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VIENNA — That collective exhale one might have heard just before 3:30 Saturday afternoon came from the visitors’ sideline on a sun-baked football field just off I-24.

Ahead 21-0 at the half and 29-8 after three quarters, Chester barely hung on against a shorthanded but gritty Vienna-Goreville team. The Eagles threw two passes into the end zone for an improbable win in the final 7.7 seconds, but both fell incomplete and the Yellow Jackets left with a 29-24 victory.

“In 49 years as a coach, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a group of kids,” Vienna-Goreville coach Mike Rude said. “There were kids having to play out of position, there were kids playing both ways who are only one-way players and there were two sophomores at running back.

“That was just a great effort. That’s not an L to me, that’s a W.”

The record book will claim differently, though, dropping the Eagles to 1-3 and improving Chester to 2-2. But Rude could be excused for feeling otherwise, considering how thoroughly his team was dominated in the first half before nearly pulling off a miracle.

Vienna-Goreville’s last chance came with 1:14 left, when it got the ball at its 44 after stopping a fourth down play and getting 15 free yards on the Yellow Jackets’ fourth 15-yard penalty of the second half.

A third down run of 13 yards by Brendan Dahncke pushed the Eagles to the Chester 40. Two plays later, Brett Davis’ short pass over the middle to Kyle Vancleve became a 23-yard gain to the 17. With no timeouts left, Vienna-Goreville rushed to the scrimmage line in an attempt to kill the clock.

But an illegal procedure call backed it up five yards. By the time the Eagles realized they had to rush to the line and snap the ball, they had wasted precious time. Just 7.7 seconds remained after a first down heave killed the clock.

Davis rolled right on second down and looked for Vancleve near the front right pylon. The senior reached over a Yellow Jackets defender and briefly got his hands on the ball, but couldn’t hang on and the clock stopped with 0.7 left.

On the final play, Davis lofted another ball into the end zone, but Dahncke was tightly-defended and couldn’t come down with it.

“We found a way to win and that was the main thing,” Chester coach Billy Belton said. “Give Vienna credit. Coach Rude had them ready to play and they got after us in the second half.”

It was a 180-degree turn from the first half. The Yellow Jackets controlled things to such an extent that they at one point had 14 first downs to the Eagles’ 12 total yards.

Drake Bollman scored on runs of 3 and 6 yards, those tallies sandwiched around a 6-yard touchdown pass from Nick Meyer to 6-5 senior Keith Kiner. Meyer accounted for 133 total yards in the half.

Vienna didn’t gain a first down until 33.3 seconds remained in the half, and lost leading rusher Logyn Frassato to the 90-degree heat in the second half. Yet the Eagles turned their fortunes around behind improved line play and determined running from some fresh faces.

Danny Smith moved to wingback and rushed for 99 of his game-high 114 yards after halftime, including a 21-yard touchdown with 10:16 left that made it a 29-16 game. Dahncke compiled 75 yards and a score on the ground in the second half.

Chester didn’t get a second half first down until a 23-yard run by Ethan Bert with 4:03 left in the game.

“We got behind the sticks quite a bit with penalties and some other bad plays,” Belton said.

The one big play the Yellow Jackets made came from Ethan Rayburn, who followed Dahncke’s 38-yard touchdown run with a 72-yard kickoff return score at the 2:31 mark of the third quarter.

Ultimately, Rayburn’s score and not having a timeout in the fourth quarter came back to bite Vienna-Goreville on its final drive.

“You have to look at it this way,” Rude said. “If they didn’t milk clock on that last drive and they wanted to throw the ball into the end zone for (Kiner), maybe they score.

“That was a great effort by our team at the end. Maybe that will bode well for down the road.”

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