AURORA | Donavon Vernon’s skills running the football are well known, but his hands will get some recognition after what he did in the closing seconds of Friday night’s Class 5A second round state playoff game.
The Grandview junior running back leaped in the air and snared a pass from senior quarterback Liam Szarka and got a knee down inbounds for a go-ahead touchdown with just 16 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Wolves’ intense battle with Regis Jesuit at Lou Kellogg Stadium.
Szarka rushed for three touchdowns, racked up 233 yards of total offense and hit Vernon with his only touchdown toss of the game after engineering a clutch drive to send coach Tom Doherty’s 11th-seeded Grandview team into the 5A quarterfinals with a 25-23 win over sixth-seeded Regis Jesuit.
“I saw Liam roll out, turned around, realized the safety went away from me so I just put my hands up and hoped he’d throw me the ball,” Vernon said. “As soon as I saw it go up in the air, I went out and got it. I just had to catch it no matter what and worry about everything else later.”
The Wolves improved to 8-4 on the season and will get a home game in the quarterfinals as they will face No. 14 Chatfield, which knocked off No. 3 Arapahoe 28-21 in overtime.
It is the third straight season Grandview is part of the quarterfinals, but it hasn’t been to the semifinals since 2018.
To get there, a lot of things had to come together for the Wolves, who found themselves facing a 10-point deficit to Regis Jesuit (6-5) after Jaden Thermidor’s long touchdown run with just over 10 minutes left in regulation.
That’s when Szarka — an Air Force recruit — was at his best. First, he led a 12-play touchdown drive (that included two fourth down conversions) that covered 52 yards and culminated in his 1-yard scoring plunge.
Grandview’s defense made the stop of the game on the next possession. The Wolves had to burn two of their three time outs as the Raiders pushed into their territory and needed to pick up a fourth-and-1 at the Grandview 30 that likely would have sealed the outcome.
Senior Anthony Medina — who had scored two touchdowns previously in the game — took a direct snap out of a Wildcat formation that had been very successful earlier in the game, but senior Nkongolo Wa-Kalonji got through his block and took him down short of the line to gain.
“We knew it was coming and somebody had to step up,” Doherty said. “The kids found a way, but we still had a lot of work to do after that.”
Indeed, that still left 70 yards to cover with a touchdown needed due to a four-point deficit and just 3:10 remaining on the clock. Szarka began by feeding junior Xay Neto (who finished with a game-high 95 yards receiving) with some out routes at the sideline and also hit junior Kyler Vaughn with a key pass as well.
Another completion to Neto got Grandview inside the 10 yard-line and the deciding play came after Vernon was stopped for a short gain. Szarka took the snap and rolled to his right, faked a rush and flipped a pass towards the back of the end zone as he was taken down by a Regis Jesuit defender.
Vernon leaped and caught the ball with two hands, while his knee grazed ground in the end zone as he fell out of bounds. Raiders defenders argued that he hadn’t come down in bounds, but the official right in front of the play signaled touchdown.
“He’s a veteran player and I have as much trust in him as I can,” said Szarka, whose other touchdown pass to Vernon proved to be the winning score in a 39-32 win over rival Eaglecrest on Sept. 29.
“I just put it out there for him to go get,” he added. “He’s just a player and he went out and made that play for us.”
Regis Jesuit — which was coached by longtime assistant Bob McPhee, who took over with head coach Danny Filleman serving a one-game suspension — had two plays left and could not get down the field as time expired.
Medina scored two touchdowns for Regis Jesuit, one on a rush and another on a pass from junior Peyton Lindell and Jack Manthey kicked a 21-yard field goal.
It was only the second meeting between the two successful Aurora programs and happened almost 10 years to the day since the last one, a 31-21 win for Grandview in the second round of the 2013 5A playoffs.
Doherty ranked the victory pretty high on his list.
“Obviously, this feels about as big a win as I’ve had,” Doherty said. “We’ve had good wins this year, but we haven’t had that big upset. We’ve been just lurking and waiting. We had a great week of practice, the kids believed and we have No. 12 (Szarka), so that helps.”
McPhee took the loss hard, calling it a “gut punch.”
“We always tell our kids, it’s a game of inches and we were about four inches too short,” he said. “You have to give Grandview credit, they made a couple of big plays. We wish them the best of luck as they go on.
“It was a great high school football game, it’s too bad somebody had to lose.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at email@example.com. Twitter/X: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports
2023 CLASS 5A STATE FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS (2ND ROUND)
Nov. 10 at Lou Kellogg Stadium
(11) GRANDVIEW 25, (6) REGIS JESUIT 23
Score by quarters:
Grandview 7 0 6 12 — 25
Regis Jesuit 10 0 6 7 — 23
Regis Jesuit — Jack Manthey 21 yard field goal, 7:01
Grandview — Liam Szarka 10 yard run (Kyle Chavez kick), 3:40
Regis Jesuit — Anthony Medina 24 yard pass from Peyton Lindell (Manthey kick), 1:08
Grandview — Szarka 3 yard run (kick blocked), 2:54
Regis Jesuit — Medina 7 yard run (kick blocked), 0:00
Regis Jesuit — Jaden Thermidor 46 yard run (Manthey kick), 10:14
Grandview — Szarka 1 yard run (kick failed), 4:00
Grandview — Donavon Vernon 8 yard pass from Szarka (kick failed), 0:16
Grandview: Liam Szarka 22-59, Donavon Vernon 15-57, Chris Blanks 8-21
Grandview: Szarka 20-28, 174 yards, 1 touchdown
Grandview: Xay Neto 6-95, Kyler Vaughn 9-51, Julian Savaloja 3-22, Vernon 1-7, Blanks 1-(minus 1)