Nov. 7—SESSER — Coming into the 2023-24 season, the Salt Fork Storm were basically an unknown to everyone including themselves.
Salt Fork had graduated 14 seniors from a 7-4 team that reached the second round of the IHSA Class 1A Playoffs.
"There was a lot of doubt about what we could do this season," said senior lineman Cam Merritt. "To be here and put ourselves in a position to win a second-round playoff game, was just a crazy thought when the season started."
Crazy or not, that's where the Salt Fork Storm found themselves on Saturday afternoon, playing the Sesser-Valier/Waltonville Red Devils at Carroll Kelly Field.
But unlike its first-round win over Winchester West Central, 7-0, Salt Fork couldn't keep Sesser-Valier/Waltonville out of the end zone. The Red Devils scored five times on their way to a 32-8 victory over the Storm.
"I thought every 50-50 ball, they just made the play better than we did," Salt Fork coach Joe Hageman said. "I thought we couldn't get our run game going and their ability to establish their run early was the difference in the game."
S-V/W senior Dez Malone, who came into Saturday's game averaging 147.7 rushing yards per game, was forced to earn every yard by a stingy Salt Fork defense. At one point, Malone had just 51 yards on 15 carries.
"As a coach, you always want to take away their best option and force them to beat you with their other options," Hageman said. "We were able to bottle up (Malone) pretty well but 44 (Caeden Hicks), 6 (Pacey Dudley) and 3 (Colt Packer) did a pretty good job of hurting us on the run.
"Give them credit for finding those other options."
While Malone did have a 36-yard touchdown run in the first half, the other score for the Red Devils (11-0) in the first half came on a touchdown pass by Packer to Malone as S-V/W led 12-0 at halftime.
Sesser-Valier/Waltonville extended that lead to 18-0 on a 1-yard run by Packer with 3 minutes, 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
But, that's when Salt Fork, which had failed to score on two trips into Sesser-Valier/Waltonville territory, finally put together a nine-play, 67-yard scoring drive capped by a 3-yard run from junior quarterback Jameson Remole. The Storm would add a 2-point conversion on a pass from Remole to Pedro Rangel IV and the Red Devils lead had been cut to 18-8.
"All year, we definitely struggled a little with our red zone offense," Merritt admitted. "When we finally got that one score late in the third quarter, I think it gave everyone a boost on the sideline."
And when Salt Fork recovered the onside kick, all of the momentum had shifted the visitor's side of the field.
Salt Fork failed to even get a first down on the ensuring possession and Sesser-Valier/Waltonville responded with a 12-play, 51-yard drive capped by Packer's second touchdown pass of the contest, a 12-yarder to Hicks, giving the Red Devils a 24-8 advantage.
"This is a second-round playoff game between two good teams. You have to capitalize when you get those opportunities," Hageman said. "If we had converted one or two more times in the red zone, this game would have played a lot differently."
Sesser-Valier/Waltonville sealed its victory when Malone broke a 49-yard touchdown run in the game's final minutes. He also became the school's all-time single season record holder for rushing yards on the play.
While it was a very emotional ending for the nine Salt Fork seniors, there was still a little bit of pride of reaching this stage in the playoffs.
"We heard everyone saying that we were going to be 2-7 or 3-6 this year," said Merritt, noting that Salt Fork lost senior tackle Tyler Norton to an injury in the first week of practice. "The fact that we pulled together and bonded as a team, finding a way to win as a team is the reason that we had success this year."
Salt Fork played Saturday's game without junior Grant Wilson because of concussion protocol. Wilson was the Storm's leading receiver with nearly 500 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
"His loss was felt in all three phases of the game," Hageman said. "Grant did so much for us this season and he was such a versatile kid. It affected us across the board."
Sesser-Valier/Waltonville advances to play Greenfield/Northwestern in the state quarterfinals.