FAIRFIELD — The Vanden High football team’s first playoff victory in three years had a little bit of everything.
The Vikings scored a key second-half touchdown with a 71-yard Isaiah Hamilton run on a play that should’ve been whistled dead because of a false start.
Vanden knocked out one of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s top quarterbacks and had to hold its breath as the backup signal caller nearly pulled out a victory for Vista del Lago.
The Vikings got some crucial breathing room in the fourth quarter when Dion Williams, the Solano County Athletic Conference’s Offensive MVP, returned a fourth-quarter interception for a touchdown.
After the Eagles got back within two points, Vanden didn’t seal the victory until Elijah Williams, the SCAC’s co-Defensive MVP, ran for a first down on a fourth-down play to run out the clock.
And a year after none of the four city schools made the playoffs and none had a winning record for the first time in 30 years, the Vikings’ 39-37 win in the first round of the SJS Division III playoffs on Nov. 15 showed there’s life on the gridiron in Fairfield.
All that’s why the battle at George A. Gammon Field is the Daily Republic’s Game of the Year.
The Vikings were all about making a statement from the start. They came out strong, scoring on their first two possessions but failed to convert after either TD in taking a 12-0 lead.
The Eagles started their comeback by blocking a punt by Jadon Brisendine, who hustled back to fall on the ball in the end zone, limiting the damage to a safety.
Vanden’s defense, which had been stout throughout the first half in keeping Vista del Lago out of the end zone, finally gave up a 74-yard scoring drive on eight plays to make it 12-9 right before the half.
The expected shootout – both teams came in with quarterbacks with more than 30 TD passes on the season – erupted in the third quarter.
But not without some controversy.
The Eagles took the second-half kickoff and drove for a touchdown to take their first lead at 16-12.
Facing a third-and-1 at their own 29, the Vikings called a running play up the middle for Hamilton. As Brisendine, the quarterback, called the signals, Vanden’s slot receiver on the left side clearly moved.
Everyone from Fairfield to Folsom saw the flinch except the officials, who may have felt the receiver was going in motion. Regardless, the play went off and so did Hamilton – 71 yards to the end zone to put Vanden back in front 19-16.
The Vikings’ fired up defense forced a three-and-out and the green and gold drove for another score, Brisendine finding Dion Williams in the middle of the end zone on fourth-and-7 from the Eagles’ 9-yard line.
With Vanden up 26-16, the momentum appeared to swing for good in its favor when Tharon Cornist sacked Eagles quarterback Matt Jimison, who suffered a game-ending leg injury on the play.
Enter Ryan Wert, who’d had one carry in the game to that point. The junior backup promptly drove the Eagles – thanks in part to three 15-yard penalties on Vanden – 81 yards for a touchdown that cut the lead to 26-23.
The stunned Vikings turned the ball over on downs and Wert then marched Vista del Lago 78 yards in 11 plays, scoring himself on a 1-yard run to give his team a 30-26 lead with 8:23 to go in the game.
“I know their quarterback went down, and I could only think, They’re bringing in the backup, he’s not that bad, I don’t know how he’s going to play,” Haynes said. “He played with a lot of emotion. He was more of a threat than the starter. He could run and throw. . . . We’d have to defend all 11 guys. That made it tough.”
But the game was far from over.
Vanden responded with a 10-play, 72-yard drive as Brisendine connected with Dion Williams – as they did a city-record 25 times on the season – on a 4-yard TD strike to put the Vikings up 33-30.
With Vanden now wary of Wert’s passing ability, Dion Williams picked off a pass at the Eagles’ 39 and raced down the visitor’s sideline for a touchdown and a seemingly insurmountable 39-30 lead.
“What I remember the most (about the game) is the fact the pick six by Dion was really huge,” Haynes said. “Not to take away from anything guys did all night with Isaiah and Jadon, those guys did great things on offensive side.
“The pick six was huge and the difference in us winning the ball game. Not only that, converting on extra points. If we convert on our extra points, the game’s not that close – close, but not that close.”
The Eagles refused to fly away as Wert threw a 50-yard TD pass to Jacob Jones on third-and-9 to cut the lead to 39-37 with 3:56 remaining.
Correctly thinking they might not get the ball back, the Eagles tried an onside kick that was recovered by Hamilton.
The Vikings were able to run out the clock, getting two first downs, including one on fourth-and-2 with a 3-yard run by Elijah Williams.
Vanden’s season ended the next week with a 62-42 loss at Inderkum of Sacramento in the quarterfinals. The Vikings’ three previous losses were by a combined 10 points.
“I felt every game this year, whether we won or lost, we gave everybody everything they could handle,” Haynes said. “That’s a testament to how we prepared in the offseason. We were dedicated to get back in playoffs. We weren’t in playoffs the year before.
“When you’re used to having that success, you, take it for granted. When you don’t have it you’re humbled, us as coaches as well. We reevaluated some things. The kids did what they were supposed to do, they took care of business.”
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfarmerdr.