A year ago, in a game matching the same opponents, Sunnyvale blistered the Panthers, 49-14 in the bi-district round of the 2015 playoffs.
To everyone expecting a repeat of that landslide, it didn’t happen.
Van Alstyne,(8-3) ranked fifth in District 5-3A (1) at the beginning of the season, took on the state’s fourth-ranked class 3-A team and gave the Raiders all they could handle.
The Raiders prevailed, winning a 14-10 decision.
Levi Jones, Van Alstyne’s senior running back who finished the season with more than 1,800 yards rushing, had 229 on this night and none of those runs exceeded 15 yards. He carried the ball 41 times in the game.
“I just wanted to come out tonight and leave it all out on the field,” Jones said. “This might have been my last football game and I didn’t want to let my team, or myself down.”
Miscues cost both teams scoring opportunities in the game, none bigger than a fourth-period interception against the Panthers that stopped a promising drive at the Sunnyvale 20-yard line.
Sunnyvale (11-0) had two first-quarter drives stopped by turnovers.
Senior Michael Hensley Jr. recovered a fumble on the Raiders’ first possession of the game and senior De’Angelo Alexander intercepted a pass on Sunnyvale’s second trip.
Jones carried the ball eight times on Van Alstyne’s second possession of the game, but an interception by the Raiders halted the Panthers at the Sunnyvale 32-yard line.
The Raiders scored following that turnover to take a 7-0 lead.
Junior Scott Taylor booted a 37-yard field goal to get the Panthers on the board halfway through the second quarter.
Van Alstyne drove 88 yards, all on the ground and all by Jones, before the drive stalled at the Sunnyvale 20.
The Raiders scored on the ensuing possession, and took a 14-3 lead at the half.
Taking the second half kickoff, the Panthers offensive line kept carving out holes for Jones to slip through.
Junior center Zane Madison and senior Rhett Covey, junior Cayson Miller, junior Dylan Pruitt, junior Garth Dansby, Hensley, the up-back, and others that we missed, did yeoman’s work to open holes for Jones.
After 10 consecutive runs by Jones, sophomore quarterback Rhett Gallagher faked a hand off, then jogged around the left side for the Panther touchdown. Taylor’s point-after kick made it a 14-10 game, with 7:20 left in the third period.
That was the end of the scoring, but not the end of the exciting play.
The Panthers stopped Sunnyvale following Gallagher’s scoring run, taking over at their 22-yard line. Ten plays later, a Van Alstyne fumble at the Sunnyvale 17-yard line spoiled that march.
Sunnyvale was stopped two times inside the Van Alstyne 20-yard line in the second half.
With seven minutes and change left to play, the Panthers took over at the Raiders 19-yard line.
Six consecutive runs by Jones moved the sticks to the Sunnyvale 32-yard line.
On the first down, Gallagher was long on a pass into the end zone as senior Grayson Leinart had gotten behind his defender.
That duo, Gallagher and Leinart, connected on a short toss to the Sunnyvale 24.
Scrambling on the next play, Gallagher’s pass was intercepted by the Raiders with just over a minute left, and that was the game.
“I told our kids how extremely proud of them I was for the way they played tonight,” Van Alstyne head coach Mikeal Miller said. “Nobody picked us to even be in the playoffs and we had the state’s fourth ranked team on the ropes late, just couldn’t get it done.”
The 13 seniors on the 2016 Panther roster can take pride in their accomplishments.
Three of their four years, the Panthers were playoff teams.
In their final game they set a high standard for future teams.