Photo by Darryl Maxie
Reece Powell and Jared Hendricks celebrate their second touchdown pass play, the one with 2:40 left in the game that restored the Lions’ 15-point advantage.
It’s one thing to set a tone. It’s another thing entirely to follow through on the tone that’s been set.
Luella’s Reise McDaniel returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown Friday night. And immediately, Villa Rica had to know that these were not the 2010 Lions, who came into their stadium last year singing vain tunes, setting a tone on which they never came close to following through.
“Last year, we were on the bus, whooping and hollering about ‘They don’t know what’s about to hit them,’ came out expecting to win on talent and got punched in the mouth,” Luella coach Nic Vasilchek said. “But this was a test of true character and feeling-wise, it’s a whole different feeling than last year.”
The Lions led from start to finish and gained a measure of revenge on Villa Rica in a 25-10 victory. Jared Hendricks threw a pair of touchdown passes to Reece Powell, who celebrated the second with his former offensive coordinator, Eddie Pratt, behind the Luella bench.
Gabe Smith scored on a 4-yard run as he and Laquez Freemon carried the ball effectively.
McDaniel’s return immediately put a winning stamp on the season for the Lions, giving them a 6-0 lead before fans were nestled in their seats.
“It definitely wakes the other team up, but it solidifies that this is a new year,” Vasilchek said. “All that past is history.”
And here, the coach smacked his right fist into his left palmfor emphasis, as if to pound away the memories of a 3-7 season.
“This is a new year — 2011!” he proclaimed.
It was hardly perfect, but it was light years better than the 41-8 humbling the Lions suffered at Villa Rica in last year’s season opener. The 2011 Lions still must iron out some center-quarterback snap issues — they fumbled several, but almost always managed to recover in time and special teams might need some work. But, on the whole, Vasilchek had reason to smile.
Villa Rica blocked a punt in the last seconds of the first half, and immediately converted it into a 36-yard field goal by Manny Rivera. Still, the Lions led 18-3 at halftime, with a defense led by seemingly ever-present Jason Carr keeping the Wildcats at bay. Luella also benefitted from two fumble recoveries and an Alvin Hill interception.
When Villa Rica appeared to gain momentum in the second half, after cutting its deficit to 18-10 on a 5-yard touchdown run by B.J. McCoy with 2:47 to go in the third quarter, the Lions found some inner resolve and beat back the threat.
Hendricks found Hill on a big third-and-17 play at Luella’s own 21. Just as the Wildcats appeared to be in position to force the Lions into another punt, figuring to gain decent field position in the process, the pass play dealt Villa Rica a knee-buckling blow.
“It was absolutely huge,” Vasilchek said. “It was starting to go down that slope where a winning program was starting to get that third-quarter push. It was an absolutely huge catch, because then the mentality came back to the sideline that we can win.”
Hill’s catch put the Lions at the Villa Rica 46. That kept what would turn out to be a nearly seven-minute drive intact, and 11 plays later, Hendricks found Powell for their second touchdown connection of the game.
“We were struggling at first,” Hendricks said. “I had to come to the sideline and stay focused. ... (Powell) was my first read. I was specifically trying to figure out what I was going to do before I did it. It feels good. As a sophomore last year, I wasn’t playing much. But as a junior, I got to start and help get us a victory. It feels real good.”
Vasilchek was happy to see hard work pay off for all his players, but especially for Powell, a 4.0 student who had some work to do on catching the ball after being used primarily as a blocking tight end.
“If somebody’s going to get two touchdowns, you’d like it to be him,” Vasilchek said. “We’ve got to have more guys making plays like that.”