After falling to Caddo Mills in their season opener, the Gainesville Leopards had a rebound performance on the road against Vernon.
The Leopards didn’t blow the doors off the hinges offensively, but their defense pitched a shutout in a 14-0 victory Friday, Sept. 4.
Gainesville held Vernon to just 99 yards of offense and were dynamite closing out drives, limiting the Lions to 2-of-11 on third down.
The win moves the Leopards to 1-1 on the season and head coach James Polk said it was a nice turnaround for the defense that allowed 42 points in week 1.
“You just work hard and you want to see that check cashed and get a win,” Polk said. “Putting it together on the defensive side of the ball felt pretty good. Those guys on the defense were pretty down, so to respond from one of the worst performances I’ve seen defensively to one of the best I’ve seen, that was exciting to see. We take a lot of pride in defense.”
Seniors Ethan Ruiz and Luis Anthony-Salas led the team with four tackles each.
Gainesville senior running back CJ Feagins ran for 118 yards and one of the two Leopards touchdowns, but Polk said Feagins exemplifies the pride the Leopards have on defense.
“He was all-state last year on defense in the secondary and he is arguably our best all-around kid, but if you ask him, he’s going to say he wants to play defense,” Polk said. “These kids understand that defense is just as important as offense. He views himself as an athlete and when he learned he had that many yards, he was kind of shocked. He just wants to win.”
The Leopards were dominant running the ball, racking up 368 rushing yards. Jayce Morgan led the team with 120 yards on 15 carries while running back Robyn Hardin had 71 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries.
Polk said their ground attack was good enough to win, but the defense is what shined. Hardin is still trying to find his way as a passer, throwing for just 10 yards against the Lions. Still, Polk said he is gaining some valuable experience in just his second start of his high school career.
“We did good in the running game, but our defense carried us,” Polk said. “Our identity is running the ball, but Hardin is an extremely smart kid and he’s intelligent. He knows all the passing schemes and he could be a coach. He just needs more reps because it’s his first year playing quarterback. He’s got to continue getting the ball out of his hand and keeping good form. They just don’t make kids like Hardin. He works hard.”
Polk said he’s seen Hardin work hard at his football craft, he’s so committed to improving, Polk found Hardin in the gym Monday working on his basketball shot as the starting point guard for the upcoming season. Hardin is always trying to make himself better.
“He’s such a good kid and such a good player,” Polk said. “He played extremely well.”
The Leopards’ offense still needs work. The 14 points they scored against Vernon were not up to Polk’s expectations. He said being able to string together drives is something that has to develop as well as the defense, offense and special teams building off each other.
“That’s what I keep preaching to the kids,” Polk said. “There hasn’t been too many times where we shut somebody down on defense and piggybacking off each other. We haven’t had the consistency in all three phases. We need all three of them going together. Our kicking game is better though. Our kicker [Michael Fernandez] had two extra points and a touchback.”
The Leopards had a lengthy trek to Vernon for the game and Polk said it was great to not have a long trip back home after a loss.
“It was good especially considering we have to travel two and a half hours away and those trips are not good if you’re coming back after a loss,” Polk said. “It’s a little bit more relaxed on that bus. Any kind of a win starts the ball rolling. We’ve got three weeks until district, so it’s sure better than being 0-2 right now.”