The La Vega Pirates know exactly who they are: A fierce, resilient, explosive bunch of football players.
ARLINGTON — Don Hyde had every copy of the Waco Tribune-Herald that had a story about his La Vega Pirates in it. One by one, week by week, the La Vega head football coach laid the papers out in front of his team.
There were stories of early-season losses by less than a touchdown, stories of district successes that led to another district title, stories that centered around proving the doubters wrong and avenging last year’s loss to Carthage.
Once the final paper was presented, Hyde challenged his players to finish writing their story, to not let anyone finish it for them.
And that’s exactly what they did in a 35-21 victory over Liberty Hill to claim the Class 4A Division I state championship Friday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
“Coach Hyde is a good coach, he told us we’re the best team in the state, we just had to write (our) story,” senior defensive back Donta Stuart said. “We had to end on a good chapter. We went game by game this week, and he showed us the first week through 15. He was like, write your story. Write a good chapter, and we ended on a state championship.”
The ending of the story was still up in the air at halftime as the Pirates and Panthers were deadlocked on the scoreboard at 7-7.
After La Vega scored on its first possession off a 35-yard run by Jar’Quae Walton, Liberty Hill stuffed the box with defenders, which made it difficult for the Pirates to pick up lots of yards on the ground.
So, La Vega decided to throw the football. And in doing so, the Pirates lit up the scoreboard.
“We can throw the football. We just don’t,” Hyde said. “If you won’t let us run then we’ll throw it. That’s what we talked about at half time. They’re doing a good job of stopping the run, so lets get them off of us and throw some passes. That’s what we did, then you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do. Malachi Wright created a bad matchup. We had a good matchup out there. It was in our favor. We took advantage of it.”
But before the duo of receiver Malachi Wright (the game’s Offensive MVP) and quarterback Ara Rauls III stole the show in the second half, it was Stuart who provided the spark.
Senior linebacker and the game’s Defensive MVP Jared Rogers didn’t even see it happen. He was too busy dancing around on the sidelines to the band on the opening kickoff that he almost missed Stuart’s 94-yard kickoff return.
“Man, I wasn’t even paying attention,” Rogers said with a laugh. “I was dancing and trying to get myself into the groove. I look up and Donta is running down the sideline. I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Defense, let’s get ready. Let’s go.’”
Not only did Stuart’s return put the Pirates up 14-7, it also set a Class 4A state title game record for longest kickoff return touchdown, a mark previously set by Burnet’s Jordan Shipley when he ran one back 87 yards against Gainesville in 2003.
“I told Coach Hyde, ‘Let me get in on kick return,’ ” Stuart said. “He said, ‘You can get out there.’ I saw a gap and hit the hole.”
That play was what La Vega needed after the Pirates had to punt on each of their last three drives.
“That’s what he’s done for three years,” Hyde said. “He’s made plays for us when he’s had the opportunity. We’re blessed at La Vega to have guys that love to play football and play hard and fast.”
Behind the 94-yard kickoff return, the third quarter became the quarter of big plays for La Vega.
It seemed as if the Panthers had the Pirates right where they wanted them, facing 2nd-and-11 from the La Vega 10-yard line.
Rauls found Wright on a hitch route down the La Vega sideline and threw it to him. Wright caught it with his back to a defender and the Pirate end zone, then spun around so quickly that the defender fell over and Wright zoomed away for the 90-yard touchdown. That marked the longest receiving touchdown and longest passing touchdown in Class 4A state title game history since Carthage’s Anthony Morgan passed it 85 yards to Cortlyn Ware against Coldspring-Oakhurst in 2010.
The next La Vega drive was Rauls to Wright again, this time for a 61-yard touchdown. Rauls finished 6-for-9 through the air for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Wright had three catches for 163 yards and two scores.
On the ground, John Richards led the way with 13 carries for 85 yards and a 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Walton was behind him with 11 carries for 66 yards and a score.
Meanwhile, the La Vega defense contained the slot-T offense of Liberty Hill.
“You’ve got to be disciplined in your approach,” Hyde said. “People play those guys and they’re not patient. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to understand they’re going to get three, four, five yards. You can’t give up the big play. Like any scheme, you have to get off blocks, be disciplined with your eyes, stay at home on the backside and you got to make plays when you have the opportunity.”
Once the game clock counted down to zero, the La Vega sideline went crazy as the Pirates emptied their water bottles in the air and hugged anyone in sight. After they received their gold medals and the state championship trophy, Hyde gathered them together at midfield.
With their story complete, and the school’s second state championship in hand, Hyde signed off with some perspective.
“Don’t let this be the greatest thing that ever happens to you.” Hyde said. “No matter what you do, they can never take this away from these kids, this team. Don’t let it be the greatest thing you ever do in life. Our job as coaches is not about winning football games. It’s about changing lives. It’s about making kids do something after they finish playing for us that’s special.
“That’s what I want for this group. It’s special to win a state championship. I tell you right now, I’m just as happy going to your college graduation as I am winning a state championship. That’s what it’s all about.”