VAN ALSTYNE — It was a scenario so improbable that even little kids tossing the ball around the back yard wouldn't come up with it.
Van Alstyne's Ty Cosper returned an interception 100 yards with no time on the clock Friday to lift the Panthers to a 31-25 homecoming victory over the Gainesville Leopards at Panther Stadium.
The touchdown capped a Van Alstyne comeback from an 11-point deficit in the last eight minutes. The game appeared headed for overtime after Austin Moore hit a tying 35-yard field goal with 44 seconds remaining, but Gainesville was able to cross midfield on the final possession and took one last shot at the end zone from the Panther 43.
Van Alstyne's Dylan Porter got a hand on Draylon Franklin's Hail Mary pass, tipping it away from a pair of Leopard receivers in the end zone. Cosper snagged the ball before it hit the ground and took off.
“I wasn't expecting that at all, but I just kept my head in the game and tried my best,” Cosper said after being mobbed by his teammates. “I was just hoping no one would catch me from behind. I was just following my blocks and getting there.”
Van Alstyne coach Mikael Miller said the comeback was a perfect example of the importance of perseverance.
“That's one of the things we talk about all the time with the kids — nothing good's ever going to happen if you quit,” Miller said. “You've just got to keep fighting.”
The game was Van Alstyne's last before opening District 5-3A Division II play at home against Whitesboro on Oct. 13. .
“That's our real season,” Miller said. “I hope the big lesson is, 'you're always in it.' We were 11 points down with eight minutes to go. Now we have those tools in our toolbox to say, 'hey, we've been there and done that before.'
“Hopefully, we start off a little better and don't get in that position again,” he said.
Quarterback Rhett Gallagher accounted for 239 total yards for Van Alstyne (4-1), rushing for 106 with a touchdown on 18 carries and going 7-of-18 passing for 133 and a score. Tanner Jones added 74 yards rushing on 14 carries and Justin Barnes had 43 yards and a touchdown on four carries.
Gainesville (2-3), playing without running back Calion Baker because of injury, outgained the Panthers 456 total yards to 356. But two turnovers and 10 penalties for 80 yards hurt the Leopards at critical times. Two penalties resulted in Van Alstyne first downs on the drive for Moore's field goal, including an unsportsmanlike conduct call that put the Panthers at the Gainesville 14 with 1:07 remaining.
“Calion is an extra addition,” Gainesville head coach James Polk said. “He's a blessing to have, but we didn't lose because Calion wasn't here. We made boneheaded mistakes as far as we lost our cool, started running our mouths and getting penalties and stuff like that — which got them in position to kick the field goal — instead of doing what we do, which is just play and let the officials call the game.”
Franklin finished 16-of-29 passing for 266 yards and three touchdowns but was intercepted twice. Josh Kemp caught seven passes for 165 yards and two TDs with Jalen McGee catching seven for 91 yards and a score. Brandon Baker took over at running back, finishing with 150 yards on 27 carries.
Gainesville took a 3-0 lead on Ivan Franco's 25-yard field goal on the game's opening possession. That held up until early in the second quarter when Barnes burst through the middle for a 27-yard touchdown, but the Leopards answered with Franklin's 11-yard TD pass to McGee to take a 10-7 halftime lead. Gallagher opened the third quarter with a 43-yard touchdown run to put the Panthers up 14-10.
The Leopards again responded, taking an 18-14 lead on Kemp's 24-yard scoring reception and two-point run, and appeared ready to put the game away when Bowen Johnson recovered the ensuing kickoff at the Van Alstyne 26. But on third-and-goal from the 7, Van Alstyne's Chase Wilson picked off Franklin's pass at the goalline.
Franklin and Kemp connected for a 10-yard to put the Leopards up 25-14 with 8:22 to go, but Van Alstyne answered immediately on its next snap as Moore took a pass over the middle, broke a tackle and went 72 yards to score. Gallagher's two-point conversion run got the Panthers within three at 25-22.
Gainesville ran off more than four minutes on its next possession before turning the ball over on downs at the Van Alstyne 34 with 3:37 to go. The Panthers 48 yards in 12 plays for Moore's field goal.
“Luckily, we had some big plays and some (Gainesville) penalties that kind of helped us out a little bit,” Miller said. “Our defense made a stand when we needed it to and got our offense the ball back. We executed on down and were lucky to get the field goal.”
Gainesville needed just two plays to cross midfield on the final possession, but Franklin threw two incompletions from the Van Alstyne 43 before the final play.
The Leopards open the District 4-4A Division I schedule Oct. 13 at home against Burkburnett. Polk said Gainesville must perform more consistently in league play.
“We're just up and down,” he said. “I can't give an accurate performance measure.
“We make plays offensively, then we give up a big one on defense. We make some stops on defense, then we can't punch the ball in the end zone on offense. We've just got to get more consistent and put together more than one drive every once in a while.”