Whitney to face Franklin Friday in next round of playoffs
The final frame of the bi-district playoff battle was filled with high-stakes drama thanks to a series of touchdowns and turnovers that had the Wildcats’ nerves twisting and turning.
As the team hoisted the bi-district trophy, Head Coach Mark Byrd could only shake his head, knowing the Wildcats narrowly escaped a heart-racing chase.
“Going into this game, we knew Lago Vista was a team that doesn’t quit,” Byrd said. “This is playoffs, so you know it’s going to be a fight every week.”
Whitney (10-1) now must focus on the Franklin Lions. The two teams match up in the area round of the playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Belton High School’s Tiger Field.
Franklin, a perennial postseason contender, sits at 8-3 on the year and comes from the stout District 11-3A, which is littered with top 10 teams.
Without a doubt, Byrd said the Wildcat defense will be the key.
“Since I arrived in Whitney, we have constantly preached defense,” Byrd said. “And now our kids buy into the defense. They love defense. And if you are going to play another round and another round, you have got to play great D.”
Against Lago Vista, the Wildcats did just that.
The defense produced 14 tackles for a loss, five turnovers and four sacks, and for the first three quarters, Lago Vista could not break past the goal line. On the season, the Vikings averaged nearly 40 points per game, but the Wildcats refused to budge.
“We know our defense is our offense,” Byrd said. “We know 6 (Devin Wilson) and 11 (Juan Saucedo) can score, but they score because our defense can get them the ball.”
The Wildcats set the tone following the opening kickoff with a 16-yard spinning score from Wilson on the first drive. The score was followed up by a fumble recovery from senior Mason Wooten.
But the scoreboard stalled at 7-0 for the remainder of the half, which forced Byrd to emphatically issue the orders of “take this game” as the Wildcats headed to the lockeroom.
“We just had to shake the dew off,” Byrd said. “But we started playing good defense and that really put us in control of the game.”
The second half started with an immediate interception of a Viking pass from Wilson, and on the next series, the defense forced a four-an-out. A solid punt return from Wilson put the ball a midfield and then Saucedo busted loose for a 45-yard score.
Up 13-0, senior Kolby Tanner grabbed an interception on the next drive, but the Wildcats tossed it right back into the Vikings’ hands.
The teams traded blows until midway through the fourth quarter. Then the intensity built.
The Vikings penned the Wildcats deep, brought the pressure and blocked a punt. Lago Vista took possession at the 9-yard line pranced into the end zone to put the score at 13-7.
The Vikings then attempted an onside kick. Whitney recovered, but two plays later the ball slipped out of Wilson’s hands, setting up the opportunity for a game-winning drive from Lago Vista with five minutes left.
Marching down the field into Wildcat territory, the Vikings drained the clock down to 120 seconds. But on a fourth down, Wilson redeemed his earlier fumble with his second interception of the half.
Wilson sprinted the return downfield and a personal foul put the Wildcats at the edge of the red zone. Saucedo (12 carries, 120 yards, 2 TDs) then put his head down and barreled for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
“At the end of the day, the difference was Juan Saucedo,” Byrd said. “He stepped up. His tenacity and leadership came through, and that’s what we bank on.”
With less than two minutes left, Wilson grabbed another interception, but the Wildcats fumbled once again and the Vikings recovered the ball for a touchdown.
The Wildcats then pounced on one final onside attempt and closed the door on the Vikings’ pursuit.
“We emptied the gun out tonight,” Byrd said. “We shot ourselves in the foot at least five times. This was a teaching moment, and we’ll be playing next week.”