SAN MARCOS – Friday night’s showdown between San Marcos and Lockhart had been built up as a battle that would decide the playoff destiny of both teams.
When the clock ran out at Rattler Stadium, coach Mark Soto received a Gatorade shower and Rattlers fans stormed the field after a 35-17 victory propelled San Marcos to the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
“This is the group of seniors that I came in with. This is their fourth year with our staff, so for them to get it done is special,” head coach Mark Soto said. “It’s a great bunch of seniors. They’re all great kids. They’ve got great grades and they have good citizenship in school and in the community. For our seniors to get themselves in the playoffs is very special.”
However, just minutes earlier, San Marcos fans were at the other end of the emotional spectrum as the Rattlers seemed to be running out of time with their playoff hopes deflating.
With 6:18 left in the fourth quarter, Lockhart’s DJ Ellison finished off a 20+ play drive with a three-yard touchdown run. The drive spanned parts of two quarters and put the Lions up 17-13.
The Rattler offense had not been on the field since they scored to pull ahead by three with 4:30 left in the third.
Now they were faced with just six minutes left and needing to score twice and stop Lockhart’s clock-eating offense once.
The odds were stacked against them, but this is a position the Rattlers are used to. They lost senior linebacker Cory Mathis early on, and lost quarterback David Hamilton weeks ago. Still, San Marcos found a way to fight through adversity and get themselves in position to control their playoff destiny.
It took just three plays and forty seconds before San Marcos used a trick play to get into the end zone. Cross Cuevas got the ball to Carl Ahrens, who found Kaleb Johnson wide open for a touchdown.
After Cavion Garner ran in the two point conversion, the rattlers were up by four 21-17 and needed at least three more points to claim their first playoff berth since the 2006-07 season.
Lockhart recovered an onside kick attempt, but five plays later the Rattlers defense, who stepped up all night, forced and recovered a fumble to give their offense another shot to score.
After a few plays, Ahrens found his favorite target yet again, and got the ball to Johnson who was forced out at the nine yard line. Ahrens finished the drive with a nine-yard keeper into the end zone. After the PAT, it was 28-17 San Marcos.
Lockhart coach Brian Herman had two choices with just over two minutes to go. If they scored, San Marcos’ lead would be cut to less than seven, which would mean Lockhart and Alamo Heights would make it to the playoffs and the Rattlers would be eliminated.
According to the Austin American Statesman, District 27-5A coaches deciding to clarify wording in the rule book when it came to tie-breakers.
Part of that wording was that if Lockhart lost by 13 or more points to San Marcos, both teams would make it in the playoffs.
What ensued was a bizarre ending that surprised coaches, players and fans alike. Lockhart decided to kneel the ball twice. Then running back Stephon Houston had the ball in the end zone and dropped the ball for a Rattlers player to recover and score another touchdown.
The Rattlers had an 18-point lead and the clock ran out shortly after, sending both teams to the playoffs.
Quarterback Carl Ahrens, who has pivoted San Marcos’ offense attack since Hamilton’s injury, had 259 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson finished with 162 yards and two touchdowns. Cavion Garner had two touchdowns and racked up 108 rushing yards, which gives him a total of 1116 total rushing yards on the season.
“It feels great to be in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “Tonight’s atmosphere was great, there’s nothing else like it.”
Lockhart’s running back duo of Ellison and Houston were limited to 75 and 73 yards, their lowest combined rushing total all season, however Greg Rivera and Austin Garcia added an additional 104 rushing yards.
Defensively Austin Castillo, Colby Vidrine and Joseph Wilburn made big stops all night and the defensive line came up big in arguably the most important game of the season.
“It was a tough game. I did it all for my teammates especially the seniors who have another week to play,” Castillo said.
Because of the school’s population, San Marcos will advance to the Division I bracket, which means a first round matchup with SA Harlandale from 28-5A.
Lockhart will likely also end up in Division I against SA Highlands with Kerrville Tivy and Boerne Champion in Division II.
Look for more information on playoff pairings and brackets next week and a photo gallery tomorrow.
Jeff Cerda contributed to this report.