WHITEHOUSE – Statistically, it’s impossible for two teams to be as evenly matched as District 10-4A Division I mates Henderson and Van were in 2018.

The meeting in the regular-season finale was decided by one point, just as Friday night’s rematch, with the same final score no less.

Van was stopped short of the goal line on a potential go-ahead, two-point conversion attempt with 29 seconds remaining, and the Henderson defense held off Van’s last-ditch effort after the Vandals recovered the onside kick.

The Lions avenged the district loss with the 21-20 win in a Class 4A Division I, Region III semifinal on a windy night at Wildcat Stadium.

Henderson (9-4) will meet top-ranked and two-time defending state champion Carthage (13-0) in the regional finals for the third consecutive year. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday from Longview’s Lobo Stadium.

Carthage secured a thrilling 50-49 overtime win over Midlothian Heritage also on Friday, extending its winning streak to a state-best 39 games. Carthage defeated Henderson, 34-0, in district play on Nov. 2.

“We played those other districts (in the first two rounds of the playoffs), and those games weren’t near as close as this one, and not near the battle that this was tonight,” said Henderson coach Phil Castles. “It’s a rough district and it just so happens that right in the middle of the playoffs you wind up in district again.”

Van (10-3) drove 75 yards in 1:45, and pulled to within one point on Liam Nielson’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Hoss Brewer.

The Vandals and Henderson both called timeouts prior to the two-point try, and when play resumed, Nielson connected with a sliding Ethan Robinson, who was ruled down just outside the goal line.

Van recovered the onside kick at midfield, and after a pass interference penalty on Henderson, reached the Lions’ 35-yard line with 18 seconds remaining. But on the next play, Henderson’s Christian Kind sacked Nielson for a 17-yard loss.

A Van holding penalty pushed the ball back to the 38, and Henderson tackled Elijah Rankine after a gain of 17 yards on the hook-and-ladder play as time expired.

“There were a lot of mistakes but in the playoffs it comes down to that and who can survive,” Castles said. “Our kids had a lot of character and showed a lot of class, kept battling, battling, and battling. I can’t say enough about our kids and the way they preserved through some of that stuff.”

Henderson, which committed five turnovers in its 21-20 regular-season loss at Van, did not turn it over Friday, and came away with three interceptions on defense.

“Turnovers in a playoff game are gigantic, and they swung the momentum each time,” Castles said. “We had a big drive at the end to kick the field goal, and it turned out to be the game-winning score. We were very fortunate to have those turnovers but our kids did a good job of holding onto the ball on the other side.”

Pedro Garza had two of the interceptions, including an 86-yard pick-six in the second quarter.

“That’s a kid who hasn’t started the whole year,” Castles said of Garza, who also returned an interception for a touchdown against Van on Nov. 9. “He came in as a spot player and he’s earned the position. He’s such a hard worker, and he’s rough on Van right now for whatever reason.”

Henderson wasn’t able to muster much on offense for most of the night, but did just enough.

Trailing 14-12 in the third quarter, Keshoyn Alexander delivered the biggest offensive play of the night when he shook free of a tackler in the backfield and sprinted 73 yards to the end zone. The extra point was no good, but Henderson led 18-14 with 6:17 to play in the third.

“Keshoyn just works so hard and he plays both sides of the ball,” Castles said. “He had to come in when (De Leon) was hurt and carry the load a little bit at the wildcat position. Big burst, he’s an explosive player and an unselfish kid, not worried about his own touches and what he gets.”

In the fourth quarter, Henderson relied on the legs of running backs Kevin Fields and Eli Jones, marching all the way to the 5-yard line, where it faced a fourth-and-1.

Henderson opted to go for it, but was penalized for a false start, which meant the Lions had to settle for Axel Romero’s 27-yard field goal and a 21-14 lead with 2:14 remaining.

The Lions were outgained by Van on the night, 298-266.

“Van does such a great job defensively, they’ve done a great job all year long, and we knew it was gonna be that kind of ballgame,” Castles said.

Alexander led Henderson with 90 yards on seven carries, while Fields and Jones combined for 79 yards on 26 carries.

Lions quarterback Sevastian De Leon, who was injured in the second half of the regular-season meeting with Van, was 12 of 18 passing for 68 yards.

“If he was a car you’d take him in for an overhaul,” Castles said of De Leon. “He’s been roughed up and beat up (this season) and this game was no exception. Several times we had to help him off the turf, but you’re not gonna find a more competitive kid. He’s basically the heartbeat of this team, and those kids rally around him and they know they can count on him.”

Nielson passed for 216 yards on 18 of 33 completions, while running back Elijah Rankine totaled 146 all-purpose yards in defeat.

Both teams scored on their opening possessions of the night. Van's Marcos Orozco bulled his way into the end zone from a yard out, and Alexander had a 1-yard touchdown run on the other end. The extra point was missed, leaving Van in front 7-6 with 3:30 to play in the first.

Garza’s pick-six gave Henderson its first lead, but Van answered immediately when Nielson connected with Robinson on a 6-yard touchdown, which gave the Vandals a 14-12 lead with 5:30 until halftime.

Henderson 21, Van 20

Class 4A Division I, Region III Semifinal
At Wildcat Stadium, Whitehouse

Van                    7      7      0      6    –    20
Henderson         6      6      6      3    –    21

First Quarter
VAN—Marcos Orozco 1 run (Calen McKinney kick), 8:16.
HEN—Keshoyn Alexander 1 run (kick failed), 3:30.
Second Quarter
HEN—Pedro Garza 86 interception return (run failed), 8:38.
VAN—Ethan Robinson 6 pass from Liam Nielson (McKinney kick), 5:30.
Third Quarter
HEN—Alexander 73 run (kick failed), 6:17.
Fourth Quarter
HEN—FG Axel Romero 27, 2:14.
VAN—Hoss Brewer 29 pass from Nielson (pass failed), :29

                                        VAN                 HEN
First Downs                          15                    14
Total Yards                          298                  266
Rushes-Yards                   24-58            39-198
Passing Yards                      240                   68
Comp.-Att.-Int.              19-34-3           12-18-0
Punts-Avg.                      6-56.2              5-35.6
Fumbles-Lost                        0-0                 1-0
Penalties-Yards                    6-76                8-51

RUSHING—Van, Elijah Rankine 13-53, Liam Nielson 4-4, AJ Zarate 4-2, Marcos Orozco 2-1, Team 1-(-2). Henderson, Keshoyn Alexander 7-90, Eli Jones 8-41, Kevin Fields 18-38, Kourtland Jackson 1-21, Caleb Medford 3-11, Ke’untaye Dunham 1-2, Sevastian De Leon 1-(-5).
PASSING—Van, Nielson 18-33-3—216, Rankine 1-1-0—24. Henderson, De Leon 12-18-0—68.
RECEIVING—Van, Rankine 7-69, Ethan Robinson 6-43, Bray Doring 3-73, Hoss Brewer 2-43, Javonta Thomas 1-12. Henderson, Jy Fuller 4-24, Dunham 3-20, Medford 2-17, Alexander 2-2, Jackson 1-5.

More From East Texas Sports Network