While many weren’t paying attention, the Airline Vikings joined Evangel and Haughton at the top of the District 1-5A race by getting past the undersized and undermanned Captain Shreve Gators 56-21 on Friday night in Lee Hedges Stadium.
Sure, it’s still early in the district race, and the Vikings will have to run the gauntlet that is Haughton, Evangel, Byrd and Parkway to get the title. But, hey, let’s let coach Bo Meeks and company enjoy the bull’s-eye while they have it. They’ll certainly hold it for at least a couple of weeks, since they host Mansfield in their non-district homecoming contest next Thursday.
“We just have to keep winning,” Meeks told his team following the final whistle.
Friday’s win was far from a thing of beauty, despite the final score. Maybe that’s why some of the Vikings (5-0, 2-0) were hanging their heads just before the student-led, postgame prayer.
The Gators (1-4, 0-2) in their first year under Bryant Sepulvado made a game of it early getting to 14-14 thanks to a couple of big plays. But in the end, it was too much senior leadership, size, depth and breaks on the visitors’ side that made the difference.
“Shreve came out ready and played very hard, but we settled down and played our game,” Meeks said. “Every team in this district is very tough and you’d better come prepared to play.”
The Vikings offered up Shun’Cee Thomas early and the speedster answered with three touchdowns, two rushing and one on a 14-yard throw from Thomas McKain. Then Meeks turned to Brian Fielding, a change-of-pace back with incredible vision, and the junior responded with several long runs and a couple of scores.
But special teams made a huge difference on this night. The Vikings got a couple of short fields, turned into touchdowns, after forcing fumbles by the Gators on kickoffs, then Jaylyn Thomas returned a punt 76 yards for a score.
Under pressure from the outset, Shreve quarterback Lucas Grubb still managed to find some open targets and was able to move the ball until Airline completely shut down the Gators’ run game. Then it was open season on Grubb.
“We were able to get some momentum and went blow-for-blow with them in the first half,” Sepulvado said. “Then we had two special teams blunders that were turned into four, and then eight. But injuries hurt us too with our lack of depth. We already had a linebacker out, then we lose Julian Charles and Camron Davis was out for a while. We are just very thin at certain positions.”
A couple of big defensive plays in the fourth quarter highlighted that side of the ball for both teams. Airline’s DeAngelo Pouncy returned an interception 51 yards for a score, while Shreve’s Kevin Taylor picked up a Viking fumble and tiptoed down the left sideline for 77 yards to finish the scoring.
In the first half, the Gators pulled the halfback pass out of mothballs to get on the board just two minutes into the contest when Davis hit a wide open Charles streaking down the right sideline for an 83-yard score. The Vikings answered with a nine-play, 73-yard drive capped with a 14-yard TD pass from McKain to Thomas.
One series later, Airline took advantage of a short field to go in front 14-7 on a 10-yard run by Fielding. The Vikings could have gone further in front when Travacier Jeter recovered the ensuing kickoff at the Gators 29. But Shreve’s Michael Edwards picked off a McKain pass and went 65 yards to the Airline 15. Grubb hit Davis for a 15-yard score on the first offensive play to knot the game at 14.
The Vikings finally got some breathing room when Jaylyn Thomas returned a Gator punt 76 yards with about 7 minutes to play in the half. On the ensuing kickoff, Airline’s D’Kameron White stripped the ball from Julian Charles at the Shreve 9. Thomas scored three plays later from 1-yard out to make it 28-14 at halftime.