Dunnellon returns to Final Four after close win over Vanguard

Dunnellon’s Brody Luckey (5) gets upended by a Vanguard defender at Booster Stadium in Ocala on Friday Dec. 4. Dunnellon beat Vanguard 13-10. [Alan Youngblood/Special to the Ocala Gazette]

Injured Tiger quarterback Townsend leads comeback win over cross-county rivals

Dunnellon’s halftime huddle was missing a critical piece last Friday: junior quarterback Trent Townsend.

While the rest of the Tigers’ gathered in the south end zone of Booster Stadium to discuss halftime adjustments, Townsend, who was helped off the field in the final minute of the second quarter after injuring his left knee, was kept concealed behind the school busses just outside the stadium.

“We just had to evaluate and see if he could play on it and, thankfully, he could,” Dunnellon head coach Price Harris said of Townsend. “It’s gonna be sore tomorrow. We have one of the best trainers in the state … and she won’t let anybody play that can’t play.”

“You weren’t getting that boy out of the game, I’m telling you,” Harris finished with a laugh.

As the final minutes of halftime whittled away, Townsend emerged from the darkness like the hero of a movie, which was fitting considering the Dunnellon quarterback would become the hero of the game, leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind win over the Knights, 13-10, in the 5A Region 2 championship.

Early on, it didn’t appear that the Tigers would need a hero.

Dunnellon junior Le’Var Fitzpatrick took the opening kickoff, which was hauled in inches from the Dunnellon goal line, 75 yards to the Vanguard 25-yard line.

Fitzpatrick’s return set up a short drive for Townsend and the Tigers, who found the scoreboard with the help of a 3-yard rushing touchdown from senior running back Demetrius McCants. The Tigers tried for a two-point conversion, but came up just shy.

Answering with a big play of their own, Vanguard senior Tony Johnson took a handoff around the edge for a 52-yard gain, helping the Knights to the Dunnellon 25.

After Vanguard junior Dewhitt Betterson Jr. carried the Knights into a first and goal situation at the DHS 6-yard line, the Tigers’ defense started kicking into gear.

Dunnellon seniors Colby Smith and Shai’hem Thomas combined for a tackle for loss and a sack to stall the Knights’ drive at the Dunnellon 24-yard line, where Vanguard settled for a 41-yard field goal off the foot of junior kicker Grandin Wilcox. The kick bettered his previous career-long of 40 yards.

After the Knights forced the Tigers to go three-and-out on the ensuing drive, Dunnellon senior Drew Leinenbach’s punt, which started well inside the Tigers’ own end zone, got out to the Tigers’ 28-yard line.

Vanguard quarterback Alexander Law (12) tries to break free from Dunnellon’s Arrieon High (13) as Vanguard took on undefeated Dunnellon at Booster Stadium on Friday Dec. 4. [Alan Youngblood/Special to the Ocala Gazette]

Working with a short field, Vanguard orchestrated a quick scoring drive, capped off by a 15-yard pass from senior quarterback AJ Law to senior receiver Tevin Williams.

Before the break, the Tigers and Knights traded short drives as well as missed field goals as Wilcox missed a 33-yarder and Leinenbach missed one from 37 yards out.

Coming out of halftime, the Knights and Tigers both sputtered on offense, as Vanguard punted the football away and Dunnellon committed a turnover with a fumble recovered by Vanguard freshman McKenzie Harris. 

Following the takeaway, the Knights were forced to settle for a 40-yard goal attempt, but Wilcox missed.

“Truth be told, I thought we had some big stops,” Harris said. “And they missed a couple of field goals and I know that’s going to haunt them.”

Following the missed field goal, the Tigers continued struggling to generate offense. Fortunately, Leinenbach, who also holds punting duties for Dunnellon, lifted a beautiful punt that pinned the Knights at their own 15-yard line.

“When he flipped the field, that was huge,” Harris said. “Drew, with that punt, and you know, that’s what he’s done all year, he’s been very big all year, and he flipped the field, kicked it all the way over there and that was a damn great job.”

Vanguard struggled to make work of the 85-yard field and was forced to kick the wall away.

In a drive that began at the Vanguard 41-yard line, the Tigers and their banged up quarterback reeled to generate any kind of offense.

Sparked by a 20-yard rush from junior Brody Luckey and helped by a nice run from Fitzpatrick, the Tigers found themselves on the half-yard line.

Townsend, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound quarterback, albeit somewhat lame from his first-half injury, simply fell forward into the end zone to give Dunnellon a 13-10 advantage with nine minutes to play.

Knowing they had to answer the call, the Knights chipped away at yardage after a 40-yard kickoff return from Mykell Randall had their drive starting at their own 40-yard line.

With the help from a 19-yard rush from Tyrell Randall, a targeting penalty called against the Tigers, a nice run from Betterson, a Law-to-Trevonte Rucker connection and a Law-to-Williams connection, the Knights were faced with a fourth-and-inches scenario from the Dunnellon 2-yard line.

Dunnellon’s Julius Gardner (10) is stripped of the ball by a Vanguard defender during the Tigers’ narrow 13-10 win last Friday at Booster Stadium. Dunnellon remained undefeated with the win and moves on to the Final Four Friday night. [Alan Youngblood/Special to the Ocala Gazette]

Down three points with under five minutes to play, Vanguard’s Edwin Farmer was faced with every head coach’s nightmare: Kick to tie or go for the win.

Bringing in his power back, a role assumed by 215-pound Ronald Leslie-Farmer, the Knights went for the latter. 

With inches to a first down and two yards from the goal line, that task didn’t seem all that tall. But with a focused Dunnellon defensive line, it was.

With quick penetration, the Tigers forced a fumble on a botched exchange between Law and Leslie-Farmer.

“Tough decision,” Vanguard’s Edwin Farmer said of his decision. “You know, you rethink it, you always say, ‘Dang, I should have kicked the field goal. I wish I would have kicked the field goal’. But again, you see one yard, ‘Let’s go for the win’. The kids are motivated to go for the win, and you know, we tried it.”

With three minutes left on the clock and no timeouts in Farmer’s pocket, the Tigers were able to do just enough to move the ball, burn the clock and end in victory formation.

And with the win, the Tigers advance to the Class 5A Final Four for the second time in three years. Dunnellon will travel to Rickards (Tallahassee) as it looks to punch its ticket to the 5A state championship, hosted at Doak Campbell Stadium at FSU’s campus. 

“Hopefully two trips (to Tallahasse),” Harris jokes of the season outlook. “But we’re going to worry about this first one first.”

Dunnellon (10-0) and Rickards (8-1) will kick off on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Rickards High School.

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