Mount Hebron's football team came into the season with some notable talent, lots of inexperience and little depth. All of those traits were evident during Saturday's 29-12 defeat by visiting Northeast.
First, the good news. Senior tailback Travis Harriston put on his third straight offensive show of Hebron's 1-2 season. He rushed 10 times for a team-high 73 yards and a touchdown, and he scored again on an 85-yard kickoff return. Wide receiver Masai Demus made three catches for 39 yards, including an acrobatic 20-yarder that set up Harriston's first score.
Now, the bad news. The youthful Vikings operate with little room for error, and they exceeded their allowance of mistakes. They turned the ball over three times, botched a punt that led to an Eagles touchdown and committed nine penalties at a cost of 57 yards.
And now for the worst news of all. Two of those penalties -- an unsportsmanlike call against linebacker Mike Fadrowski in the first quarter and a personal foul against linebacker Nick Canjea in the second period -- resulted in the ejection of both players.
The departure of Hebron's two starting inside linebackers had a double-whammy effect.
It opened a gaping hole in the Vikings' defense, which surrendered 205 rushing yards in the second half, including two long scoring drives that sealed Hebron's fate. And it left Hebron without Fadrowski and Canjea for Saturday's league-opener against Centennial. County rules stipulate that any player ejected from a game automatically misses the next game.
"We just had our guts ripped out. The heart of my defense is on the bench next week," said Mark Cates, Hebron first-year coach who is trying to improve on last season's 1-9 record. "The ejections were a killer. We'll have to weaken ourselves somewhere else [to replace Fadrowski and Canjea]. We're going to look like a patchwork quilt. I'm hurting now."
The Vikings certainly were hurting throughout a nightmarish second half in which Northeast repeatedly ran the same off-tackle plays behind an offensive line that overmatched Hebron.
Running backs Chris Kelly (28 carries, 180 yards, two TDs) and Todd O'Brien (21, 86) accounted for all of Northeast's 266 yards. The final drive was a 14-play, 96-yard march that consumed nearly eight minutes and put the game out of reach with 1:08 remaining.
"We were firing off the ball too high, and they were pushing us back five or six yards," said defensive tackle Al Fannell. "They drove 96 yards on that last drive. That's ridiculous. We never should have let that happen."
Fadrowski's ejection during Northeast's first possession set the tone.
After the Vikings took the opening kickoff and drove 49 yards for a 6-0 lead on Harriston's 1-yard run, the Eagles were driving inside Hebron's 35-yard line when Fadrowski and Northeast tackle John Williams got into a pushing match after Williams decked Fadrowski with a block that appeared to come after the whistle had blown.
Both players were ejected, and the Vikings were penalized 15 yards when Fadrowski continued to argue with an official. Suddenly, Northeast had a first down at Hebron's 16. Four plays later, Northeast quarterback Jeff Dolch scored from the 1, and Kelly ran in the two-point conversion to give the Eagles an 8-6 lead.
"The whistle blew, and the guy [Williams] blind-sided me. Then he jumped in my face and started hitting me on the head, so I grabbed his arms," Fadrowski said.
"I have a temper, but this was one of those [times] when I kept my cool. They [Northeast] are a pretty dirty team. They were grabbing face masks and the backs of helmets, and the refs weren't seeing any of that stuff."
Harriston provided some temporary relief after Northeast took the lead. He picked up the ensuing kickoff near the right sideline, slanted in, cut back to his right and left the coverage in the dust to give the Vikings a 12-8 lead.
Hebron held Northeast on its next two possessions, but the Vikings gave the Eagles a gift late in the second period by botching a snap on a punt deep in their own territory. Northeast took over on the Hebron 16. Four plays later, Kelly scored a 3-yard touchdown, then a two-point conversion to give the Eagles a 16-12 halftime advantage.
The real damage was done on the play prior to the score, though. That's when Canjea was flagged for a personal foul in the end zone and subsequently ejected.
That left the Vikings dejected and disorganized going into the locker room. And after the second half that followed, it leaves them wondering if they can overcome the absence of Fadrowski and Canjea this week against Centennial. They had averaged a combined 25 tackles (solos and assists) through the first two games.
"They [Fadrowski and Canjea] are the difference on defense," Cates said. "Mike is the moral leader of the team, the true football player among them all. Canjea is the only other guy who can grab them and tell them what to do. You lose two linebackers like that on a team like ours, and you're in big trouble."