It had all the makings of a playoff atmosphere: Tailgaters in place few blocks away from the stadium. School marching bands and just old-school music blaring throughout the area. A larger crowd outside the stadium than inside.
Welcome to the annual Vashon-Sumner High dual homecoming football game, which pitted host Sumner, the oldest African-American high school (opening in 1875) west of the Mississippi River against rival Vashon, the second-oldest (1934) African-American high school in St. Louis behind Sumner. The alumni from both schools turned out in droves, from several decades past, but Sumner appeared to have the edge there.
As far as the game is concerned,when the two oldest black high schools in St. Louis square off, all bets are off, as it figures to be a competitive game down to the wire. You can sometimes throw the records out. But this year….not so much.
Bolstered by an opportunistic defense and an offense that grounded out its attack and passed sparingly, the Vashon Wolverines (now 5-3) built an 18-0 first quarter lead and rolled to a 46-6 triumph over the upset-minded Sumner Bulldogs (now 4-5) at Tuskegee Airmen Field in the last regular season weekend of action for all Missouri teams. First-year Bulldogs head coach Albert Thomas acknowledged he was more disappointed in the execution and effort of his team than anything else.
“You can’t put the ball on the carpet four times and expect to beat a good team like Vashon,” said Thomas of the Wolverines, whose only league loss was 20-14 to league champion Gateway. “If you can’t get up for a game on homecoming with this type of crowd and atmosphere, you might as well stay home. We didn’t match their intensity.”
Nor was Sumner able to match Vashon’s offensive firepower behind quarterback Clifton Dickens, running backs Charvon and Charvez Lewis and receiver Anthony Durant, among others. With Vashon’s offensive coordinator Will Franklin unavailable for a second straight game because of a personnel matter, former offensive coordinator Ronald Rodgers and head coach Reginald Ferguson didn’t appeared to miss a beat, once the offense stopped beating itself with penalties. Dickens threw only 11 passes, while completing six for 110 yards and two scores and scramble for another touchdown himself. Charvon Lewis was extra busy and productive, in churning out 186 yards on 15 carries, while his twin brother Charvez Lewis added 53 yards on seven carries.
“We needed to run the ball,” said Rodgers. “We don’t have to put the ball in the air that much to win if we run the ball the way we can.”
One of Dickens’ touchdown passes, in fact, could have intercepted or at least deflected by Sumner defensive back Deondre Lee but instead was made into an incredible circus catch by the much shorter Durant for a 26-yard scoring reception late in the first quarter to give the Bulldogs that 18-0 cushion. Lee was hanging and stuck to Durant like stickem’ glue but still could not stop Durant from reaching around his waist and snatching the ball. Durant, who had three catches on the day for 50 yards, made another tremendous first-down snatch and also picked up 27 yards on a surprise end-around that caught Sumner’s defense off guard, was the most exciting player in the game and could have stake claim to be one of the league’s top playmakers.
“I had a bad game against DeSmet (an 18-6 non-conference loss) the week before and I wanted to redeem myself today,” remarked Durant.
“He’s probably our best all-around football player,” said Vashon assistant Jason Williams of Durant, who also had six tackles on defense, second to Charvon Lewis who had eight stops.
In hauling in the 26-yard score, Durant showed his toughness and concentration by beating Lee for possession.
“One of my coaches told me to always stay aggressive and the more physical man will always get the ball,” explained Durant.
The Wolverines were certainly the more physical team overall, as they stifled the Sumner offense and limited it to one 4-yard touchdown run by Terry Evans in the second half. Tyler Murray had two sacks, Kevin Oliver had two fumble recoveries. As noted Charvon Lewis and Anthony Durant were big-time forces on the defense in addition to being offensive catalysts. Levi Stockard and Rashad Govan had their moments. But Vashon’s defense notwithstanding, as Thomas pointed out the Bulldogs were also their own worst enemy more often than not.
“We shot ourselves in the foot too many times,” said Thomas. “But I have to give Vashon credit for capitalizing on our mistakes. Coach Ferguson did a great job with the play calling after they lost Will Franklin as coordinator. We just didn’t show up and play the way we were capable of and it’s no excuse. We had a good week of practice and we should have been more motivated to play a better game.”
Of course as fans of Public High League history would attest to, no St. Louis-area football program had more prestige or championship pedigree than the Sumner Bulldogs program before the new millennium in 2000, but since then, the Bulldogs have had a few down years, to say the least. Prior to that, Sumner is the only PHL team to win four Missouri state titles and make it to nine championship finals. During one stretch they won 14 state PHL titles and made it to consecutive state quarterfinals in 1998 under retiring legendary coach Lawrence Walls and gain in 1999 under his successor and longtime defensive coordinator Richard Perry, but they haven’t advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since.
Nevertheless, you can usually throw the proverbial records out the window when the Bulldogs and the Vashon Wolverines meet up in their annual ‘Brown Jug’ game for bragging rights. Vashon won last year’s contest 14-8, as both clubs had losing records. Sumner last won the bragging rights game back in 2008 by a score of 8-6 under current Career Academy coach Sorrell Harvey, who like Albert Thomas, was a star of some of those great Sumner teams that played for state championships.
Sumner’s hopes to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs start this Saturday when another PHL foe, the Soldan Tigers (4-4) play host to Sumner in a first-round Missouri Class 3 district game, set for a 2 p.m. kickoff. Vashon plays its first-round Class 4 game against the Windsor Owls (2-7) an hour later in a 3 p.m. kickoff at Sumner.