Another year, another title.
Heritage celebrated its third straight Seminole District regular-season championship at City Stadium on Friday night by shutting out Liberty Christian, 28-0, in a game that decided whether the Pioneers shared the title or earned it outright.
Questions of whether there would be a three-way tie for the crown between the Pioneers, Bulldogs and E.C. Glass lingered in the chilly air prior to kickoff.
But Heritage left nothing to doubt.
KJ Vaughan rushed for 122 yards and scored twice, quarterback Kameron Burns threw for 92 yards and two touchdowns, and the Pioneers danced at midfield after the dominating performance.
A little less than three weeks before Thanksgiving, this one was complete with all the trimmings: a Heritage goal-line stand that lasted eight plays, a 99-yard drive that took more than seven minutes and resulted in an exclamation point, and plenty of smiles at the thought of a district three-peat.
Linebacker and running back Krystian Rivera stood with an orange and blue sledgehammer, a symbol of the Pioneers’ ability to gavel opponents. Vaughan posed with the Seminole trophy, glitzy in the City Stadium lights.
“We said the Seminole was gonna be ours,” Vaughan said, “and it happened.”
The Pioneers (9-1, 7-0) head into the Region 3C playoffs as the No. 1 seed and have home-field advantage throughout the first four weeks, should they keep winning. LCA (7-3, 5-2), which could hold on as the No. 3 seed when the final VHSL rankings are released this weekend, will be at home when the playoffs begin next week, too.
Play in the first quarter was defined by defense. Heritage finally jumped on the board at the start of the second quarter, when Vaughan chugged into the end zone on a 5-yard run.
Rivera set up that Heritage drive. With 1:26 remaining in the first quarter, he blitzed past the LCA offense and attacked quarterback Josh Nelson just as Nelson prepared to let loose a pass. The QB fumbled, and HHS eventually went 45 yards for the 7-0 lead.
“We knew we had to come out and play hard, because we knew LCA was a good team,” Rivera said. “We didn’t want to share the district. We wanted to win it like we have the two previous years.”
Heritage, up 21-0, had another impressive defensive stand spanning the third and fourth quarters. LCA engineered a lengthy drive that chewed up a good chunk of the third frame and entered the red zone to start the fourth.
The Bulldogs reached the 1, suffered a penalty and moved back to the 6. They received a first down courtesy of a roughing-the-passer call. In total, they had eight chances inside the 6-yard line, but could never score.
“We had a couple keys plays that we couldn’t execute,” Nelson said. “If you don’t score on the 2-yard line with eight plays, then you don’t deserve to win.”
Nelson, the Bulldogs senior who entered as the area’s second-leading passer with 1,268 yards on the season, added 133 passing yards to that total Friday night.
Will Wycoff led the receiving corps with four catches for 40 yards. Tyler Rose and Jaylin Belford added 38 and 35 receiving yards, respectively.
But Heritage shut down the run game; LCA managed just 17 yards on the ground on 21 carries.
“Defensively I thought we played lights out,” Pioneers coach Brad Bradley said.
Still, Nelson has plenty of reasons to hope his team will find its footing in the playoffs after a successful regular season.
“Looking ahead, we’ll be back,” Nelson said. “Everyone’s ready to get back to work tomorrow. … This is probably the greatest group of guys I’ve ever been a part of. I know we’ll be ready to get back to work.”
After making the goal-line stop, HHS went on a 99-yard drive that ate up 7 minutes and 37 seconds of the fourth-quarter clock. It culminated in a 1-yard TD by Vaughan with 2:14 remaining.
Burns threw just two passes all game for Heritage, but made good on both, finding Deuce Crawford on an outside route that went for a 53-yard touchdown in the second quarter and hooking up with Kyron Thomas for a 39-yard score in the third.
Rivera added 81 rushing yards on nine carries. He was also in on defense when HHS made the goal-line stand. Then, rather than having Burns command the offense on the 99-yard drive, the Pioneers went with Vaughan and Rivera, who rotated on direct snaps.
So after their work was done, Vaughan and Rivera — two seniors seeking their second straight state title — took in the full glory of Senior Night. Then, on an evening when temperatures dipped into the 20s, they were off to another rite-of-passage celebration.
“It’s time to go celebrate, go to the [senior] bonfire,” Rivera said, “and relax.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.