River navigates past Bridgeport for second win

It took half a season, but River has found itself.

Coach Mike Flannery’s Pilots opened the campaign suffering five successive setbacks. However, the season’s midpoint was also a turning point as the Rivermen have now won two straight.

The second triumph came Friday night at Perkins Field in Brookside as River turned back a late Bridgeport bid in escaping with a 23-15 triumph.

“After we went 0-5 we just said it’s a brand new season and we will take it from there,” Flannery said. “It’s good to see the kids happy. They didn’t pack it in after a rough start. They have shown a lot of resiliency.”

River will bid to make it three straight when it visits Shenandoah Friday.

The setback was a tough pill to swallow for Bridgeport. The Bulldogs committed too many mistakes early before staging a valiant comeback try. The setback dropped Coach Rudy Vavrock’s charges to 2-5. They travel to Beallsville Friday night.

“I can’t fault the kids. Their effort was there,” Vavrock said. “We just dug too big a hole early on to climb out of.”

That Bulldog deficit was a result of a blocked punt and a fumble recovery, both of which went for touchdowns, midway through the second quarter. Bridgeport was holding a 7-3 lead when those two miscues occurred.

Despite the mistakes, the Bulldogs found themselves with a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

River was nursing a 23-7 advantage early in the fourth quarter before the Dogs began to bite.

The Pilots were forced to punt from their own two. A short punt gave Bridgeport great field position at the Pilots’ 19.

Bulldogs’ junior dynamo Bailey McGrath made River pay immediately, finding Colt Charlton with 19-yard scoring strike. The two teamed for the bonus points and the hosts were down 23-15 with 8:25 remaining.

A succession of punts resulted in Bridgeport gaining possession at its 20 with 3:19 left.

McGrath teamed with Charlton for a 14-yard gainer. On the ensuing snap, McGrath stunned the Pilots on a brilliant 50-yard run. He appeared stacked up in the middle of the line, but broke free, scampering down the home sideline. River freshman Braden Whetsell delivered what turned out to be a game-saving tackle, hauling McGrath down at the Pilots’ 8.

River’s defense rose to the occasion, however, as two short Bulldog runs were followed by two incompletion. The Pilots subsequently regained possession and drained the clock.

“Our defense played extremely well. They really stepped up on that last possession,” Flannery said. “If it wasn’t for a freshman making a nice play on McGrath’s long run, this game might have a different outcome.

“Our kids are starting to develop some confidence while having fun,” said the former West Liberty quarterbacking great. “We have a chance to win a few more games before this season ends.”

River drew first blood via a 20-yard field goal by Colton Wright in the opening quarter.

Bridgeport jumped on top 7-3 as Brad Tomolonis blocked a River punt to set up Bridgeport’s initial score. The Bulldogs staged a quick six-play, 19-yard drive, capped by a one-yard Bradley Pritchett run. Benjamin Behnke added the PAT with 7:13 left before halftime.

The tide dramatically turned River’s way.

On the Pilots’ ensuing possession, talented sophomore quarterback Joe Flannery drilled Bryce Cross with a 55-yard TD bomb. Wright’s PAT made it a 10-7 Rivermen lead.

The next two Bulldog series proved their demise.

River senior stalwart Brett Rosen scooped up a fumble and rumbled eight yards for a score. That was followed by a River punt block, scooped up by Cross who took it in from the three.

“We made too many mistakes and River took advantage of them,” Vavrock said. “The effort was there but big plays hurt us. We made a nice run in the fourth quarter. Our kids never quit.”

Cross was the Pilots’ leading rusher with 52 yards while Jordan Snapp gained 41.

McGrath rushed for 66 yards for Bridgeport while passing for 79 yards.

Flannery acquitted himself nicely as River’s quarterback. He completed four-of-seven passes for 65 yards. He also ran a bootleg for 24 stripes.