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Football clinches playoff spot in win over East Central

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Parker Maroney

Jalen Nutt avoids a tackler against San Marcos. Nutt compiled 166 total yards and a touchdown in Friday’s win over East Central.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

It’s been a long season, but Friday night brought cause for celebration.

Football beat East Central 31-7 on Friday, a win that locked the Rangers into the playoffs. Despite a first half that was closer than anticipated, the team spoiled their foes’ Homecoming night with a strong second half.

After a long punt return by Noah Flores, the Rangers struck first, on a 35-yard flea flicker early in the first quarter. Wide receiver Chase Senelick hit tight end Dylan Domel deep in the end zone on a reverse that completely fooled the defense, and just like that, it was 7-0. It was the team’s fourth attempt this season at that sort of trick play, but the first completion out of the set.

The scoring went noticeably silent until midway through the second quarter, when Hornet wideout Anston Bryant-Kelley showed off some fancy footwork in the end zone to tie up the game. It was his sole catch of the night, as quarterback Christian Vela and the offense focused more on fellow receiver Reginald Stewart (6 catches, 75 yards receiving). Vela, playing in relief of the injured Caden Bosanko, completed 12 of 18 pass attempts for 136 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

That pick came with 27 seconds left in the half, as he tried to force nominal alpha receiver Bryant-Kelley the ball on the outside. Cornerback Noah Flores, who shadowed Bryant-Kelley all night, read the play perfectly, and made a beautiful, diving interception to hand his offense the ball in Hornet territory.

Ranger quarterback Jalen Nutt was sacked on the first play of the drive, which could have been the end of the half, but the team called a timeout and sent the offense back onto the field. Nutt, who had to evade the Hornets’ speedy defensive front all game, took a play action shot to Domel, who managed to pull it down 27 yards downfield. One incomplete pass later, Austin Hosier drilled a 42-yard field goal as time expired, putting the Rangers up 10-7 going into halftime.

Perhaps they didn’t anticipate the homecoming festivities taking place prior to the game, instead expecting a longer break. Maybe they lost track of time. Or maybe the Hornets engaged in some San Antonio Spurs-esque mischief and locked them in the visitor’s locker room. But the Rangers were late coming out after for the second half, leaving the Hornets lingering around at midfield.

“They’re scared!” one East Central player yelled of his opponents, who were nowhere to be found.

The Rangers charged into view 20 seconds later – and pitched a second-half shutout, proving that they were, in fact, not scared.

They were, however, charged with a delay of game penalty, which was assessed on the kickoff (and offset by a Hornet who still managed to stand offside). Domel, who finished the game with a season-high in yards receiving (62) and caught his first varsity touchdown, returned the short kick to the Smithson Valley 35-yard line, and the team made consistent advances from there. From nine yards out, running back Gabe Hoskins nearly scored on a massive pile push, but was whistled dead on the goal line. On the next play, he took another handoff and scored (for real this time).

The Ranger defense forced a punt, and the offense immediately got back to work. After a holding call set the team back, wide receiver Zack McDonald overcame defensive pass interference to haul in a 39-yard shot from Nutt, who turned a quarterback draw into a seven-yard score a few plays later. The touchdown marked the third straight scoring drive for the Rangers, and extended the lead to 24-7 with seconds left in the third quarter.

East Central made their best push of the second half on the ensuing possession, including a highlight-reel catch by a double-covered Stewart on the left sideline, but their 37-yard field goal attempt sailed far left. A possession later, they tried for a fourth-and-1 conversion near midfield, but were tackled for a loss. For all intents and purposes, that was the end of the game for East Central.

An impressive, 18-yard contested catch by Will Strachan all but sealed the game, so the Ranger offense brought in their second-stringers to run out the clock. On the unit’s first play, running back Justin Avery scampered 20 yards for a touchdown. 31-7, Smithson Valley.

East Central made a few plays with time winding down, but to borrow a colloquialism, it was too little, too late. (Not to mention, the Hornets tried and failed to get a snap off before the final whistle blew, making them literally, “too late.”)

The Rangers were favored in this one by 35, and although they didn’t cover the spread, they punched a critical “W” in the win column. If they didn’t win this week, winning at least one of their final two games – a Black Friday match against Steele and a season-ending reschedule at Judson – would’ve become even more important. For now, though, they can enjoy their Thanksgiving, grateful for a spot in the postseason.

Football will host Steele at 2:00 p.m. Friday, in a game with major playoff seeding implications. The game will be streamed live on Rangers Network.