By SCOTT W. COLEMAN, Four Points News
The secret is officially out. Two of the youngest programs in Central Texas have quickly risen from the ranks of the unknown to become contenders for a district title and possibly much more. Having both gotten off to 3-0 starts in District 25-4A this season, neither Rouse nor Vandegrift will surprise anyone at this point. Everyone knows a meeting with either team is dangerous.
Two weeks ago, the Raiders went on the road to Marble Falls and held a high-flying Mustangs offense that came in averaging nearly 500 yards a game to a season low 281 yards while piling on 370 rushing yards — their third 300-plus yard performance of the season. Even in last week’s loss to Cedar Park, the Raiders put up more than 200 rushing yards and intercepted Cedar Park’s Nate Grimm twice.
Meanwhile, just a week after Vandegrift notched its first win over LISD rival Leander — a game in which the Vipers held the run-happy Lions to a mere 48 rushing yards — coach Drew Sanders’ squad became the first team in 25-4A to clinch a playoff berth with a come-from-behind 31-27 victory over the Mustangs.
Vandegrift enters this week’s matchup with Cedar Park with history at stake. A win over the Timberwolves would not only be another first, but more importantly, it would keep the Vipers in the hunt for their first-ever district title. However, Vandegrift would still need to get past the other upstart in the district, Rouse, in the Vipers’ final game of the regular season on Nov. 1. And even though Rouse fell last week to defending district and state champion Cedar Park, the Raiders are still very much alive when it comes to the district title race.
Though the two newest teams in the district have made impressive strides in a short time, each had a decidedly different beginning to their young program.
Sanders was an assistant at San Antonio Taft under Lee Bridges, who this year became the head coach at Leander. Sanders was also part of Bridges’ staff brought in to start a new football program at San Antonio’s Stevens High School. Those three elements Sanders brought with him — building a program from scratch, playoff experience, and head coaching experience — are all keys to Vandegrift’s rise.
Josh Mann started the program at Rouse as a first-time head coach, having worked under former Cedar Park head coach and current LISD athletic director Chris Ross at Wichita Falls High School and Cedar Park. While at Cedar Park, Mann saw the blueprint and helped build what has become a perennial playoff team and now defending state champion.
It took Rouse three years to get to three wins, while Vandegrift reached the playoffs in their second season (2011). Though it took Rouse a bit longer to get there, they made the most of their first postseason appearance — peeling off four straight wins with an average margin of victory of 31 points. The team that didn’t have a winning record to its name until last year was one win away from a trip to Cowboys Stadium and a state title appearance.
“Vandegrift got off to a little better start than we did, making the playoffs in their second season. But, that motivated us and showed us what could be accomplished,” said Mann. “But, I know when we made our run (to the semifinals) last year, it motivated them, because they were right there tied with us (at 3-3) to make the playoffs.”
Sanders said after last season that he and his team knew how close they were, and didn’t want to be in that position again this season. And so far, both Vandegrift and Rouse have done everything they can to make certain they’re in control of their own playoff futures.
And, though both teams arrived via slightly different paths, that they’ve both arrived on the big stage is no real surprise to Chris Ross.
“There’s a lot of success in this district,” said Ross. “That takes talent and hard work.”
“We’ve both been fortunate to have had some early successes, and we’ve retained a core group of our coaching staffs, and that’s helped build consistency in both programs,” said Mann. “Now, our kids believe we can line up and play with anybody,” said Mann. And if you can play with anybody in this district, you can play with anybody in the state.”
Both teams are also just as likely to continue their current streak of success. Rouse’s versatile standout Billy Ray McCrary is just a junior, as is Vandegrift quarterback Jamie Hudson. Both teams have plenty of talented juniors and even a few sophomores who have risen to the top of the depth charts. Rouse’s defense is peppered with juniors and the Raiders’ offensive line is anchored by three juniors. Sophomore running back Travis Brannan is the leading rusher among running backs at Vandegrift and leads his team with nine rushing touchdowns on the season.
“It’s exciting to see all the work we’ve put in the last few years begin to pay off,” said Sanders. “Whether a school is new or 50 years old, the ingredients for winning don’t change… kids who believe, great effort in practice, and an organized program with coaches that care. In addition to that, the best programs are ones that are supported very strongly in the community. I also believe we have that, and all of those ingredients are taking our program to the next level,” said Sanders.
Though the regular season is almost over, the intensity only builds each week. Both of these upstarts have a legitimate shot at a district championship and possibly much more.
“We told our kids when we started this program that you should dream big and then go out and work to accomplish your dreams,” Mann said.
The next two weeks will give both of these young teams a chance to realize at least one of those dreams. Vandegrift will get its shot against Cedar Park on Friday night. A win would set up a monumental battle against the Raiders next week, when two teams that have just begun to reach their potential could be battling for a trophy.