VAN — There have been 12 opponents placed in front of the Van Vandals this season, and every game has ended with a Van victory.

The Vandals are 12-0 and ranked No. 10 in the state in Class 4A Division II.

Despite their unblemished season, the Vandals enter their regional semifinal contest as a 16-point underdog, according to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.

A lot of that has to do with the fact of the opponent — No. 2 Gilmer (11-1).

“We know what we are up against,” Van head football coach Jared Moffatt said. “Gilmer is a great football team. They are one of the best 4A programs in the state of Texas the last 20 years since Coach (Jeff) Traylor showed up. It’s definitely going to be a fight for us. One thing I know about our kids is they’ll show up and compete. We’re looking forward to the opportunity in front of us.”

The game is scheduled for a 2 p.m. kickoff Friday at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium.

What’s helped Van — a 7-5 team in 2020 — get to the third round of the postseason without a loss on its record?

“Jackson Rainey. Definitely Jackson Rainey,” senior defensive tackle KD Erskine said. “I’m very glad he’s on my team. It would be like a living nightmare running around chasing that guy. He’s out there just making defenders miss and making them look silly and throwing incredible balls to all of our receivers. It’s crazy what he’s done this year.”

Rainey, whose older brother Jaron Rainey has been a longtime defensive coordinator for the Vandals and worked with Moffatt at Denton Ryan, came to Van as a freshman from Cooper. Now, as a senior, Rainey is 163 of 260 for 2,511 yards with 39 touchdowns and three interceptions, and he’s carried the ball 136 times for 1,184 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“He’s played at a high level week in and week out,” Moffatt said. “He hasn’t had a down game. When we need him to throw it, he’s throwing it. When we need him to run it, he’s run it. He’s made plays with his legs, and he’s made plays with his arm. I don’t know where we would be without him at quarterback this year. He’s done a great job.”

“I feel more confident this year,” Rainey said. “I feel like it’s my team, and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do so we can win.”

The top target for Rainey has been 6-5 senior receiver Luca Kozhev, who has made 62 catches for 1,037 yards and 20 touchdowns. Brayden Bradshaw, Ryder Shoquist and John Crow are other key targets for Rainey.

Juniors Beau Barton (131 tackles and 36 tackles for loss), Braydon Hullum and Garrett Florey, along with seniors Mason Moffatt, KD Erskine and Ryan Johnson have been the tackle leaders for Van. The Vandals have also gotten contributions from freshman Wyatt Dale at linebacker.

“We’ve been able to stop offenses from running the ball on us,” Erskine said. “I feel like we’ve really stepped up in the run game this year.”

While Van is undefeated, it hasn’t been a season without tests.

The Vandals have four single-digit victories and led Sunnyvale 28-25 late last week before taking a 35-25 win.

“I told somebody that’s not by design,” Moffatt said. “We would have loved to have blown everybody out, but we’ve been in some close ball games. We’ve had to come from behind on more than one occasion. The good part about that is that we’ve been in every situation.”

On the other side are the Gilmer Buckeyes, whose only loss this year was a 28-7 decision to Carthage on Sept. 24.

Gilmer and Van met in the 2010 playoffs in Moffatt’s first season with the Vandals, and Gilmer won 50-27. That game was also at Rose Stadium. The Vandals and Buckeyes faced off in the 2018 and 2019 regular seasons with Gilmer winning 42-41 and 41-21.

Gilmer and Van have four common opponents this season. Van took wins of 35-31 over Lindale, 49-12 over Pittsburg, 27-25 and 28-0 over Liberty-Eylau and 62-6 over Mexia, while Gilmer had wins of 49-35 over Lindale, 26-13 over Pittsburg, 51-7 over Liberty-Eylau and 71-14 over Mexia.

The Buckeyes are averaging 49.75 points per game.

“They have plenty of talent on the offensive side of the football,” Moffatt said. “What’s funny about Gilmer is nobody talks about their defense, which they’ve only give up more than two touchdowns maybe three times all year long. Their defense has played great all year long. Everybody talks about their offense, which they should, because they’ve been scoring points like crazy. They’ve got weapons at quarterback, running back, receiver and offensive line. They’ve got all of the parts.”

The Vandals know it’s going to be a challenge.

“They’ve got some athletes,” Rainey said. “We’re going to have to make plays. It’s not going to go the way we want it every play, so we’re just going to have to make some plays and run around a little bit and make things happen.”

Moffatt said there is one critical element that could be the deciding factor in Friday’s game.

“The bottom line in the playoffs is real simple. The secret is scoring one more point than they do,” the coach said. “If you can find a way to do that, you will play in the fourth round. If you can’t, you’ll pack your stuff up. You can go through coach speak about special teams, not turning the ball over and winning on third down. All of those things are valid and true.

“But at the end of the day, you better find a way to get one more point than them or you pack your stuff up and go home.”

The winner will advance to face either Pleasant Grove or Quinlan Ford.


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Sports Writer

Brandon Ogden is in his 21st year covering high school sports in East Texas and has been in Tyler for the past three years. Follow on Twitter: @BrandonOSports