Melbourne beats Viera to claim district championship

Viera High's Jake Woodruff goes up high to catch a pass from Viera High quarterback C.J. Simms during Friday night's game between the Hawks and the Melbourne Bulldogs. Melbourne would win the game 31-21 to win the Class 7A, District 7 championship.

The Viera Hawks had a chance to secure their position in the upcoming FHSAA Class 7A playoffs Friday night.

Now, they still have work to do.

The Melbourne Bulldogs controlled the ball on the ground, pulled off several big scoring plays and took advantage of two huge Viera mistakes on the way to a 31-21 victory at Hawk Stadium in a game that decided the Class 7A, District 7 championship.

It’s the first district championship for Melbourne since 2013 and the Bulldogs snapped a seven-game losing streak against Viera.

The Hawks (5-3) had won six straight district championships.

While Melbourne (7-2) has assured itself a spot in the playoffs – and a first-round home game – Viera’s chances may depend on what happens next week when the Hawks travel to face Merritt Island (8-1).

“All we do is tell them we’ve got to win next week for the RPI (system which decides who gets in),” Viera coach Derek Smith said. “If we win next week, our RPI is good. If we lose next week, it’s putting it in the hands of computers and from that point forward you’re in the playoffs.

“The playoffs are the playoffs. I would have liked to be the district winner to be in the playoffs because that solidifies a home game. All we can do is practice on Monday and see what we can do.”

While some opponents have had some success running the ball at times against Viera this season, no one has done as consistently as the Bulldogs did it Friday night.

It didn’t help the Hawks that they were missing senior defensive end Connor Nelson.

“We’ve been dealing with injuries all year,” Smith said. “Connor Nelson being out … I haven’t played a game with my starting defense all year. It’s tough. We’ve just got to adapt and overcome.”

By controlling the game on the ground, Melbourne was able to take time off the clock and keep the Viera offense off the field, especially in a back-and-forth first half.

After the Bulldogs drove 80 yards to score on a long pass on the game’s opening drive, the Hawks answered right back. A pass from C.J. Simms to Quincy Gillins and a nice run by Cameron Mills put the Hawks at the Melbourne 5-yard line and Simms took it in for a touchdown.

Defensive tackle Jamari Lyons would recover a Melbourne fumble and Viera would get another Simms touchdown run, this time from seven yards out to take the lead. The Hawks were on their way to making it a two-score game in the second quarter when the ball was fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback.

Instead of a Viera touchdown, it was Melbourne’s ball. A Viera interception was wiped out by a defensive pass interference call and the Bulldogs drove down and scored just before the end of the half to tie the game at 14-14.

That huge momentum swing completely changed the game and the Hawks never seemed the same again.

“The fumble in the end zone, we had a chance to go up 21-7 which could have caused a little momentum chaos for them,” Smith said. “They did a good job of, at that point, garnering energy.

“They garnered energy and our guys got caught off-guard with a couple of good calls.”

As Melbourne continued to work its offense in the second half, Viera struggled to put drives together.

The Bulldogs would go up 21-14 and then pull off what was easily the play call of the night, faking a run to the left that had the entire Viera defense flowing that way … only to throw a shovel pass to the right that went for another Melbourne touchdown.

“That little shovel pass was a beautiful call,” Smith said. “It was a good time to call it. You’ve got to give credit to that call right there.”

Despite trailing 28-14 going into the fourth quarter, the Hawks still showed they had some life, moving the ball downfield on completions to Jake Woodruff and Gillins. Mills scored from the Melbourne 1-yard line with 4:53 to play to make it a one score game.

Viera needed to get the ball back, and the Hawks got the break they were looking for when they recovered an onside kick at midfield with more than four minutes to play.

They had the ball and plenty of time to try to work the ball downfield and get the game-tying score.

Instead, the Hawks tried to make a play right away and an ill-advised pass floated downfield into the arms of a Melbourne defender.

The Bulldogs then salted away the game and secured their seventh straight win, going downfield with the help of two personal foul calls on the Hawks, and kicking a field goal to make it 31-21 with 35 seconds remaining.

That spelled the end to a disappointing night for the Hawks, who honored their 19 seniors before the game.

The Hawks still have their playoff fate in their hands, but if they can’t overcome a very good Merritt Island team, their streak of seven straight playoff appearances could come down to a computer ranking.