WACO — As head coach Drew Sanders addressed his team Saturday night, a mixture of emotions filled the air.
There were undoubtedly tears after the Vipers’ historic season came to an end in the regional semifinals following a 56-29 loss to Longview at Baylor’s McLane Stadium. But there was also a sense of optimism, as the Vipers proved that they’ll be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
“They big-played us, and we practiced all week to try and not let that happen,” Sanders said. “They were a little faster than I expected. Offensively, we kept pace with them for a little bit, but we couldn’t keep it up. That’s not how we’re built.”
Vandegrift couldn’t overcome the speed and explosive plays from the Lobos, especially in the second half, when the Vipers were outscored by three touchdowns.
Dru Dawson completed 12-of-19 passes for 137 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Ryan Merrifield caught seven passes for 87 yards and a touchdown while running back Isaiah Smallwood had 27 carries for 124 yards and three touchdowns.
Longview quarterback Haynes King tossed three touchdowns and ran for another, running backs Keilyn Williams had three total touchdowns and Jessie Anderson had two. Receiver Kamden Perry caught eight passes for 138 yards and a score.
The Vandegrift defense was already thinning as Army-bound linebacker Spencer Jones missed the game with an injury and got worse when starting cornerback Timmy Hanna left the game with an injury in the second half.
The 56 points allowed is by far the most allowed by the Vipers this season. Their most allowed this season was 24 in a win against high-octane Round Rock and they allowed 13.8 each time out over the previous 12 games.
“We knew that they had a very good offense,” Sanders said. “I’m not going to take away anything from (Longview), they did a good job. That doesn’t take away that we had the best defense we ever had and the best season we ever had.”
The two teams traded punches in the first half, scoring on the first six drives of the game. Longview got the first stop of the game in the second quarter and scored with just a few seconds left in the half to take a one-score lead at the break.
Vandegrift went 3-and-out on its first drive of the second half Longview took advantage of some blown coverage for a 48-yard touchdown on the next drive.
Smallwood scored the Vipers’ only touchdown of the second half with a 16-yard run to cut the lead to one touchdown midway through the third quarter, but the Lobos scored 21 unanswered points.
Vandegrift only stopped Longview three times the entire game.
“They had to earn every yard, but they were able to keep us off balance with the run and the pass,” Sanders said. “We’ve beaten teams that are faster than us. The difference with these guys was they also had an excellent system that played on what we’re weak at.”
Still, this was a historic season for the Vipers, going undefeated for the first time in school history on their way to an outright district title. And they advanced past the Area Round for the first time since moving up to Class 6A.
The seniors have undoubtedly left their mark, but the future is bright at Vandegrift.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Sanders said. “We met up with a good team tonight. We wanted to prove that we belong in 6A and we’re slowly but surely doing that. Hopefully, we’ll continue to build on this.”