By Moses Leos III
In a game defined by offense, the Hays Rebels Friday used their defense to get one step closer to the postseason.
Three critical stops of the Leander Lions late in the fourth quarter allowed Hays to escape with a 31-24 win at A.C. Bible Stadium in Leander.
With the win, Hays (3-5, 2-2 in 25-6A) inches closer to the program’s first playoff berth since the 2014 season. A win over Vista Ridge Friday could clinch a playoff berth.
“We’re a team that struggled early. We told our kids, ‘wait until the end of the year and we’ll see what happens,” head coach Neal LaHue said. “We’re taking it one game at a time.”
Defense was at a premium in the first quarter, as Hays and Leander went back and forth in a pound-for-pound slugfest highlighted by big plays.
Hays relied on the run capability of junior running back Cade Powell, who rushed for 136 yards and three touchdowns in the game.
Powell opened his night with a 57-yard touchdown run to give Hays a 7-0 lead. LaHue said Powell has played strong over the past three weeks, aided by his offensive line, which gave him space to run.
“We just kept running the same play over and over and we were physically beating them,” Powell said. “We didn’t show them many different plays. But we kept beating them each time.”
But Hays worked to halt Leander’s run game, which tallied 394 yards on the ground. Senior running back Jai Garcia gained 169 yards on 25 carries, while sophomore Rashad Carter gained 102 yards.
Carter’s run ability helped Leander respond back, as his 61-yard touchdown tied the game at 7-7.
Hays regained the lead at 14-7 when quarterback Tyler Conley tossed a 71-yard touchdown to Conner Musick.
LaHue lauded the play of Conley, who he said took advantage of man-to-man coverage shown by the secondary.
“Our quarterback threw the ball well and we found some guys open,” LaHue said. “They liked to blitz…our offensive line did a good job in the passing game of giving our quarterback some time.
After both teams traded field goals in the second frame, Hays led 17-10.
Leander then turned up the pressure in the third quarter.
Guided by Garcia and quarterback Colt Davis, the Lion offense sped up the tempo and controlled possession. The Lions ran 34 plays to the Rebels’ 7 in the third quarter. LaHue said the Lion offense got the Rebels “on the ropes” with sweep plays and their up-tempo pace.
Hays defensive lineman Emmanuel Galvan-Vasquez said the challenge was stopping Garcia.
But for Powell and the offense, taking advantage of limited time on the field.
Powell scored the Rebels’ lone touchdown of the quarter. Leander’s offense, however, tallied two touchdowns to tie the game at 24-24.
“We were telling each other we have to score on our possessions when we get them, because they’re going to keep marching down the field,” Powell said. “We kept telling each other this was a must-win game.”
That mentality fueled the Rebel offense, which took a 31-24 lead in the fourth quarter via a 25-yard touchdown from Powell.
Enter the Rebel defense, which kept Leander grounded in the fourth quarter.
Leander obtained possession of the ball three times in the final nine-plus minutes of the game.
Hays thwarted each possession by forcing a turnover. Linebacker Cameron Johnson began with an interception to stop the first drive, followed by an interception by Galvan-Vasquez to close the second.
Leander’s final gasp in the final minute ended with a sack by Galvan-Vasquez. For Galvan-Vasquez, the series of stops was predicated on execution in the clutch.
With Vista Ridge on the horizon, working to finish is the key for LaHue.
“We needed this win,” Galvan-Vasquez said. “We got this win now and we have more confidence. We’ll celebrate today and on Monday, get ready for the next week.”