Vipers win third-straight bi-district championship
Updated: November 12, 2016
photos: Steve Thomas
Vandegrift comes back to knock off San Antonio Johnson
Clemson has Howard’s Rock. Nebraska has a horseshoe, and Leander Vandegrift High School has a sword. Before every game, players for Vandegrift’s football team touch the sword of their school’s namesake, Marine Lt. Matthew Vandegrift. Vandegrift, a 2007 graduate of Leander High School, was killed in Iraq in April 2008. Perhaps appropriately, the Vandegrift Vipers hosted their first-ever 6A bi-district playoff game against the San Antonio Johnson Jaguars at Monroe Stadium on Friday night, Veterans’ Day.
After reaching the UIL 5A Division I semifinals in 2014 and the 5A Division I quarterfinals last year, the Vipers’ season had gotten off to a rough start. The team started the year at 1-4 including close losses to Odessa Permian, Austin Westlake, Killeen Harker Heights, and Cedar Park. In the second half of the season, however, the Vipers went 4-1 overall to finish 4-2 in district and qualify for the UIL 6A Division II playoffs. San Antonio Johnson, meanwhile, entered the game at 7-3 overall and 4-2 in district. The team’s three losses were all to playoff teams.
On the game’s opening drive, the Jaguar offense used a heavy dose of the ground game to drive the ball to the Viper seven-yard line. However, the Vandegrift defense held strong and forced Johnson to settle for a 24-yard field goal by senior kicker Zach Elder. After both teams then traded three-and- out possessions, Vandegrift senior quarterback Alex Fernandes put the Vipers on the board with an 18-yard touchdown keeper. Fernandes then connected with junior wide receiver Justin Florence on a 29-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to put the Vipers up 14-3.
On the following drive, Johnson junior quarterback Grant Huff responded with a 73-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Dylan Pouncy. Following a three-and- out for Vandegrift, Guff found the end zone again, this time on a six-yard keeper, to give the Jaguars back the lead at 17-14. The Jaguars then extended their lead to 20-14 with a 41-yard field goal shortly before halftime.
Throughout most of the third quarter, neither team was able to establish any momentum. Both teams traded punts on the first five possessions. The Vipers then had a promising drive cut short when Jaguar junior defensive back Lauden Lewis recovered sophomore running back Isaiah Smallwood’s fumble at the Johnson 17-yard line. Eight plays later, Huff extended the Jaguar lead to 26-14 with a 44-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Brandon McDuffie.
Despite struggling for much of the game, Vandegrift began to regain momentum midway through the fourth quarter. After Vandegrift’s defense forced Johnson to punt, the Viper offense set up at their own 31-yard line with 5:55 left in the game. On the second play of the drive, Fernandes broke free on a thirty-nine yard quarterback keeper to the Jaguar 34-yard line. Two plays later, junior running back Mac Parker found the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown run.
Next, the Vandegrift defense stepped up yet again forcing the Jaguars to punt. With under a minute left to play, Isaiah Smallwood sent the stadium into a frenzy and atoned for his earlier fumble with a nine-yard touchdown run to give Vandegrift a 27-26 lead.
Despite the elation of the Vipers at regaining the lead, things got tense on the final drive. The Jaguars were able to drive the ball to the Viper 35-yard line with nine seconds left, but the Vipers’ special teams unit blocked the field goal attempt to secure the win.
With the win, Vandegrift secures their third-consecutive bi-district championship. Next week, the Vipers will face the sixth-ranked Cibolo Steele Knights in the area round of the 6A Division II playoffs. The Knights enter the game at 10-1 following a 42-21 win over Northside Brandeis. The game will be at 7:30pm on Friday, November 18, at Toyota Rattler Stadium in San Marcos.
San Antonio Johnson, meanwhile, finishes their season at 7-4 overall and 4-2 in district.
by Steve Thomas