saw Mount Airy coast to a 19-6 win over winless Gamber to improve to 3-1, one game out of first in its Mountain Division.
The centerpiece though, was the middle game in which the 11- to 12-year-old combatants yielded nothing until Bulldog back Nathan Fee's 27-yard touchdown scamper with about three minutes to play.
Prior to that, the two squads had battled vainly between the 35-yard lines.
Bulldog coach Richard Gardner, who has taken his jayvee team to the MVFL super bowl seven consecutive years and won six, was unaccustomed to such futility.
"We were a little stern with them at halftime," Gardner said, describing his lecture to the troops. "I told them they were doing nothing. They (Gamber) outplayed us the first half. We were fortunate to be 0-0."
But by the fourth quarter, Mount Airy was gaining field position if not scoring points.
With four minutes remaining, linebacker J.R. Bruchey, a key defensive player all day, stopped a third-down Gamber run with a solo tackle and then helped pressure Gamber punter Matt Smith into running out of bounds, giving Mount Airy the ball on the Gamber 32.
Two plays later, Fee, on an end-around play, took the handoff, burst through a hole on the left side opened by guard Chris Phoebus and tackle Mike Messick, and bolted untouched through the Mustang secondary to the left corner of the end zone.
"All day we hit right, hit right, and then ran the end around left," said Gardner. "That was the play."
But it was an unyielding defense that also thwarted the Mustangs, according to coach Rick Orvis, who is still looking for Gamber's first junior varsity win in memory against Mount Airy.
"They rushed the defensive ends from outside to keep us confused. Then they rushed the linebackers up the middle and that just blew up all our blocking," Orvis said.
While one quick completed pass could have gone long against such a pressing defense, Gamber could never get it off.
"Our quarterback only had about half a second to get rid of the ball," added Orvis, whose team never passed the Mount Airy 37.
Gamber's 7- to 10-year-old team, however, did much better.
In that opening game, Ryan Falter raced 50 yards to make it 6-0 early, Scott Farley scooted 10 yards for a score and added the extra point to make it 13-0, and Sean Davis' scored on a dive play to make it 19-0 at the half.
Linebacker Bobby Biden and defensive linemen Davis, Kevin Dayton and Greg Blizzard helped keep the Bulldogs at bay.
But Mount Airy nearly pulled it out in the second half.
Mike Cleveland burst 62 yards off tackle on the first play after intermission to put the Bulldogs on the board. Later in the third quarter, Ryan Dockins scored on a short dive play and Rick Sier ran in the extra point to narrow the gap to 19-13.
The Bulldogs then threw a final scare into Gamber, driving to the Mustang 2 with less than two minutes left in the game before losing the ball on a fumble.
But while his team hung on, Gamber coach Dean Blizzard is not getting carried away.
"We're looking up but we have a tough schedule coming," he said.
Mount Airy varsity coach Mack McKinley isn't cheering too loudly either, despite the fact that his 13- to 14-year-old squad has won three in a row.
Injuries have reduced his squad from a sparse 19 to a scary 15.
"We have to play fundamental football and no one else can get hurt," said team offensive coordinator Alex Gardner, brother of the jayvee coach.
They did a good job on fundamental football in the first half as Jason Robinson scored first on a 25-yard run and then on a 25-yard pass. Fellow running back Bryan Herche ran in the extra point to make it 13-0, and then scored on a 10-yard second-quarter sprint to up the lead to 19-0.
The Mustangs, though, came back as Jason Woycio took the second half kickoff 70 yards to make it 19-6.
Late in the third quarter, Gamber threatened again as quarterback Craig Schubert, aided by the running of Brian Harmen, drove his team 40 yards to the Bulldog 10. But a fumble ended that drive and Mount Airy controlled the ball most of the time thereafter.
"We tried to contain them up the middle but they beat us outside," said Gamber coach John Fitzgerald of the two cross buck running plays that turned into touchdowns and a sideline pass that accounted for another.
"But I'm proud my kids came back," he added.
McKinley, though, wasn't basking in victory's afterglow.
Pondering a varsity division he said is the strongest he's seen, plus his lengthening injury list, he could only voice hope.
Mike Nortrup -- Contributing sports writer Copyright The Baltimore Sun 1990