Defense, Kingston key Viera's 42-23 win over Columbia in semifinals


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Viera High quarterback Hayden Kingston celebrates the final seconds as the Hawks defeated Columbia 42-23 in the Class 7A state semifinals to reach the state championship game.

VIERA VOICE Carl Kotala

LAKE CITY – Some people hugged. Some people screamed. Others jumped up and down.

And then there was Hayden Kingston, who took off running, screaming and waving a big Viera High flag in the air.

“I just turned around and I saw flags and I was like, ‘I want one,’ so I went and grabbed one,” the Viera High senior quarterback said. “It probably wasn’t as cool as I thought it was, but it seemed cool in the moment.”

Hey, moments like this one deserve something out of the ordinary.

After all, how many times in your life do you get to say you’re going to be playing for the state championship?

Led by four Kingston touchdown passes and a defense that nabbed four interceptions and applied constant pressure, the Hawks upset host Columbia High 42-23 in the Class 7A state semifinals Friday night.

Viera (10-4) will play St. Thomas Aquinas – a 27-10 winner over Braden River in the other semifinal – for the state title next Friday at 7:07 p.m. at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Forget the dream. It’s reality time now. Let it sink in.

Safety Evan Cruz said it hit him after the Hawks helped salt away the game by recovering back-to-back squib kickoffs. Defensive end Riley Morris said he was already thinking about next week’s game. And Kingston said it hadn’t really hit him yet.

“Listen, listen, that’s crazy,” safety Jamyson Boyd said. “Last week, it didn’t hit me we were going to the Final Four. This one’s probably not going to hit me until next week, probably about Thursday. It’s crazy. I’m pretty excited.

“I’m glad my boys came out and we were ready to fight. We competed A lot of people thought we couldn’t do it. We came out, we fought and we played hard. That’s all you can ask for.”

The Hawks were definitive underdogs heading into a game against a Columbia team that ranked No. 3 in the final regular-season Associated Press poll (Viera didn’t even receive a vote).

Scoring points wouldn’t be the problem for the Hawks. But could Viera’s defense hold up against a team that had scored more than 50 points in its past two games?

The answer came in the form of the secondary, which got two interceptions from Boyd and one each from Cruz and Will Champion along with big pass breakups Cruz, Boyd and Malek Folston.

It came from a relentless pass rush from Marco Foreman, Riley Morris, Matt Martorelli and Justin Harrison. Along with linebackers Brandon Mays and Zack Blanch, they never let Columbia quarterback Davin Schuck get comfortable.

Morris was particularly effective late in the game when he continually beat his Columbia opponent. While watching film, Morris said he knew he was facing a big challenge and that he would have to rely on his speed to help get a pass rush.

“The first series, I kind of realized my speed … he (the Columbia tackle) couldn’t really get back in time. I used my speed all night and it really paid off in the end.”

That it did, which was big for the Hawks because they needed to be at their best Friday night to beat an athletic, talented team like Columbia.

It was the Tigers who got on the board first, igniting their crowd with an early touchdown for a 7-0 lead.

Viera? The Hawks lost running back Brennen Deplancke to an ankle injury and Kingston was hit in the lip on the first offensive series and it was starting to swell.

But back they came nonetheless. After Boyd intercepted Columbia quarterback Davin Schuck, Viera put together a drive that ended with Boyd – who along with Trevor Merritt filled in for Deplancke – scoring on a 4-yard run to tie the score at 7.

It was the first of three consecutive touchdowns for Viera, which also got a 12-yard run by Alex Cabrera and a 14-yard pass from Kingston to Donovan Jackson to make it 21-7 as the end of the first half neared.

Momentum was all on Viera’s side until a late interception by Columbia set up a Tigers touchdown that cut the lead to 21-14 at the half. And when the third quarter started, the Tigers came out strong, driving to the Viera 12-yard line.

Cruz, who had an interception earlier in the game, came up big again for Viera, knocking away a potential game-tying touchdown pass at the last second. Columbia settled for a 29-yard field goal that made it 21-17.

The Hawks needed a momentum swing and they got it when Cabrera reached back and made a one-handed grab of a Kingston pass that had been tipped near the line of scrimmage. The 23-yard play gave the Hawks a first down and eventually, Kingston found wide receiver Tre Nixon for a 14-yard touchdown pass to put the Hawks up 28-17.

Columbia would answer on the final play of the third quarter, but the PAT was blocked and the Tigers did something very surprising to start the fourth quarter.

Down by just five, they Tigers tried a squib kick that was recovered by Viera’s Austin Roberts. Tack on a penalty against Columbia and Viera got the ball at the Tigers’ 29-yard line.

That led to Kingston’s third TD pass of the night, this one from 14 yards out to a wide open Boyd that gave the Hawks plenty of breathing room at 35-23.

Viera would then try a squib kick and it was recovered by Matthew Ellis, setting up a 21-yard touchdown pass from Kingston to Cabrera – who made a nice, acrobatic catch – and it was 42-23. And since it worked once, why not again? The Hawks went for the squib kick and this time it was Nixon who recovered.

The Hawks wouldn’t get any points out of that one, but it did take precious time off the clock and Columbia would not have an answer.

It was the perfect end to a day that began with Viera students gathering outside for a big sendoff of the team bus and stops at Manatee and Quest Elementary Schools where the young children lined the halls to greet the players.

The trip even included a stop in Gainesville, where the players got to walk onto the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, better known as “The Swamp.”

As much fun as all that was, it was still a business trip. And the Hawks, well, they took care of business. It was almost enough to leave Viera coach Kevin Mays at a loss for words.

“I’ve said everything else,” Mays said. “I want to say thanks to everybody that’s a part of this – coaches, players, cheerleaders, trainers, administrators, parents, the community, elementary schools … anybody who’s been a part of this.

“I just want to say thanks to you because it’s been a great ride. It’s been fun. I told these guys in January, if you work hard, if you set a goal and you live that way day in and day out, you’ll get what you want.

‘This is proof of it, man. Ain't nobody around here thought we’d make it this far. These guys played their tails off tonight.”

Boyd, who scored two touchdowns, intercepted two passes, had a big pass breakup and pretty much played the game of his life, was clearly enjoying the moment, and thinking about what a special situation he and his teammates are in.

In addition to all of the day’s festivities, there were nine buses that made the trip to Lake City for Friday night’s game.

“Like I tell people all the time, Viera makes you feel like you’re family,” Boyd said. “Everybody, the fans, the coaches, the players – everybody.

“Everybody makes you feel like you’re one. So … they doing stuff for us, we’ve got to do stuff for them. Doing stuff for them is getting W’s. That’s going out and getting a state championship ring.”

If that happens, maybe you’ll see Kingston, Hunter Ulrich and Deplancke all grabbing flags as they did following the win over Columbia to celebrate. Nothing like getting caught up in the moment.

“That was an awesome, awesome team win,” Kingston said. “The semifinals is all about riding the waves and rolling with the punches. We did that tonight. That’s a great team in Columbia.

“There’s just something about this team that can’t be stopped right now. I’d put our money against anybody right now.”