ARLINGTON — With 10:38 left to play in Friday's Class 3A Division I UIL state championship football game, Alvarado's Jeff Dixon faced the biggest decision of his head coaching career.
The usually conservative Dixon decided to take a calculated gamble, hoping it would have his team celebrating at midfield of Cowboys Stadium as state champs.
Having just cut Tyler Chapel Hill's lead to 20-19 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Wayne Onderdonck, Dixon opted against going for the tie with an extra-point kick and instead went for the win.
“To be honest, I didn't know if we could get back down there,” Dixon said.
The Indians turned to the swinging gate formation that had worked for them numerous times this season.
With Tyler Bates lined up to take the shotgun snap, trouble struck. As Bates was trying to change the play from a run to a pass, center Rowdy Goff snapped the ball unexpectedly.
“We had two plays called,” Bates said. “I tried to check out of the first play and he thought I said hike.”
Bates got a hand on the snap, but couldn't gain control. He chased down the loose ball and ended up falling on it to end the play.
Dixon had a simple answer when asked why he went for two points - “To win. Amen. Goodness, we've (run that play) that all year and we've had success all year. There was still time on the clock (if it failed).”
There was time left and the Indians had three more
possessions. Each ended in a turnover, including one with Alvarado in possible game-winning field goal range.
Instead of celebrating the school's first state title, it was Chapel Hill that celebrated a state title with a 20-19 victory before an announced crowd of 22,748.
“You never second guess decisions like that,” Dixon said. “We just didn't execute. We still gave ourselves a chance to win at the end. A very good football team beat us tonight. That's just the bottom line. It's a game, somebody's got to win, somebodies got to lose. The effort by our kids was superb. It's tough luck, but life goes on. It will be OK.”
The loss ended the greatest season in the program's history. The Indians finished with a 14-1 record after losing in the state semifinals last year. It was Alvarado's first trip to a state title game in school history.
Chapel Hill, which lost in the state title game last season, ended with year with a 15-0 record.
But the Indians defense didn't let the Bulldogs rest in the final 10 minutes, keeping Alvarado in the game the rest of the way.
The problem was the usually sticky-fingered Indians offense lost the ball on three consecutive possessions.
“We took care of the ball all year, and we created turnovers all year, and in big games like this, that can, determine the outcome of the game,” Dixon said. “They did a fine job of not turning the ball over, and we had a couple of miscues. It wasn't because we were careless. It's because they made plays and we turned the ball over. That's just part of the game.”
First, Onderdonck fumbled on the Indians' 24 on the next possession. But the defense held on four downs. Then, quarterback Kenny West was intercepted to halt the second possession. Again the defense held, getting the offense the ball back at the Indians 24' with 2:26 to play.
Alvarado appeared to have one miracle left when West hit Bates for a 46-yard strike on the opening play. With the ball at the Bulldogs' 35, Onderdonck broke free for a 14-yard run to the Chapel Hill 21.
“It felt good to go out there and execute and do what we needed to do,” Onderdonck said. “We just didn't execute the whole drive.”
Then the possible miracle finish faded away when West hit Austin Ellinger for a 5-yard gain but Chapel Hill's Wesley Thompson knocked the ball free and recovered.
“We were there after the last catch,” said Dixon about being in range for a possible game-winning field goal. “It's a game. Those things happen. (Ellinger), pretty down, and he shouldn't be. He's an outstanding young man. We're not 14-1 without him. He's played big for us all year. That play is not why we didn't win. I wanted to score a touchdown. If we had to attempt a field goal, we'd have done it. We weren't quite in field goal range before that catch.”
The Indians defense forced a punt with 12 seconds left. Bates fielded the punt and tried to break free but was hauled down near midfield to end the game.
“I'm happy and sad,” said Onderdonck who carried 19 times for 109 yards and two scores. “I'm blessed to even be here and be given the opportunity to play for a state championship. It's something no one can take away from me, win or lose. I thank God for my teammates and this community every day. They made more plays than we did today. You can't take that away from Chapel Hill. They are a good ball club.”
Chapel Hill proved how good they were by scoring on its first two drives of the game. Having already played in Cowboys Stadium a year ago, the Bulldogs didn't seem as nervous early as the Indians appeared.
“We were nervous at the start,” said Alvarado end Kenny Adams. “We didn't play like we normally do early, and they got those two touchdowns. But after those two drives, we settled down and played our style of defense.”
Chapel Hill built a 13-0 lead on its first two possessions.
First, Andrew Tucker scored on an 11-yard run, but the kick failed for a 6-0 lead. Then, Tre Allen caught a 21-yard pass from Saenz for a 13-0 lead.
The Indians countered with a pair of scores on fourth down plays.
Facing a fourth-and-two at the Chapel Hill 39, the Indians dug into their bag of tricks as West handed to fullback Lee Hardy on a sweep left. Hardy tossed the ball back to West, who rolled right, and lofted a soft pass a wide-open Jake Geeo for a 39-yard score that cut the lead to 13-7.
After Alvarado's defense forced a three-and-out, the Indians faced fourth-and-one at the Alvarado 45. This time, Onderdonck got the call out of the Power-I and raced 55 yards for the score. The Indians missed the point-after kick, and things were tied 13-13.
Chapel Hill put together,an 11-play drive that reached the Indians 10. But Bates got a hand on Tyler Brown's 27-yard field goal with three seconds left to keep things tied at 13-13.
“We were very fortunate to go into halftime tied 13-13,” Dixon said. “Defensively they gave us fits. They took away what people couldn't take away all year, our running game. They forced us to have to throw it, and they are very talented in their secondary.”
The Bulldogs took the lead late in the third quarter when Nelson Onwzu hauled in a pass from Avery Saenz and raced into the end zone for a 55-yard score.
The score with 47 seconds to play in the third quarter came after Chapel Hill's defense stopped Alvarado on a fourth-and-one at the Bulldogs' 43. Two plays later, Chapel Hill took a lead it would never relinquish.
The Indians didn't give up, though. Alvarado's offense, playing more wide open then it had all season, got a big play on a 40-yard reverse to Ellinger. A West pass to Hardy for 13 yards put the ball at the one. On the next play, Onderdonck pounded it in for the score with 10:38 to play.
Those were the Indians final points of the season.
“Our kids competed all night,” Dixon said. “At halftime, I told them to just hang in there and give yourself a chance to win it at the end. And that's what they did. Our kids are special, and I'm proud of their effort. They have no reason to hang their heads after that performance. This team has done something amazing.”