WISE — If the Virginia-Wise football program never plays Emory & Henry again, Highland Cavaliers fans can probably find a way live with it.
Punt returner Marcus Bratton’s wild lateral toss to keep the last play of the game alive resulted in a Josh Wright touchdown with time expired for an electrifying 33-30 win over the Wasps at Carl Smith Stadium on Saturday night.
“This is better than beating them by 50,” Highland Cavs assistant John Kuczko said amid a sea of jubilant red jerseys. “Now, they’ll never forget it.”
Bratton, a free safety who was back to receive the punt with 12 seconds left, certainly won’t. The Virginia-Wise block crew narrowly avoided roughing punter Todd Frazier, who got off the 48-yard punt. Bratton collected the football and desperately weaved through Emory’s coverage. At about the 40, the Wasps’ Shane Wicks tripped him up.
“It was pure luck,” Bratton said. “I was on my way to the ground and I was looking to pitch it to somebody. I saw (Wright) and just tossed it.”
It was highly improbable, like a videogame play, Bratton said. And it worked because Wright was just as focused as he was.
“I was on punt return doing my job. I saw (Bratton) make a couple of cuts. I saw him cut back and he gets tangled up. He pitches it — and I’m running,” said Wright, who eluded his stunned pursuers on a 40-yard scramble to the end zone.
The entire Virginia-Wise sideline poured onto the field to engulf him with congratulations.
The Cavs defense, which shut down Emory & Henry’s final possession, gave up 28 first-half points but none in the second half. The Wasps were awarded a safety in the final seconds of the third quarter on a Virginia-Wise long snap out of the end zone.
“They outplayed us in the second half,” said E&H coach Don Montgomery. “That last play didn’t beat us. It never should have been that close.”
The Cavs (2-1), who trailed 28-17 at the half, closed the gap on Paul Melshen’s 37-yard field goal in the third quarter and quarterback Tye Marshall’s 19-yard scoring strike with 6:36 remaining in the fourth.
Stewart Robertson led Cavs rushers with 163 yards and first-half scoring runs of 43 yards and 1 yard. Melshen had a 33-yard field goal in the first quarter, and Marshall passed for 156 yards with three interceptions.
William Pearl led E&H rushers with 50 net yards on the ground, including TD runs of 4 and 7 yards. Quarterback Kyle Boden passed for 209 yards and scoring strikes of 21 and 16 yards to Preston Jennings and Adrian Jordan, respectively.
The victory marked the first Virginia-Wise win over Emory in only four meetings. The Wasps were 2-0 after the first home-and-away series in 1994 and 1995 and won 20-10 at Fullerton Field last year. E&H declined to renew the series, despite the game’s popularity with regional fans.
The Wasps (2-1) are NCAA Division III. Virginia-Wise is NAIA Division II and contemplating a move to NCAA Division II.
“This game means more to them than it does to me. It’s a rivalry to them,” Montgomery said. “To me, they’re a scholarship team. They should beat us.”
The game clearly meant worlds to the Cavs and their fans. It was especially significant for first year Virginia-Wise coach Dewey Lusk.
Lusk, a former E&H player who also coached at the school under Lou Wacker, was passed over for promotion when Wacker retired. He joined the Virginia-Wise staff as an assistant in 2005.
Surrounded by well-wishers — including blue and gold-clad fellow E&H alumni — Lusk was visibly moved.
“It is a great win,” he said.
“When you spend 19 years of your life at a place and you move on and get your own program ... when you get a ‘W” against a team that has won and won big and won while I was there, it just feels pretty special.”