Braden River comes up short in shootout

Braden River-Venice football highlights

Venice defeated Braden River 41-35 on Thursday.
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Venice defeated Braden River 41-35 on Thursday.

Braden River’s football team broke from its postgame huddle, with most of the players walking toward the locker room behind the home stands.

Quarterback Bryan Gagg remained on the field.

Kneeling, an emotional Gagg had a quick word with offensive coordinator Eric Sanders before heading back to the locker room to join his teammates.

Minutes earlier, the junior nearly brought the Pirates (1-1) back from a 14-point second-half deficit with a game-winning drive in a battle of two top-five ranked programs in Class 7A.

“This is probably the premier game on this coast,” Braden River head football coach Curt Bradley said. “And just came up a little short.”

Instead, some late penalties backed up Braden River on its final possession, forcing Gagg to loft two Hail Mary heaves in the closing seconds of a 41-35 loss to district rival Venice.

“Any time we’ve got the ball with two minutes to go and a six-point deficit, in our minds, we’re thinking we’re going to go win the football game,” Bradley said. “Whether that happens every single time, it might not and it didn’t (Thursday). But if we give ourselves that opportunity next time, we have all the faith in the world in our offense to go get that done.”

Now Braden River finds itself in a win-out scenario to avoid needing late-season math under the Florida High School Athletic Association’s new playoff points format.

To get to the ending sequence, Braden River and Venice delivered the classic shootout that was expected with two high-octane offenses.

Venice quarterback Bryce Carpenter rushed for 137 yards in the first half as the Indians’ main offensive weapon. He also accounted for two rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown in the first half.

“The quarterback is probably the best quarterback, maybe, I’ve ever coached against in high school,” Bradley said.

Braden River countered with its array of skill players, utilizing South Carolina commit Deshaun Fenwick (17 carries, 81 rushing yards) for two scores in the first half, while Gagg fed tight end Travis Tobey for another touchdown to bring the game to a 21-21 deadlock by halftime.

Venice, though, scored twice in five plays to open the second half and held a 14-point lead a little more than three minutes into the third quarter.

Gagg, though, quietly led the comeback.

On a pivotal fourth-and-5, Gagg ran from the pocket and slid baseball-style past the first down marker late in the third quarter.

He also took a helmet-to-helmet hit that set Braden River inside the red zone.

Cam White, who keyed the first half offensive push with 86 rushing yards, ran in an 8-yard score to close the gap to seven points.

Then in the fourth quarter, Gagg, who finished 19 of 34 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, found Daveon Wortham, who sliced past Venice’s defense for a 38-yard completion.

That drive tied the game at 35 after Knowledge McDaniel, who finished with 102 receiving yards on nine catches, scored on a 2-yard run following an undisclosed injury to White, who finished with 119 rushing yards.

The Indians, like they did the entire game, answered Braden River with an 8-play, 58-yard drive with a Carpenter 1-yard touchdown run.

That play was set up when Carpenter connected with Jaivon Heligh for a 29-yard reception, where he was ruled out at the 2 following an inadvertent whistle.

A botched snap on the ensuing extra point following Carpenter’s scoring plunge set up the chance for Braden River to win the game in the closing minutes.

“We got the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to win it, no more you can ask for,” Bradley said. “Extremely proud of everybody. We came out of halftime and gave up a touchdown on the second play and then give up a touchdown, whatever, two minutes later. And all of a sudden, we’re reeling. It could have gotten real ugly, but our kids fought back and made a dang good game out of it.”

But after quickly moving the ball and getting into the red zone, Braden River’s offense went in reverse.

Two false starts and one personal foul penalty, wedged around a negative pass play and a sack, meant Gagg had two cracks with deep heaves in the closing seconds.

They both went incomplete.

Venice stays atop Class 7A-District 11 alongside Lakewood Ranch and Palmetto, which hosts Braden River in a makeup game next week.

“We were in the same boat last year,” Bradley said. “It’s win or go home type of situation. I know the playoff points and you can put a pie chart up and (tally) up all the points, but in our minds we have to win out.”