Josaan Gaines, Vista Ridge defense pacing Rangers to undefeated start in district play

CEDAR PARK — Time will tell whether Vista Ridge is the real deal, but its defense has done nothing but impress in its first two District 25-6A games.

After holding Cedar Ridge to 10 points in a district-opening win, the Rangers came back and stifled McNeil on Friday night, forcing four turnovers and holding the Mavericks to less than 225 yards of offense during a 15-11 win at Gupton Stadium.

Junior cornerback Josaan Gaines made a key interception and recorded a sack on fourth-and-7 in the game’s final three minutes to preserve Vista Ridge’s victory and keep the Rangers tied with Round Rock and Vandegrift atop the district standings.

Replay: Austin-area high school football kicks off Week 6 games Friday

Vista Ridge's Josaan Gaines sacks McNeil quarterback Brad Whittenburg late in the Rangers' 15-11 win Friday at Gupton Stadium. Vista Ridge is 2-0 in District 25-6A play.
Vista Ridge's Josaan Gaines sacks McNeil quarterback Brad Whittenburg late in the Rangers' 15-11 win Friday at Gupton Stadium. Vista Ridge is 2-0 in District 25-6A play.

“I think you really saw how we could play in the second half,” said Gaines, referencing the Rangers' creating two turnovers and forcing four three-and-outs and a turnover on downs on McNeil’s seven possessions after the break. “We really picked it up there, and it just feels good to be 2-0 in district.”

Trailing 11-0 entering the second half, the Rangers (3-2, 2-0) scored on a 10-yard pass from Jackson Harrell to Reece Heffelfinger midway through the third quarter, with Heffelfinger completing a pass to Tanner Brosie for the two-point conversion.

Vista Ridge took its lead midway through the fourth quarter on Isaac Garcia’s 8-yard TD run, which came after it took over on the McNeil 37 because of a short Mavericks punt.

“We needed our defense to step up, and they did,” Vista Ridge coach Chad Scott said. “We struggled on offense and needed to create some energy and momentum, and I think our defense did that. We created turnovers that swung momentum.”

The McNeil defense was just as impressive — if not more.

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It held the Rangers to 133 yards, including zero in the first half, while sacking Harrell six times.

Mavericks defensive end Tony Shannon was far and away the best player on the field, recording three sacks and double-digit tackles, and defensive back Kameron Green ripped the ball away from Rangers running backs twice.

Vista Ridge linebacker Markie Lerma, left, helps tackle a McNeil runner.
Vista Ridge linebacker Markie Lerma, left, helps tackle a McNeil runner.

But in the end, Vista Ridge’s offense made enough plays in the second half while its defense stepped up in big moments.

“Our pace increased offensively in the second half, and I don’t think McNeil was lined up like they wanted,” Scott said. “And I think our kids’ mindset was different.”

McNeil (2-3, 0-2) took a 3-0 lead on Bryce Wilson’s 23-yard field goal in the first quarter after Green took the ball from a tailback on the Rangers' first play from scrimmage and returned it to the Vista Ridge 29-yard line.

The Mavericks would have their most productive drive of the game on their next possession when they marched 82 yards, with Shannon plunging into the end zone from 2 yards out.

A blocked extra point left them with a 9-0 lead, but they struggled to move the ball the rest of the game.

A punt snap out of the back of the end zone for a safety by Vista Ridge midway through the second quarter pushed McNeil’s lead to 11-0.

Gaines denied the Mavericks any opportunity to retake the lead in the fourth quarter.

When McNeil had the ball in the red zone with less than three minutes left, he recorded his interception.

Then, after Green’s second forced fumble and recovery gave the Mavericks new life deep in Rangers territory, Gaines dropped McNeil quarterback Brad Whittenburg for a loss on fourth down.

“On the interception, I saw their H-back run out, and he hadn’t done that all game, so I thought they were coming to me,” Gaines said. “On the fourth-down play, I was playing linebacker due to an injury, so I just knew I had to step up and make a big play.”

Vista Ridge’s district schedule is backloaded, as it ends the year with Central Texas powers Manor, Vandegrift and Round Rock.

But for now, the Rangers are just enjoying being in first place.

“Being 2-0 is right where we want to be,” Scott said.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Vista Ridge football defeats McNeil to move to 2-0 in district play