When Heritage and Liberty Christian played 15 days ago, Pioneers senior Krystian Rivera couldn’t be stopped.
He helped the HHS defense pitch its only shutout of 2019 by making tackle after tackle and hurt the Bulldogs on offense, rushing for 81 rushing yards and averaging 9 yards per carry.
It’s time for a Round 2 clash of the Seminole District heavyweights, and this one has even more implications than two weeks ago, when Heritage earned the district title outright with the 28-0 victory.
This time, it’s about who keeps playing and who goes home.
And Rivera, the linebacker and running back who made so much noise in the first matchup, isn’t ready for this run to end.
“I just want to finish this year as hard as I can,” the all-state defender said. “I don’t want to go out with a loss. I wanna go out with another state championship under my belt.”
Dec. 14 is still three weeks away. Right now, Heritage (10-1) is focused on the Bulldogs (8-3). The teams meet at 7 p.m. today at City Stadium in the Region 3C semifinals.
The irony is a path to the Class 3 state championship at Williams Stadium, the place LCA calls home on Friday nights, runs through Bulldog Country.
“Last game doesn’t really define how we’re gonna play this one,” HHS quarterback Kameron Burns said. “They could beat us at anytime. But we’re gonna come ready to play and win again.”
Coaches and players agree: the most recent matchup doesn’t matter; there is only tonight’s game. But the Nov. 8 meeting does provide a road map for what each team will have to do correctly to win tonight.
LCA coach Frank Rocco wasn’t upset with his team’s effort in the first matchup. Burns burned the Bulldogs’ secondary when he fired off a 53-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter for a 14-0 lead and a made a 39-yard TD pass midway through the third for a 21-0 lead.
“Those were two plays that really easily could have been corrected if we did things [better] in the secondary,” Rocco said.
Heritage found success in the run game in the fourth quarter, going to a wildcat package for a 99-yard drive that took Burns out of the equation and relied on running backs KJ Vaughan and Rivera. It resulted in the Pioneers’ final score of the night and put an exclamation point on the victory.
“We did a nice job of keeping it under wraps, and at the end we just didn’t get it done,” Rocco said.
Neither team really ate up the field offensively, with Heritage putting up 273 yards of total offense to LCA’s 169.
“It could have been a totally different game,” Heritage coach Brad Bradley said.
The big difference was in the run game. HHS shut down LCA in that department, allowing just 17 rushing yards.
LCA senior receiver Tyler Rose is coming off a 109-yard performance against Turner Ashby last week. But against Heritage, he managed just three catches for 38 yards.
Heritage didn’t have any particular player on Rose, Bradley said, and no particular plan to stop the prolific receiver.
“We have to stop him within our system. We want to react to what they do,” Bradley added.
Rose said LCA coaches have set the team up for victory.
“If we execute everything we can, we’ve got to let the chips fall where they fall, and if that gets us the win, then we’ll be happy,” Rose said.
For Rivera, stopping LCA’s rushing attack is once again of utmost importance.
“We stopped the run game good from A to B gap,” he said of the first meeting. “Nothing good in there. Make them run wide so we can run out there and make the tackle.”
Rivera’s offensive production this season — he has 433 rushing yards and seven touchdowns — has given HHS a balanced attack. Vaughan (1,244 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns) is the No. 1 back who pounds opponents over and over. Rivera, by contrast, provides the quickness.
Tonight’s game is also a battle of two quarterbacks; Burns (1,358 yards and 15 TDs) against LCA gunslinger Josh Nelson (1,548 yards and 18 TDs), who threw for 133 yards in the first matchup.
Burns wants to practice on Thanksgiving next week. Only a victory tonight earns his team that right.
“We’re happy, but not satisfied,” Burns said of the 2019 season.
LCA, the region’s No. 4 seed, has lost all three games it has played against top-seeded Heritage, dating back to 2017.
But this Bulldogs team is different. It’s comprised of experienced playmakers and sound defenders. Heritage, players said this week, is ready for the challenge once again.
“We’re energetic, we’re ecstatic,” Rivera said. “We just wanna go out and play as soon as possible. We’re ready.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.