Vandegrift football working hard to prepare for season’s start

The Vandegrift Vipers take to the field for an early morning practice in mid-August.

Sept. 1 @ 7 p.m. Odessa Permian

Four Points News

As temperatures climbed to near 100 degrees by 9 a.m., players clad in black practice jerseys and black helmets braved the heat, sweat running off their faces in rivers, to show the Vandegrift coaching staff they’re ready to take the field come opening night.

“It’s exciting, this time of year,” said Drew Sanders, who is entering his eighth season coaching the Vipers. “It’s busy, but it’s fun.”

After a productive spring camp, no quarterback emerged to replace two-year starter Alex Fernandes, who signed to play at UTEP starting this fall. Senior Justin Moore, who stepped in for an injured Fernandes last year, would appear to have the edge headed into the season, though junior Davis Beal and sophomore Dru Dawson have all taken snaps in practice over the spring and fall to challenge Moore.

Regardless who takes the snaps, a quality receiving corps will be waiting, led by Peyton Ausley and Justin Florence. Both seniors this year, the pair combined for more than a thousand receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Speedy running back Mack Parker comes into his senior season with two years of experience at the varsity level, having rushed for 571 yards and five touchdowns a year ago as one of several backs sharing the load.

“(Mack) will make a number of explosive plays for us this year,” Sanders said.

Isaiah Smallwood is the bruiser at 210 lbs., and looks to improve on a stellar sophomore season that saw him lead the team in rushing yards (586) and touchdowns (9).

Joining Ausley and Florence will be junior wideout Reese Watson, who Sanders called out along with Smallwood for their hard work in practice, noting that he expects big things from both.

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Oso Ifesinachukwu is a three-year starter with Division I talent who led the team in tackles last season. Defensive back Cole Walther, another three-year starter, will help hold down an experienced secondary.

When talking about trying to improve upon a secondary that has been notoriously stingy in recent years, Sanders said that in addition to Walther, senior John Roth and junior Drew Nelson were among those expected to keep opponents from getting receivers open downfield.

“They know their reads and come to work hard every day,” Sanders said.

After an Aug. 25 scrimmage against Pflugerville, Vandegrift’s first game of the season will take the Vipers more than 330 miles west to Odessa — home of the famed Permian Panthers of “Friday Night Lights” fame.

The Vipers played host to Permian to open the season last year, falling 21-20 in a hard-fought contest that Sanders said could have gone either way.

The trip will be Vandegrift’s longest-ever road trip, and it’s something Sanders said has the team excited.

“They’re an excellent opponent and we proved we could do well against them last year,” said Sanders. “It’s always about being mentally prepared for success… we expect to perform well again and find ways to make plays.”

The Vipers will return to Austin for their home opener against Cedar Park on Sept. 8. The Timberwolves enter the season ranked in the top 10 yet again, and with last year’s close loss still in memory, the Vipers should benefit from an always-strong crowd at Monroe Stadium for the rivalry game.

“We are 17-5 at home since 2013,” said Sanders. “Our crowds are always big and we love to give the hometown crowd something to cheer about. We play well against Cedar Park at home and look forward to the matchup.”

Following a pair of non-district games, the Vipers begin district play on the road at Westlake Sept. 29.