The late bus ride was filled with a sense of accomplishment.

As the Indian River High football team’s vehicles sailed southbound through the night from Woodside, Delaware back to Dagsboro last Friday night, their passengers basked in the thrilling achievement of having overcome adversity with the absence of two key players, and against a Polytech team that never quit.

Despite losing standout running back/defensive back Hayden Hall to illness and center/nose tackle Jack Williamson to an injury in Thursday’s practice, Indian River shook aside those inconveniences to amass a season-high 415 offensive yards while building an early lead and holding off a tenacious Polytech squad, 42-26 last Friday night at Polytech Stadium.

“This is another odd season where you are getting curveballs thrown at you weekly, not knowing who is going to be available to play on Friday,” said Indians head coach Phil Townsend. “Injuries and Covid-19 have been a factor each week. We preach at practice (to all of the players) to be prepared to play because you never know when you will get called on.”

The Indians (3-0-0 Division 1A, District 2 and 3-2-0 overall) heeded their coaches’ advice, maintaining course toward what would be their first playoff berth since the 2013 campaign. “We have three goals as a team — to win our district, to make the playoffs and to make a run at the championship,” said Townsend. “We continue to stress that each week. We want the kids to know that mistakes are going to happen, but we need to reflect and grow from it. As we get closer to the playoffs and competition gets better, we need to tighten up and limit mistakes.”

IR builds early lead

Indian River built an early 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Junior running back Ja’chi Duncan returned to the lineup and exploded for TD runs of 22 and 65 yards en route to a team- and career-high 122 yards on 11 carries. “Ja’chi wasn’t able to be with us (in a 14-7 October 7 loss at St. Elizabeth), and I believe he used that as fuel coming into this week,” said Townsend after Duncan registered his second and third six-pointers of the season. “He had a great week of practice and he was prepared to execute (against Polytech). He has really good vision when he is running the ball and it comes naturally to him.”

In between Duncan’s dances to the end zone, Indians defensive lineman TJ Burke (who also plays on the offensive line and rushed for 17 yards on six carries as a running back) returned a Panther fumble 31 yards for another score as part of the early three-touchdown burst. “TJ is a great football player who swarms to the ball defensively, and his hustle allowed him to scoop up the fumble and score,” said Townsend. “He is more athletic than most defensive tackles, and he has the ability to take it ‘to the house (end zone)’ when the opportunity arises. He currently has several (NCAA) Division 1 schools looking at him and has a few scholarship offers. I believe more offers will come as his play continues to improve each week.”

But the Panthers rallied smartly in the second quarter. Junior running back Brett Shelton-Hoskins started the comeback with a 51-yard scoring run. Sophomore Jalen Anderson returned a fumble 41 yards, and freshman quarterback Isaac Balcerak connected with junior wide receiver Bruno Nyandemo on a 21-yard TD pass that cut the Indians’ lead to 21-18.

Sheerer shines as offensive leader

The Indians, who rushed for 254 yards, added to their lead just before halftime. Senior running back Dalton Hall sailed into the end zone from three yards out for a 28-18 lead at intermission. The TD was set up by an impressive drive orchestrated by senior quarterback Ryan Sheerer.

“Ryan has done a great job leading the offense since he took over at quarterback (in the 35-6 victory over Seaford on October 1),” said Townsend. “Each week, Ryan is getting better and his confidence is growing, especially (when he sits) in the the pocket and throws the ball. Ryan has several options when throwing, and he has been smart throwing to the open man — not forcing things.”

Sheerer, who completed all six of his passes for a career-high 161 yards, also conducted another successful drive in the third quarter that resulted in a one-yard scoring run by junior Donovan Roos that extended the Indians’ lead to 35-18. “Donovan has continued to (improve) each week on both sides of the ball,” said Townsend of Roos, who rushed for a career-high 56 yards on 11 carries in addition to his second TD run of the campaign. “With Hayden Hall being out this week, we needed (Roos) to step up and play more (offensively), and he rose to the occasion.”

“Hall pass” into end zone

The Indians benefited from another “Hall pass” into the end zone when Dalton Hall, who rushed for 61 yards on 12 carries, capped another scoring march with a 2-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. Hall’s second TD and team leading fourth of the season gave the visitors a 42-18 advantage.

But the Panthers rallied again when Balcerak connected with Anderson for a 12-yard touchdown aerial, followed by a two-point conversion run. Fortunately for the Indians, they recovered the Panthers’ ensuing onside kick to protect the ball and the verdict.

Stat’s incredible

Indians’ receivers did a nice job of snaring Sheerer’s passes. Senior Josh Townsend had three receptions for a team-high 91 yards, while seniors Laron Horsey (1-39) and Dalton Hall (1-15) and junior Chance Hocker (1-16) also displayed the “gift of grab.”...IR’s defense, which held the Panthers to just 78 yards through the air and 252 overall, forced five turnovers. Junior Jonathan Stern contributed an interception, fumble recovery and a snare on senior kicker Tristen Hood’s onside kick, while seniors Lee Richardson and Gavin Danieri contributed picks to go with Burke’s TD on a fumble grab. Juniors Ashton Stephens and Hocker led the Indians tacklers with five each, while Stern added four and senior Clifton Toomey registered three stops......Hood, who is also a standout soccer player for coach Steve Kilby’s defending state champions, connected on all six of his points after TD’s...IR committed two turnovers, both fumbles.

Next game

The Indians host Division 2A Delmar this Friday night at Indian River High School Stadium, with a 7 p.m. opening kickoff for the Homecoming battle. The Wildcats (3-2-0 overall) won their second straight game, 29-12 over Sussex Tech on Friday. Because Delmar is a 2A member, the game result will not impact whether the Indians reach the playoffs. However, it would be included for seeding purposes should IR reach the post-season. For ticket information, please visit the Indian River High School Athletics website at indians-sports.com. If you can’t make it to the stadium, the game will be available live and on demand to NFHS subscribers. Monthly ($10.99) or annual ($69.99) subscriptions may be purchased at www.NFHSnetwork.com.

Staff Reporter

Mike is a veteran sports journalist, covering generations of student-athletes in Pennsylvania, Texas and Delaware. He moved to the area in 2018 with his wife, Colleen. His passion for people and sports enables him to honor young athletes’ achievements.