Vandegrift head coach Drew Saunders had to go back to the drawing board on the defensive side of the ball following the 2014 season.
Despite going 12-3 and making it to the state semifinals that season, it was the offense that led the way, averaging nearly 50 points a game, while the defense gave up almost 40 each time out.
“Some people will say it’s the playcalling or that we need faster players,” Saunders said. “We went back and evaluated what we do and changed a few things in the secondary. This year was a combination of that and we had experience at the defensive line and linebackers.”
The Vipers had their best defense in school history, holding opponents to 18.7 points per game en route to their fourth straight playoff appearance. Vandegrift last had a defense that approached those numbers in 2012 (19.1 ppg) and 2013 (28.5 ppg).
Defensively, four of the Vipers’ top five tacklers will be gone next season, with Jonathan Roth the only returner. Also returning is defensive lineman Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu, who led the team with eight sacks this season.
Vandegrift’s season ended in the second round of the playoffs, falling 17-0 to perennial state power Cibolo Steele, who lost in the state title game on Saturday. The Vipers had an impressive comeback in the first round, rallying from down two scores to beat San Antonio Johnson.
“In 5A, you wouldn’t probably face a team like Steele until the fourth round,” Saunders said. “That grind got to us a little bit. We need to work on our depth. We’re one of the smaller 6A schools and we just need to keep building.”
In their first season up in class 6A, the Vipers’ only two losses in district play were to Westlake and newly-crowned state champion Lake Travis. They played Cedar Park to the closest game of the season, falling to the Timberwolves 13-0.
Offensive linemen Hilton Greenfield and Jake Helton, running back Isaiah Smallwood, defensive backs Luke Leblanc and Cole Walther, defensive ends Sam Brod and Ifesinachukwu earned first-team All-District honors. Quarterback Alex Fernandes, running back Mack Parker, tight end Jackson Oliver, defensive back Morris Aranda and defensive tackle Dylan Hudson were named to the second-team All-District team.
“I was not surprised with how hard they played and how much they believed in each other and our staff,” Saunders said. “That’s something that’s been cultivated in our program for years.”
Senior quarterback Alex Fernandes is the biggest piece of the offense leaving next season. The UTEP commit threw for 1,504 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and ran for another 287 yards and three scores.
But they will have a wealth of talent at the other skill positions on offense, bringing back their top two running backs in Mack Parker (571 yards, five touchdowns) and Isaiah Smallwood (563 yards, nine touchdowns). Justin Florence, who caught 63 passes for 632 yards and seven touchdowns will be a senior next season.
“My goal when I got here in 2009 was to be the best team we could,” Saunders said. “From Pop Warner to middle school to the staff at Vandegrift, I expect to play for a state championship in the future. You’ll never play for a state championship if you don’t think you can.”