GONZALES — Having seen a 41-14 lead chopped to 41-35, the East Ascension defense found itself backed up to its own goal line, needing one play with a handful of seconds to go. One stop.
McKinley, which mounted a furious second-half rally that saw them score 28 points and to get in position for a win, needed a play of its own.
In the end, 5-foot-11, 205-pound Spartan linebacker Carlton Vallo made the play both sides longed for.
Vallo burst through and came up with the game-clinching sack and fumble recovery that propelled his team to an exhilarating District 5-5A opening victory over the visiting Panthers (2-4, 0-1).
“I saw that ball and man, I can’t explain what was going through my mind,” Vallo said.
“I just knew it was on me and my teammates. When they call for ‘Blue Swarm,’ that’s us. And it’s time to make a play. To get this kind of win says a lot for us. We’re a team.”
The Spartans were led by the versatile Joshua Walker’s 98 rushing and 87 receiving yards. The Panthers’ comeback bid was paced by quarterback Travion Alexander’s 14-of-30 passing for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
East Ascension established control through more than three quarters and never appeared to be significantly threatened.
The Spartans, who lost star tailback Sione Palelei to a knee injury, proved it could both run and pass effectively in the senior’s absence. EA’s offense jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and its defense mostly controlled the Panthers (2-4, 0-1) from there.
Until the frenetic fourth quarter.
“It’s disappointing that it came down to that at the end, but I’ll take the win,” East Ascension coach Paul Bourgeois said. “It’s homecoming, everything’s going right and they come back and score 21 straight. We’ve got a lot to work on.”
For so much of the game, it didn’t appear the Spartans had much to work on in any phase.
After a promising EAHS game-opening drive stalled at the McKinley 29-yard-line, the Spartans defense put its offense right back on the field. On the Panthers’ first offensive play, an Alexander pass was intercepted by Spartan defensive back Traven Washington and returned to the EA 39 at the 9:19 mark. The MHS defense stiffened, however, forcing a three-and-out.
McKinley followed suit with a three-and-out of its own, setting the stage for the first of the Spartans’ scores.
Taking over at their own 46, EAHS used five plays to advance to the McKinley 41. From there, quarterback Layne Trahan located Walker wide open across the middle of the field for a touchdown in which he eluded a tackle and sped the rest of the way to the left end zone corner.
The Spartan defense continued its opportunistic ways, producing another interception on the next McKinley drive. This time, senior linebacker De’Andre Darville picked off a pass and returned it to the MHS 17.
On a four-play scoring drive, Walker received the first three touches, rushing for 14 combined yards to set up a 3-yard T.J. Miles scoring run to give the Spartans a 14-0 edge on the second quarter’s first play.
The East Ascension defense continued to stymie the McKinley offense. On the next Panther drive, MHS was again denied a first down. And the EA offense would again take advantage of its defense’s work.
Beginning at their 28, the Spartans moved deep into Panther territory before a three-yard loss on a Trahan keeper and an incomplete pass bogged down the drive. Adam Bosworth’s 29-yard field goal made it 17-0 EA at the 7:03 mark of the second quarter.
On the ensuing McKinley drive, the Panthers, buoyed by a 25-yard option run by Alexander, would cross into Spartan territory for the first time. But the Panthers’ advancement was denied when Scott was met by a host of EAHS defenders on fourth-and-3 at the EA 40.
But the Panthers, gaining some offensive rhythm, would dent the scoreboard its next possession and need only five plays to move from their own 27 to do so. Some nifty open-field footwork by Alexander drew in EA pass coverage, leaving receiver Hinney Harris wide open just inside the 10. So open, Harris stopped. stood for a moment and quick-turned to the end zone. The score drew the Panthers to within 17-7 and for a moment appeared to grab some of the game’s momentum.
That’s when the EAHS special teams unit reclaimed that momentum in the quickest of fashions.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tyler Green found a crease in the MHS kick coverage and zoomed middle field to left sideline before being stopped at the McKinley 18 with 1:37 to go before the half.
Five plays later, on a fourth-and-goal at the Panthers’ 1 with 12 seconds remaining, Trahan lunged toward the end zone,. at first appearing to be stopped. A surge by his offensive line for Trahan into the end zone to give the Spartans a commanding 24-7 lead at the half.
“Our kids gave a valiant effort,” McKinley coach Robert Signater Sr. said. “We’ve just got to learn to start the way we finish. Don’t wait until you’re punched and your eye swells. Your eye’s already swollen. ... But they didn’t give up.”
The second half began similar to the first, as the EAHS defense forced a three-and-out and the Spartan offense adding a 26-yard Bosworth field goal in a drive keyed by an impromptu flip from Trahan to Jonathan Baker that sustained the drive on third-and-five to the MHS 30.
McKinley would respond with its biggest play of the night right afterward, however, to climb back into the game. Scott, who’d been his team’s clear workhorse back, burst through the line and scored on a 56-yard run to make the score 27-14 East Ascension with 3:03 to go in the third.
But as they had made a habit throughout the night, the Spartans answered with a big play. After a long pass reception by Walker moved EAHS to the 43, Joshua Bates took in a pass from Trahan and sprinted 44 yards for the score that would put the game out of reach at 34-14 with 1:28 left in the third quarter.
The East Ascension defense added another big play moments later on the fourth quarter’s second play when Green returned a fumble 56 yards for a touchdown to put his team up 41-14.