By SCOTT W. COLEMAN, Four Points News
Vandegrift’s ascension to Class 6A has been the subject of numerous stories across Central Texas already this year. That three of Leander ISD’s schools have grown enough in enrollment to force a move to the state’s top classification is one thing. The bigger story is that the resulting UIL competition district — District 25-6A — will be comprised of four teams that reached the state quarterfinals last season, three state semifinalists, and two teams that appeared in 6A title games last December.
For the Vandegrift Vipers, who reached the state quarterfinals or better in each of the last two seasons, the loss of key starters to graduation is nothing new. Following the Vipers’ run to the state semifinals in 2014, quarterback Jamie Hudson, wide receiver Bear Christianson and defensive lineman Sammy Zugg were just a few of many seniors to depart. Still, the Vipers reloaded and reached the state quarterfinals in 2015.
Now, the program will need to reload again, as wide receiver Paxton Segina, running back Travis Brannan and linebacker Gray Goolsby are among an even larger group of graduating seniors this summer.
Spring football camp, optional in Texas, is an opportunity Vandegrift coach Drew Sanders takes each season to evaluate the players who will look to take the place of those seniors. The annual spring football game is the culmination of the spring camp, and gives fans a chance to see one more bit of football before the summer begins.
It is also a perfect way to whet the appetite for the season to come.
“I think we had some guys step up and play well… we got closer as a team also,” said Sanders. “I know we have some youth in some spots, but I like our leadership and work ethic.”
In terms of returning seniors, the roster may be a bit light, but returning a quarterback with significant playoff experience is always a positive. Alex Fernandes led the Vipers to an 11-3 record as a junior, with two of the losses coming to state semifinalist Vista Ridge and eventual state champion Cedar Park.
The Vipers will also look to experience to help shore up a defense that allowed 39 points or more in five games. Linebacker Storm Wilson, defensive end Sam Brod and defensive back Jared Hirshhorn are among a host of players returning on defense that should help the Vipers fight through what will be one of the toughest schedules the program has ever faced.
The Vipers will bring all of their work effort and experience to the field on Aug. 26, when they’ll face a team that has about as much tradition as any in the storied history of Texas football: Odessa Permian.
The Permian Panthers — a six-time state champion, twice named national champions — is the program that inspired book, a big-budget film and a cherished television series. And that team will return to Austin for the first time since a 2008 playoff appearance, as the Vipers will host the Panthers at Monroe Stadium in what is sure to be one of the highest profile season openers across the area.
The rivalry with still-5A Cedar Park will be renewed on Sept. 2 at Gupton Stadium before Vandegrift plays a pair of Killeen-area schools that went a combined 4-16 last season.
District 25-6A play begins on Sept. 23 as the Vipers host state finalist Westlake. Vandegrift faces off against state semifinalist Vista Ridge at Gupton Stadium on Oct. 14, and will wrap up the regular season on Nov. 4 at state finalist Lake Travis.
Spring camp isn’t the end for the football team. The coaches and athletes will be busy over the next three months getting ready for the upcoming season. Weight training and 7-on-7 competitions are just a couple of the things that will keep the team busy before opening day on Aug. 26.
“It’s now up to how we work this summer and coming back in August, in shape and ready to roll,” said Sanders.