Riding the back of a stingy defense, the Faith Lutheran football team clinched its first-ever trip to the state championship game.
Like their Fallon counterpart, the Crusader’s have waited a long time to play for a state title. On Saturday at Damonte Ranch High School in Reno, Faith Lutheran can end a 34-year drought.
Fallon, meanwhile, aims to snap a 35-year skid. Kick-off is scheduled for 4:05 p.m.
“God blessed this team,” coach Vernon Fox said. “I give a lot of credit to our young men for really embracing a transition and adapting to the mindset we were trying to establish here.”
Fox, an eight-year NFL veteran with four teams, has righted the ship after a 5-5 campaign last year. He took over this season and has acclimated his players to a new system and way of preparing.
The team’s motto — 1-0 — represents what it wants to accomplish each week. One win. And on Saturday, Fox and company are looking for one more, the biggest of all, a state championship.
“We tried to help them not to be comfortable or complacent,” Fox said. “To go out every week and prove yourself again … and it’s gotten us to this point.”
The Crusaders are in the midst of an impressive run, winning their last 11 games. The offense has been efficient behind quarterback Jacob Deaville and the 1-2 punch of running backs Keenan Smith and Fabian Lagudi.
The unit is averaging 35.6 points per game, while the defense allows 19.4.
Smith, though, is more of a big-play back, while Lagudi gets the tough yards and has been a pleasant surprise, according to Fox. Smith racked up 954 yards and 20 touchdowns in the regular season, while Lagudi added 740 yards and 13 TDs.
Deaville, meanwhile, won the starting job early in the season and has been solid. He completed 94 of 162 passes for 1,692 yards with 12 TDs and five interceptions.
The senior signal caller has played well in the Crusaders’ first two playoff wins against Boulder City and Desert Pines. He threw for 297 and 227 yards, respectively, although was limited against Lowry.
Deaville, though, has a pair of reliable receivers with Mark Rubalcaba and big-play man Vinny DeGeorge. DeGeorge led the team with 35 catches for 960 yards and 10 TDs, while Rubalcaba has 33 receptions for 398 yards and three TDs.
Nevertheless, Fox is pleased with the performance and improvement of the offense.
“We have a lot of key components in place,” he said. “We wanted to have balance approach. We were blessed to have a great athlete in Keenan Smith. He (Lagudi) really shocked a lot of us … making some huge plays and getting the tough yards. Jake Deaville has been a great leader for this team. We’ve had so many standouts.”
Defensively, though, Faith Lutheran uses the skill of linebackers Danny Otuwa and Ben Flandemeyer to stuff opposing offenses. Both are tackling machines (Flandemeyer has 132 total tackles, while Otuwa has 124), while the second is opportunistic.
Rubalcaba led the club with four interceptions in the regular season, while freshman Christian Marshall and Tyler Mahan each had three.
“It’s been crazy,” Fox said. “It’s a team full of leaders and seniors. We got one more game, and these kids want it bad. You got to stay unified and believe in one another.”
The start of the season, though, was rough for Faith Lutheran. The Crusaders were throttled by Lutheran (Colo.), 35-7, and dropped a 26-20 tilt to Virgin Valley.
Although the Crusaders were sitting at 0-2, Fox did not panick. His club focused and went to work.
After wins over Sunrise Mountain, Chaparral and Boulder City, the big test came Sept. 27 against Mojave. Deaville lit up the Rattlers for 246 yards and three TDs, while DeGeorge tallied 182 receiving yards and three TDs.
It was the spark Fox said gave the team the sense it could be great.
“We never started looking ahead to a state championship,” he added. “I think after our third or fourth win our young men started to feel they had the potential to win games. I think when we beat Mojave it was a turning point in our season.”
With each win, the Crusaders have gained confidence. At one point, Faith Lutheran’s special teams scored in five consecutive games, an aspect Fox was more than pleased with.
In the postseason, the Crusaders blew out Boulder City, 62-7, survived a shootout against Desert Pines, 48-41, then outslugged Lowry, 16-8. Now, Fox’s attention is solely on Fallon and the myriad of challenges the Greenwave bring to the field.