By JOHN BLACK
La Porte 34, Deer Park 31. Mr. Scorekeeper, please change that all-time record to 26 wins for the Bulldogs, 24 wins for the Deer, and one tie.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you were not among the sold out, standing-room-only audience in Bulldog Stadium Friday night that watched La Porte win a thriller in overtime, you missed one of the finest high school football games anyone could ever hope to see.
The Bulldogs, under the direction of head coach Jeff LaReau, had the lead virtually the entire game. In fact, the Deer had only one lead. It was three points, and it lasted exactly two plays.
The Dogs had taken a 28-14 lead with under six minutes left, but the Deer struck quickly and struck twice and knotted the score with little over a minute left in regulation. And DP got a field goal to take that brief lead we mentioned earlier. But two plays later the Bulldogs had the win.
Up by seven at halftime, the Dogs extended that lead quickly at the start of the third period. A big rush by the Bulldog defense forced a fumble that was recovered by Blake Turlington at the Deer nine. La Porte running back Keith Whitely took a direct snap from center and fought for eight yards. He took the handoff on the next play for the TD, and Eric Medina made it a 21-7 La Porte lead with 11:06 still left in the third period.
There was an exchange of punts from that point, the big one being a 45-yarder by La Porte quarterback and punter Josh Vidales. Vidales, by the way, had six punts for a 40-yard average on the night.
The Deer finally got going offensively late in the third period and got a touchdown with 3:13 remaining in the quarter to pull to within seven at 21-14. More punts followed, and two of them were beautiful, high spirals off the foot of Vidales.
The Deer got the ball with eight minutes left in the game, and their first running play went nowhere because senior linebacker Chad Sutherland literally planted the running back into the turf. And a few plays later, with Justin Pickell putting on a big rush, the Deer quarterback was forced to throw too quickly and the ball found its way into the waiting arms of La Porte defender Cameron Whilley. He had a nice return as well, and after 15 yards were added on because of a Deer Park personal foul, the Bulldogs were at the Deer 35.
A running play lost a yard, but on second and long Vidales handed off to Whitely; Keith handed the ball back to Josh; and Josh fired a strike to Aaron Nance-Garrett, who was streaking deep across the field from left to right. It was a perfect pitch and catch and the result was a 36-yard TD pass and a 28-14 Bulldog lead after Medina booted the extra point. There was 5:49 left in the game.
As it turned out, that was enough time for the Deer to score two touchdowns as their passing plays started to click. They tied it up at 28-28 just before the end of regulation, so the two teams had to square off in overtime.
La Porte won the toss and Coach LaReau chose to start on defense. The Bulldogs kept the Deer out of the end zone, forcing a 24-yard field goal that gave Deer Park that brief three-point lead at 31-28.
The winning drive for La Porte did not get off to a good start, as the Dogs were flagged for a procedure penalty. But on first and 15 Vidales threw a swing pass out to sophomore Taejon Wearen, who was lined up wide left. Taejon had no running room left so he cut back across the field and outran almost every Deer Park defender. They did not corral him until he reached the five yard line.
From that point Whitely, who totaled 103 tough yards on the ground, went wide right, made a beautiful cut back to the left and dove into the end zone for the score. La Porte wins! The hometown crowd goes wild! What a ballgame! Intense; exciting; well-played on both sides, all before an appreciative and sardine-packed gathering of football fans. Wow!
When you read that Deer Park had 340 yards of passing and 408 total yards of offense, you might think the Bulldog defense had an off night. Far from it. The Deer just kept hitting key passes when they were needed most, but you need to know that Sutherland and Whilley and Malik Graves and Alex Jones and Keith Whitely and Nance-Garrett and Mark Guzman and Chris Hickey and Victor Holmes and Ellis Hutchinson and Hoza Scott and Blake Turlington and Justin Pickell and Trevor Nelson and Tyrone Graves and probably a few others that we missed actually had a whale of a game.
You also need to know that the offensive line -- we mention them later in the story -- did a good job, and Vidales was vital to the success on the night as both a quarterback and a punter. And Sutherland came in at times to clear running paths, with Whitely carrying the bulk of the running load.
The Bulldogs came within 37 seconds of producing an absolutely perfect first half. As it turned out, they took a 14-7 lead into the halftime dressing room as the Deer managed a 50-yard drive to score -- barely -- on a fourth and inches situation as the second quarter clock ticked away the final seconds.
La Porte started like a house on fire. The Bulldogs enjoyed excellent field position early because Victor Holmes scooped up the low, line-drive opening kickoff and returned it to the Bulldog 46.
Vidales handled a high snap and handed off to Whitely, who had a great run of 11 yards to get the Bulldog faithful all fired up. After a Vidales-to-Nance-Garrett pass lost a couple of yards, Whitely went wide left for nine, right before Sutherland, in at fullback, bulled behind Hoza Scott for a gain of six to the Deer 30.
Whitely then lined up at quarterback, took the direct snap, faked a handoff, and followed blocking for 11 more yards to the 19. After Johnathan Lewis ran for four yards, Keith took another direct snap, ran hard, and picked up a first down at the Deer five. Lewis then ran just short of the five yards needed for the score, and Sutherland bowled over the Deer defenders from there for the TD. Medina was on the money with the extra point kick and the Dogs had a 7-0 lead with 7:57 left in the first period.
The La Porte defense took right up where it left off last week against Atascocita. After Medina's kickoff and great downfield coverage forced the Deer to start at their own 16, Turlington broke through and threw the Deer for a two-yard loss. Malek Graves then made a fine open-field tackle to hold the Deer to a gain of just three, and on third and nine Ellis Hutchinson intercepted a Deer Park aerial attempt -- only to see the Deer awarded a first down on a defensive holding call.
But no sweat, because Chris Hickey had a fine tackle and the defensive backfield and a strong rush forced two DP incompletions, and the Deer had to punt.
Taking over at their on 31, the Dogs appeared headed to another score. Whitely ran hard and the likes of Justin King, Tony Briones, Turlington, Jose Garcia, Jared Howard, Maurice Morris and Chris Webendorfer were clearing holes up front. And on a fourth-and-short situation, Sutherland went in and helped open a hole for a Whitely first down at the Deer Park 44. But the drive stalled at that point, so Vidales executed a great punt that was downed by Holmes at the Deer six.
The Deer appeared to find their footing on their next offensive possession, but on a third down run the Dogs stripped the ball and Malik Graves scooped it up at about the DP 44 and raced all the way into the end zone for the second La Porte touchdown of the night. Medina's boot made it 14-0 with 9:39 left before the half.
The Deer tried once again to get something going on offense, but Lewis had a nice tackle; Whilley was in on a great stop; Hickey had a big rush; and the Dogs even overcame a defensive holding call on a third down Deer Park pass. Turlington and Hoza Scott combined for a key sack, and an all-out blitz on third down was successful, forcing another punt.
But the Dogs were pinned back at their own 11 and could not get a first down, so Vidales booted it to midfield. It took the Deer nearly five minutes of clock time to get their TD, and it was not easy for them. Scott had a nice rush; Alex Jones and Trevor Nelson combined for a big stop; Scott had a hard rush and tackle for a five-yard loss; and Malik Graves pitched in an open-field tackle that resulted in a third-and-14 situation.
The Deer, however, were able to convert, moving to a first-and-goal at the four. It took them four runs to get to paydirt as their quarterback, Austin Rainer, managed to roll into the end zone after it appeared he had been stopped short. The extra point made it 14-7 in favor of the home team, with just 37 ticks left before halftime.
And then came that outstanding second half, with the win giving La Porte a 4-1 record going into league play. The Bulldogs have a week off, then open the 21-5A campaign with a pair of home games -- Friday, Oct. 7 against Channelview in a Homecoming event, and Friday, Oct. 14 against Baytown Sterling.