Vance coach dis­traught after nail­bit­ing fi­nals loss

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY LANGSTON WERTZ JR. lw­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Three plays spoiled Vance High’s chances at a state cham­pi­onship that Cougars coach Aaron Brand just knew his team could win.

Stand­ing in the hall­way of the Duke Univer­sity press box, Brand tugged at his white hat, the same way he did dur­ing a post-game news con­fer­ence mo­ments after the fi­nal.

About a half hour ear­lier, Vance lost 9-7 toWake For­est in a game that turned in the fi­nal minute. And it was those three plays that Brand couldn’t stop talk­ing about:

●● bad snap on a punt that gave Wake For­est the ball in­side the Vance 20. Vance was at­tempt­ing to punt at its 15. Wake For­est got the ball at the Vance 13.

●● few plays later, Vance’s Ste­fon Thomp­son blocked a po­ten­tial cham­pi­onship-win­ning field goal at­tempt from the Vance 4 with 42 sec­onds left. It ap­peared to save the day, but a Vance player dove on the ball at the 1 in­stead of al­low­ing it to roll harm­lessly into the end zone. If it rolls in, Vance gets the ball at the 20. In­stead, it got the ball at the 1.

●On the next play, Vance had trou­ble with the quar­ter­back-run­ning back hand­off. The ball hit the ground. Vance re­cov­ered, but the Cougars were tack­led in the end zone with 32 sec­onds to play. The safety was the cham­pi­onship-win­ning points.

“That guy (the long snap­per) hadn’t had a bad snap all year,” Brand said. “In that sit­u­a­tion, we should’ve called for a drier ball. It got stuck. Then those guys bowed their neck and blocked the field goal. We were play­ing for over­time. Then we ran the ball and I saw peo­ple show­ing the safety sign. I said, ‘No way. No way.’ I thought the ball was out of the end zone. This will live with me for­ever.”

Brand was equal parts preacher and dis­ap­pointed dad, get­ting emo­tional telling a col­lec­tion of statewide me­dia how much get­ting to the cham­pi­onship meant and how play­ing so poorly, at key mo­ments, ul­ti­mately hurt.

And he kept tug­ging at that hat.

“I was very con­fi­dent we would win,” Brand said. “From the be­gin­ning of the game un­til the last play. I knew if we kept peck­ing at it and peck­ing at it, we’d find a seam or (run­ning back Joseph) Mor­ris would break one or we would get a (deep pass) to Nyier (Clark). I amvery dis­ap­pointed.”

Vance led 7-0 early, go­ing 77 yards in two plays to start the game, but the Cougars’ of­fense broke down after that. Their next 42 plays net­ted 76 yards. Un­able to run the ball, Brand said Wake For­est dropped eight de­fend­ers back to de­fend his three re­ceivers.

So even though Brand felt his team would find a big play, none came. Wake For­est won its 45th straight game and its third straight cham­pi­onship. Brand was left to think about next year, when he re­turns eight de­fen­sive starters and the bulk of his of­fense, which will likely have fresh­man Cameron Kromah at start­ing quar­ter­back.

“It means a lot to our pro­gram and our com­mu­nity to get here,” Brand said. “We told them we were happy to be here, but it just wasn’t enough. At the end of the day, they did ev­ery­thing they could. The blame is on us as a coach­ing staff. We’ve got to make plays in the sec­ond half. We just didn’t make enough plays.”

And, at the end, Brand watched those three plays ruin his state cham­pi­onship hopes.

“Those plays will haunt me the rest of my life,” he said, “at least un­til we can get back here. To have it right there and kind of smell the dragon’s breath a lit­tle bit. When you are play­ing a team that has won this many games in a row, you’ve got to take ad­van­tage of mis­takes they make and field po­si­tion you get be­cause it’s not go­ing to hap­pen of­ten.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t do that, and they made more plays than we did.”

ROBERT WIL­LETT rwil­[email protected]­sob­

Vance play­ers watch as Wake For­est is pre­sented the cham­pi­onship tro­phy after de­feat­ing Vance 9-7 in the NCSHAA State 4AA High School Cham­pi­onship on Fri­day.

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