When it rained, it poured on the Van Alstyne Panthers.
Trailing 27-17 to Van Alstyne in the third quarter, the Gainesville Leopards forced three second-half turnovers, including one for a touchdown, while the offense rushed 59 times for 332 yards en route to a 41-34 victory Friday in a 3A Division I bi-district playoff at Bronco Field in Denton.
Stricken by injuries all year long, the Leopards were down another man, one of their most important, as senior quarterback and safety Kielyn Lewis sat out Friday’s playoff because of a concussion sustained the week prior against Aubrey.
Filling in Lewis’ shoes on offense was Dakota Nichols, who managed the offense consistently and efficiently all night, minus a few fumbled snaps, but all in all, Nichols, the second-half defense, the offensive line and a willingness to overcome adversity time in and time out helped the Leopards pick up their first playoff victory since the 2005 season.
For many of the seniors, Friday was a night they will never forget.
“It’s amazing to get that (first) win since my brother’s team in ’05,” said Patrick Westbrook of his brother, Robert, who was a part of the state runner-up team five seasons ago. “I love the feeling. I got to watch all of those games. It’s an amazing feeling and it’s even better when you are on the field. I love it. I’m glad we got it.
Westbrook contributed big time on both sides, recording a sack that helped force a three-and-out in the second quarter.
But his biggest contribution of the night was a 44-yard touchdown reception from Nichols that gave the Leopards a 17-14 lead with two minutes left in the first half.
Nichols finished 3-for-6 with 68 yards and a touchdown on the night.
“We have diversity,” Gainesville coach Lance Gary said of his quarterbacks. “Kielyn is obviously a great player. He adds another dimension to your game, but Dakota did a very good job. He handled the offense, handled the pressure. I thought he threw some good balls.”
Nichols said his motive for success at quarterback was to not only get a win for his team, but for Lewis as well.
“That was a big concern of mine,” Nichols said. “I wanted to make sure that he got to play in a playoff game in his high school career because I know that’s what he wants.”
Kenyon Morgan, another senior who played a key role Friday, rushed the ball a team-high 39 times for 207 yards and forced and recovered a fumble deep inside Van Alstyne territory that set up his own 3-yard touchdown to start the scoring for the Leopards in the second half, and the implosion of the Panthers’ offense.
“We’ve been working to get here and we finally made it,” Morgan said. “It was a tough game and they were a good team.”
After Morgan cut Gainesville’s deficit to 27-24 with 6:38 left in the third, the Panthers gave Gainesville a gift on its next offensive play.
After kicker Juan Hernandez booted the ball through the end zone for a touchback — a common theme when the Leopards had the south wind at their backs — Panthers quarterback Drew Dennis had the snap out of the shotgun sail way over his head and near the goal line.
Instead of falling on the ball for what would have been a safety, the Van Alstyne quarterback never could gain possession fully.
As a result, the present went to senior Justin Dudenhoeffer who recovered the loose ball in the end zone for six points. The Leopards led 31-27 after the PAT.
“Defensively, it finally pulled through,” Gainesville senior tail back and linebacker Harod Wills said. “We always knew it could do that and it finally showed when we needed it.”
Van Alstyne (8-3) went three-and-out on its next possession and Gainesville (7-4) milked the clock on its ensuing possession which ended in a 26-yard field goal by Hernandez, his second of the night to give the Leopards a 34-27 lead.
But again turnovers derailed the Panthers’ offense.
After Dennis connected with Kevin Keathly for a 12-yard gain, a freshman call-up got the best of the Panthers as Jonathan Mendez poked the ball loose and sophomore David Moore was there for the recovery.
Gainesville made the best of another opportunity, this time in the form of a three play, 48-yard drive capped off by a 44-yard end around touchdown by Wills who finished with 15 carries for 107 yards.
“Both backs ran extremely hard,” coach Gary said of Morgan and Wills. “Jack Magee did a wonderful job blocking. Our offensive line, I felt this was one of their better games.”
Gainesville led 42-27 with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.
Van Alstyne though put together its best drive since the opening series of the third quarter thanks to a 57-yard pass play between Dennis and receiver Chance Grayson to set up first and goal from the Gainesville 7-yard line.
But just when it looked like the Panthers were on their way to paydirt, the Leopards defense stepped in the way again, literally, as corner-turned-safety Meritt Banks stepped in front of a pass from Dennis for the interception.
The Leopards’ ensuing offensive possession stalled and the Panthers marched down the field, scoring on a 37-yard pass play from Dennis to D.J. Seay to cut the lead to 41-34.
The Leopards had a chance to seal the victory after a 13-play drive ended on a missed 29-yard field goal attempt by Hernandez that would have given the Leopards a 10-point lead with 2:38 left in the game.
So the defense did what it had done the entire second half — it stopped Van Alstyne after a fourth-down pass by Dennis went through one of his receivers’ hands near the Leopards’ 10-yard line, turning the ball over on downs.
“It’s a great win for the program,” coach Gary said. “These kids are extremely hard-working kids, they don’t ever give up. It’s a great way to respond after some adversity last week and I’m just really proud of them.”
Gainesville next takes on Dallas Madison in the area round of the Class 3A Division II playoffs.