The pass went up, a perfect spiral over the shoulder of two defenders gasping for breath, and was hauled in by the receiver in the back of the end zone for the 20-yard score. Then it happened. The receiver stumbled down to the turf and lay motionless, as an ambulance was called out onto the field and play stopped for over 20 minutes.
And just like that, the game changed.
Up 14-0 after senior Mike Schwengel’s pass to Joel Chandler with 5:49 left in the second period, the George Mason Mustangs seemed in prime position to take control of the game and of the Bull Run District versus Clarke County in a battle of undefeated squads. But as Chandler crumpled to the ground and left the game, the tide turned. Whether it was the pouring rain and the frigid weather which cooled off the hot Mason team, or whether the break simply gave Clarke a chance to shake off the jitters and recuperate, the result remains the same. After play resumed, the Eagles scored 35 unanswered points to win 35-14 over the host Mustangs.
“It’s like in boxing where if you get knocked down they give you a standing ‘eight’ count to get up,” said Mason coach Tom Horn. “Football is not supposed to have ‘eight’ counts and teams are not supposed to have chances to get back up after being knocked down, but Clarke got one.”
Losing Chandler — reports indicate he is out for the season with a broken wrist — dealt the Mustangs a blow from which they could not recover. A few costly turnovers, coupled with the relentless assault of the Eagles offense, led by senior Chandler Rhodes, ended any chance Mason had at coming away from the match undefeated in the District.
Rhodes, the Single A State Player of the Year in basketball, rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 128 yards and two more scores, as well as kicking all five extra points. In fact, the Eagles nearly had negative yardage on the night when Rhodes did not either run or pass the football. While an interesting note, the point was a moot one, as the Mustangs could not contain Rhodes.
But it was Mason that struck first. After Clarke’s opening possession stalled, junior running back Charlie Mann capped Mason's first scoring drive with a 29-yard run with 7:36 left in the first quarter.
Before Chandler’s touchdown reception, the Eagles had three positions and gained no first downs. However, after the receiver went down, the Eagles came out firing in the torrential rain, as Rhodes rifled a pass down the sideline to senior Chase Hardesty for 36 yards in a scoring drive that took just 26 seconds.
On third down on the ensuing drive, the Mustangs fumbled a snap deep in their own territory and the Eagles recovered with two minutes left in the half. Rhodes later snuck around the left end for a four-yard touchdown to tie the game.
Even though a mere minute remained left in the half, Clarke was not done capitalizing off of Mustang mistakes. A fumbled kickoff by Mason led to yet another Rhodes touchdown run, this time a 16-yard scamper down the left sideline, punctuated by a hurdle over the pylon for a seven-point lead going into the half.
“We just made mistakes that were uncharacteristic of us,” Horn said. “It was in no way the rain, but it’s possible we were just trying to dig a little too deep for the intensity that we didn’t have.”
On their first drive of the second half, the Mustangs marched deep into Eagle territory, as it appeared that a short break at halftime had woken up the otherwise sleepy offense. However, yet another fumble — the third of the night — by Mason opened the door for Rhodes to shine again.
The quarterback rushed for his third score of the night at the start of the fourth quarter, bursting up the middle from five yards out untouched. With 5:44 left in the final period, Rhodes found Hardesty again for a 15-yard slant to ice the victory with another touchdown for his squad.
As if the injury to Chandler was not enough, another ambulance was brought to the field to carry away Mason senior Russell Intermaggio, who suffered a reported helmet to a kidney. In addition, junior Jose Larios was sidelined by an Achilles tendon injury and was driven off the field by the Mustang training staff.
“It seemed that everything that could have gone wrong for us went wrong,” said senior lineman Austin Lucas. “With the ambulances, all the turnovers, it was just a bad night.”
With the loss, the Mustangs fell to 5-3 overall, and 2-1 in the district, while Clarke improved to 6-2 and kept their Bull Run record unblemished at 3-0. By beating Mason, the Eagles also secured their first winning season since 1995.
Mason travels to Manassas Park next week in search of rebounding from the tough, sloppy loss to Clarke. They will look to relentlessly pressure the Cougars, a team which has turned the ball over 11 times in their past two games, both losses.
However, unlike in recent years, the Manassas squad does not feature any player being recruited by a Division-I school, but, as Horn mentioned, “is the same team without the star player.” Horn went on to add that quarterback Mike Mehus, who took over the offense just three weeks ago, bears a striking resemblance to Rhodes in terms of style of play.
After the Manassas game, Mason will return home to close out its season against Strasburg High which, the way the competitive Bull Run District is shaping out this year, may have playoff implications as well.