WHITE SETTLEMENT — A superb effort by the Melissa Cardinals against defending Class 4A(I) state champion Waco La Vega went unrewarded Friday night at Brewer Stadium — in a most painful way.


After leading the Pirates, 20-0, in the first half — and by a touchdown twice in the second half — Melissa was eventually stopped, 45-42, by freshman Pavel Ramirez’ 26-yard field goal on the final play of the game.


When his kick sailed true, Ramirez - who was called into action with La Vega’s starting kicker at home with the flu - turned and ran to midfield where he was dog-piled by teammates. The Cards, after standing toe-to-toe with one of the top programs in Texas, could only walk slowly toward their sideline, absorbing the difficult reality.


“Our kids are always fighting, they’re always gritty, they’re always going to get after it,” first-year Melissa head coach Matt Nally said as Cardinal fans mingled on the field with players and coaches for a final time in 2019. “I thought we did a great job of game-planning against them.”


In a tough break for Melissa, on the Cards’ fourth play from scrimmage senior quarterback Brendon Lewis was taken down by a host of Pirates and helped from the field, favoring his right leg. He rejoined the game after one play, but the injury appeared to hamper Lewis and the Cards’ use of the run-pass-option.


“Brendon getting hurt early, it hurts the game plan a little bit, what we were trying to accomplish,” Nally said. “But he still played well, the running backs played extremely well and the offensive line played really well. Our defense did an unbelievable job in the first half. We started to over-pursue a little bit in the second half. They’d run a play that the back can hit in three places, and we would over-pursue and he’d hit on the back side of it and, obviously, he ‘creased’ a few times and went and scored. … It is what it is. You just love the grit and the moxy of our team. We’ll be back again.”


Melissa’s memorable showing featured plenty of highlight-reel moments, including Chase Mapps’ 55-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 20-0 lead; Antonio Robinson’s 85-yard kickoff return for a TD - with a 2-point conversion catch by senior defensive end Caleb Kroese - for Melissa’s 28-20 third-quarter edge; and senior Ja’Bray Young’s electrifying 60-yard touchdown sprint in the fourth quarter that put the Cards up, 42-35.


All told, Young roamed for a team-high 182 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries while fellow back Xylohn Posey tallied 103 yards on 19 tries, with a TD. On multiple occasions, Posey and Melissa’s O-line moved Pirate piles downfield after initial contact.


Regarding Young’s notable Cardinal finale, Nally said, “This was about as healthy as he has been [all season]. We were blessed to have him healthy and getting after it.”


Senior Tyler Burton led Cardinal receivers with four catches for 39 yards.


Melissa’s defense forced punts on La Vega’s first three possessions - and Chase Mapps’ pick ended the fourth. Senior defensive back Chance Mapps led the Cards with six solo tackles, five assists and one tackle-for-a-loss.


Late fumble


Ramirez’ big opportunity came after the Pirates pounced on a loose ball at the Melissa 19 with 10 seconds left in regulation. La Vega ran one play then stopped the clock with six seconds to go and set up for a 31-yard field goal. The Cards called another timeout to “ice” the kicker - but out of the break were whistled for 12 players on the field, moving the attempt five yards closer. With the wind at his back, Ramirez stroked home the highest-pressure kick of his young career.


“It shows the resiliency of your team,” La Vega head coach Don Hyde said of the Pirates’ late comeback from 7 points down. “That’s a good football team over there. They’ve got some good weapons. They’ve got a good quarterback, good running backs and their offensive line is good. We knew we were going to be in for a barn-burner and a dog fight. My hat’s off to Melissa. They did a heck of a job. … We’ve got about eight kids with the flu that are just battling it out. It’s been tough.”


As for Ramirez’ game-winner, Hyde said, “When [Melissa] called timeout, I said, ‘Don’t nobody say nothing to him.’ And he was able to put it through the middle.”


La Vega’s Elisha Cummings romped for 242 yards and five touchdowns on 21 carries while Jar’que Walton chipped in 133 yards on 19 tries, with a TD. The Pirates finished with 463 yards of offense - all but 4 of it on the ground - while Melissa tallied 355 - all but 85 on the ground.


La Vega (12-1) will now face No. 1 Argyle (13-0) in the 4A(I) Region II final at 7 p.m. Friday at Waco’s McLane Stadium. Argyle beat the Pirates, 49-35, in September after falling to them in last year’s Region II final.


The Cards opened the scoring with a first-quarter 68-yard drive capped by Young’s 14-yard burst up the middle. During that march, Lewis connected on a 31-yard, back-shoulder strike to Robinson down the right side. In the second stanza, Melissa drove 80 yards in 15 plays with Lewis covering the final three feet to the end zone after faking to Posey and the Cards led, 14-0.


Chase Mapps’ pick-6 on a deep ball down the left side came next and La Vega faced a 20-0 hole with 3:50 left in the first half. Suddenly woke, the Pirates got their ground game going – and seemed to like something they saw to the left side. On 12-straight plays either Cummings or Walton gashed for good yardage running left then, from Melissa’s 5, Cummings went to the well once more and found the end zone on second effort.


Pirates own 3rd stanza


Down, 20-7, at halftime, La Vega came out with a load of steam in the third quarter, bulling for 28 points as Melissa struggled to contain the Pirates’ talented rushing duo. In the middle of La Vega’s four-TD surge the Cards answered back with Robinson’s kickoff-return TD - and Kroese’s 2-point catch - to lead, 28-20, with 8:50 left in the third. Still, before the frame expired the Pirates had taken their first lead of game, 35-28.


The early fourth quarter was Melissa’s turn to surge, first with a 73-yard drive crowned by Posey’s 9-yard TD run on third-and-goal; then with Young’s 60-yard dash to pay dirt two plays after the Cards had thwarted a La Vega fake punt. But before Melissa’s bench had settled into their 42-35 lead with 4:35 to go, Cummings took it 75 yards for the equalizer on the next play from scrimmage. The teams would trade punts and overtime looked likely - but things then took that final Pirates turn.


With Nally’s first year in the books as Melissa head coach, he noted, “It’s been a learning experience from the get-go. Each game that has passed has been just an unbelievable learning experience. To get to this point where we’re at, with the great group of seniors that we have, it’s just great to be around. It was a fun, fun, fun ride.”


_______________________________________________________________


La Vega 45, Melissa 42


La Vega 0 7 28 10 - 45


Melissa 7 13 8 14 - 42


FIRST QUARTER


M – Ja’Bray Young 14 run (Grayson Hurst kick), 4:38


SECOND QUARTER


M – Brendon Lewis 1 run (Grayson Hurst kick), 5:24


M – Chase Mapps 55 interception return (kick blocked), 3:50


LV – Elisha Cummings 5 run (Pavel Ramirez kick), 0:53


THIRD QUARTER


LV – Elisha Cummings 63 run (kick failed), 10:43


LV – Elisha Cummings 9 run (Pavel Ramirez kick), 8:36


M – Antonio Robinson 85 kickoff return (Caleb Kroese pass from Brendon Lewis), 8:22


LV – Jar’que Walton 6 run (Sol’dreveon Degrate pass from Landry Kinne), 4:47


LV – Elisha Cummings 10 run (Pavel Ramirez kick), 2:14


FOURTH QUARTER


M – Xylohn Posey 9 run (Grayson Hurst kick), 8:41


M - Ja’Bray Young 60 run (Grayson Hurst kick), 4:35


LV – Elisha Cummings 75 run (Pavel Ramirez kick), 4:11


LV – Pavel Ramirez 26 FG, 0:00


Stats LV Melissa


First downs 20 20


Rushes-yards 52-463 47-270


Passing yards 4 85


C-A-I 1-6-1-4 8-21-0


Punts-average 4-36.2 4-27.5


Penalties-yards 4-35 3-25


Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1


Individual statistics


Rushing – LV: Elisha Cummings 21-242, Jar’que Walton 21- 133, Landry Kinne 9-72, Troy Miles 1-16. Melissa: Ja’Bray Young 20-182, Xylohn Posey 19-103, Braeden Smith 2-5, Brendon Lewis 6-(-20).


Passing – LV: Landry Kinne 1-6-1-4. Melissa: Brendon Lewis 8-21-0-85.


Receiving – LV: Malachi Wright 1-4. Melissa: Tyler Burton 4-39, Antonio Robinson 1-31, Antjuan Turner 1-10, Chase Mapps 1-5, Ezra Monroe 1-0.