Decatur High School played its first playoff game since 2003 on Nov. 3 at Federal Way Memorial Field. A packed house set the stage for Decatur to do the improbable — make a state tournament for the first time in school history.
The Gators took on the Woodinville Falcons out of the KingCo League for this historic matchup. The Falcons are no joke — they placed third in its league going 6-3 this season. Decatur’s hopes and state tournament aspirations were dashed by Woodinville by a score of 13-6.
“There can only be one winner, which is tough for the kids to hear because they worked so hard this week. It was the best focus they’ve had in a long time just to come up short,” said Head Coach Matt Vaeena.
It was a cold, wet, windy night at the new field. As Coach Vaeena is also Mr. Vaeena in the language arts classroom, he knows that rain is a symbol for life and rebirth, which is exactly what he has done with the Decatur football program. “Did we expect to be 8-1? Not necessarily. It’s just a testament to these boys and those seniors,” Vaeena said.
It was a very emotional game for many of the players on Decatur’s roster.
“I feel it right here,” said junior Maddox Heyliger, pointing to the middle of his chest. “It’s a building block, it’s the best year we’ve had yet. I’m super proud of my guys. I can’t take the jersey off. Just credit to Coach Matt, all the coaches and coaching staff. They put a ton of hours into it. I give all the credit to them.”
Obviously, their season came to a close in a way that will sit with them for years to come. The program had come so far — a team that had no weight of expectations, all of a sudden was on the cusp of something that had never happened in the school’s 53-year history.
“We told them before the game and at halftime, regardless of happens out here, nothing was going to change the fact that they had a great season that’s going to be mentioned as long as Decatur is around,” Vaeena said.
Decatur rode the high of its win over Federal Way to close out the season into its first drive against the Falcons. After forcing a turnover on downs, Decatur marched down the field for the first touchdown of the game.
It was a steady dose of Nehemiah Washington and rushes from Spencer Holloway. Ten plays, eight rushing attempts and Washington punched it in from the three-yard line.
This would be the only score for the Gators in the entire game. The struggles to move the ball and get the offense going put a lot of strain on the defense, but any time you hold a team to 13 points, that’s doing your job.
“I thought the defense played phenomenal. The defense had to win the game. But if the offense doesn’t score, we can’t win,” Heyliger said.
A problem for the Gators outside of scoring came on the most overlooked phase in football — special teams. There were three moments, all in the second half and all seeming to occur at crucial points in the game.
After a false start on the opening kickoff of the second half, Woodinville kicked an onside kick that bounced off a Gator foot before falling at the feet of two Falcon players.
Even with everything not going the Gators’ way, they still had a chance to tie or win the game in the fourth quarter. On their best drive since the opening possession, the Gators converted on two different fourth downs and seemed destined to score.
After feeding the rock to Washington and Holloway gaining solid yard on the ground, the Gators went to the air on the fifteen-yard line looking for a score. But Nour Elhohary picked off the pass on the goal line.
“It opened the way we thought it would open. Spencer chose right and just left it short. The kid cut under and made a play. It’s one of those things that’s tough to deal with because it possibly wins the game for us,” Vaeena said.
Even after the crucial late interception with 6:00 left in the game, the Gator defense had Woodinville backed up in their own end and forced a punt. The punt was muffed, and Woodinville had the ball once more.
After the defense got another stop, the punt went to Decatur with 48 seconds left and was fumbled again, sealing Decatur’s defeat.
“I’m at a loss for words. It’s a tough one,” Heyliger said.
This group of seniors are special because they were freshmen during the pandemic. The growth and maturity that Vaeena has seen with that group is special, he said.
“Every one of them has mattered in their own way… As we go forward and build further, this will be the group that rebuilt it,” Vaeena said.
Heyliger is a captain and has been since his freshman year, and joining with Holloway, Washington and Prum gives Decatur immense talent again next season.
“I’m here for this team no matter what. All the talk, ‘transfer this, transfer that’ this is my team. We’ll be back next year,” Heyliger said.