STOCKTON — After waiting 26 years for a Sac-Joaquin Section crown, all the Vanden High School football team had to do was turn East.
The Vikings traveled East toward Stockton’s St. Mary’s High on Saturday afternoon to face Merced in the Division IV title game. Vanden also veered the championship contest in the direction of wide receiver/defensive back Jamai East.
East caught three touchdowns from quarterback Tre Dimes and had two back-breaking interceptions — including a 24-yard pick-six early in the fourth quarter. The rest of his teammates did the rest is a convincing 49-21 win.
When East emerged from the Vanden locker room, he was greeted with chants of “MVP! MVP!” by the Vanden crowd.
“We just had to step it up,” East said about what was talked about at halftime. “We had to play to our level.”
The game was 21-21 at halftime but the No. 2-seeded Vikings (11-2) dominated the No. 4 Bears (9-4) in the second half, both offensively and defensively.
“(Merced) was making great plays in the first half so we told our guys to keep pressuring them, keep playing hard,” Vanden head coach Sean Murphy said. “We didn’t make a ton of major adjustments. We made a couple of tiny adjustments, but we felt like if we kept playing hard, things would go our way and they did.”
The win was especially satisfying for Murphy, who was a junior offensive lineman on the 1995 team that beat Bear River in the 1995 championship.
“It was a lot more nerve-wracking than it was as a player,” Murphy said. “It’s been a great journey for us since last spring, facing all kinds of adversity. We’re very proud of our student-athletes.”
Long before East’s pick-six in the second half, Vanden’s Robert Breed intercepted quarterback Seth Scheidt’s very first pass of the game and returned it 33 yards to the end zone for the early 7-0 lead.
After forcing a turnover on downs, Vanden drove 94 yards on just seven yards, culminating with a Sean Davis 8-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 6:07 left in the first quarter. Dimes hooked up with wide receiver Brayden Chavez on hook-ups of 18 and 35 on the drive.
Chavez, a sophomore receiver, had five catches for 102 yards. Merced had some success stifling Vanden’s top receiver Michael Belk, but the Bears could not take away all of the Vikings’ pass-catchers.
“I think (Merced) tried to put more people on Belk and that left receivers like Jamai and myself open and that helped a lot, big time,” Chavez said.
The Bears cut the lead in half on their ensuing drive as Enoch Evans ran it in from 34 yards out. A bad snap on a punt on Vanden’s next drive set up Merced for another touchdown — this one a Scheidt’-to-Jack Collins 31-yard touchdown strike that came on fourth-and-20 early in the second quarter.
The Vikings grabbed a 21-14 lead with 5:47 left in the half when Dimes found East for a 55-yard touchdown catch. East made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in front of his defender on the play.
Merced beat Vanden again on fourth down with 2:05 left in the half when Scheidt connected with Collins again for a 43-yard touchdown reception. The extra point tied it 21-21 and that’s the way it would head going into the locker room.
On Vanden’s second possession of the second half, the Vikings went ahead for good on a Dimes-to-East 8-yard touchdown, completing a 67-yard, seven-play drive.
Meanwhile, the Vikings’ defense locked down on Scheidt and the Bears’ passing game. Vanden forced a punt and then scored again with 11:55 left in the fourth quarter on a Dimes-to-East 13-yard touchdown catch. Merced’s Chase Smith interfered with East on the play, but the wide receiver shook him off and made the catch in the end zone anyway.
It got worse for the Bears on the first play of their next possession when East jumped in front of a receiver and raced 24 yards to the end zone for the 42-21 lead. The Vikings tacked on their final touchdown with 9:07 left in the game on a Dimes-to-Davis 51-yard touchdown pass.
Dimes was 13-for-21 for 312 yards with four touchdowns and one interception.
Scheidt finished with 197 yards passing with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Vanden caught him behind the line of scrimmage seven times and put more pressure on him in the second half as the signal caller missed on eight of nine passes at one point.
The championship win was also special since the team dedicated the season to fallen teammate Daniel Hughes, who was shot on April 4 and eventually succumbed to his injuries. The players talked about him when posing for the championship photo.
“We were playing for our brother Daniel,” Chavez said. “That kept us going the whole time.”
Vanden is now eligible for a Northern California bowl game to be played Dec. 3 or 4. Brackets are expected to be released on Sunday.
Vanden 49, Merced 21
Photo Credit: (Joel Rosenbaum / The Reporter)