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For The Fallen | Love, Loss, Late Heroics & Vanden Football

Vanden, Football, State Championship

The CIF 5-AA State Championship trophy and the helmet of slain Vanden High (Fairfield) football player Daniel Hughes are held aloft over celebrating Vanden players in the wake of their CIF title win over Aquinas-San Bernardino on Dec. 11, 2021. (Chace Bryson photo/illustration)

Vanden Won Its First CIF State Bowl In Wildly Dramatic Fashion — And Closed Out An 18-Month Stretch Full Of Pain, Resiliency And Joy •

PICTURED ABOVE: The helmet of slain Vanden High player Daniel Hughes is held above celebrating Vikings players along with the state championship trophy. (Chace Bryson photo/illustration)

Jamai East took pictures with family. He took pictures with teammates. He took pictures with cheerleaders and then signed his autograph on a handful of items. 

He smiled.

His smile was one of joy, and one of relief. It was the same smile that could be seen on every other Vanden High football player. 

Vikings quarterback Tre Dimes wore that same smile as he stood talking to reporters with a football still cradled in his left arm and resting against his side. It was the same football Dimes threw to East for a pair of touchdowns inside the last six minutes of the CIF 3-AA State Bowl Championship Game. Two touchdowns that led Vanden to a stirring 14-13 come-from-behind win over visiting Aquinas-San Bernardino.

The Fairfield school’s first ever state football crown closed out one of the most trying chapters in program history. 

Jamai East hugs his dad, Jai East, as the Vanden High football team celebrates it CIF 3-AA State Bowl Championship win. (Chace Bryson photo)

Over the last four months of 2020, while players were still waiting for a chance to break free from the state’s COVID-related shutdown of high school sports, Vikings assistant coaches Dan Garner and Michael Belk Sr. both passed away. Then on Easter Sunday of 2021, in the midst of the team’s spring season, Vanden junior receiver and safety Daniel Hughes was shot and killed.

This 2021 fall season was dedicated to them. And one doesn’t need to be a Hollywood screenwriter to believe Vanden’s 11th hour turnaround on that chilly Dec. 11 night wasn’t without a heavenly touch. 

Dimes believed it.

“He would be so proud of us. So proud of us,” the junior quarterback said of the fallen Hughes, both a football and basketball standout for Vanden. “One thing is he would never stop fighting, no matter the score. He gave me the strength to get through this game. I was struggling. My confidence was very low in the first half. I talked to my brother and I could feel him say, ‘You got this. Go win this.’”

Confidence was in short supply throughout the Vanden sideline after three quarters of play. 


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Aquinas led the game 13-0 and the Falcons’ defense had proven nearly unsolvable. Vanden’s first nine possessions ended in either punts or turnovers. Dimes was sacked six times through the first three quarters. 

The Vikings’ seventh punt of the night came with 9:28 left in the game and followed their fifth 3-and-out of the night. Hope was also not in great supply. 

Then it arrived like a thunderbolt, delivered by the left hand of Devin Martin as it cleanly blocked an Aquinas punt. 

Devin Martin gets a clean block of an Aquinas fourth-quarter punt that starts the Vikings’ comeback. (Dennis Lee photo)

“I did my job,” Martin said. “My coach said go block it, and I did it. Step right, took a left and just got my hand up. Just playing football.”

There was a palpable sense of momentum change in the air — despite the fact that Vanden’s offense had done nothing to that point to prove it could capitalize on Martin’s play. But still, the crowd energy surged not unlike the jet engines that fire routinely at Travis Air Force Base just a stone’s throw from the Vanden campus. 

“I think everyone felt it. I think the whole stadium felt it,” Martin said of the collective spark that came from his special teams play. “That just rocked the whole stadium. I think everyone here thought, ‘Oh shoot! Something is about to happen.’”

The Vikings took over at the Aquinas 44-yard line, and Dimes suddenly looked locked in. He hit Brayden Chavez for back-to-back first-down throws of 16 and 15 yards. On the third offensive play of the series, Dimes got the defensive look he and East were hoping for. The Aquinas cornerback covering East moved into press coverage.  

“Honestly we saw the 1-on-1 matchup and Trey was like, ‘Oh yeah, he can’t take you,’” East said. “So he threw it up and we made it happen.”

East was able to outleap the Aquinas defender and bring down the fade pass in the back right corner of the end zone with 6:31 to play. It was 13-7. 

Tre Dimes looks down field on a second half rollout. (Dennis Lee photo)

Vanden’s defense rode the wave and forced Aquinas into a 3-and-out, and the Vikings had the ball back with a chance to take the lead. The game-winning drive began on their own 42-yard line with 4:12 to play. 

Senior tailback Sean Davis made the first big play by breaking the first of two big runs on the drive. But after his 13-yard run put the Vikings in Aquinas territory, Dimes was forced into three straight incompletions. Then on 4th-and-10 he found Amarion York for 12 yards. 

A 19-yard run by Davis would get the Vikings down to the 11-yard line with 2:55 left. That was followed by a couple of negative plays and things were growing bleak. 

But Dimes still had two more throws in him. 

“I think he did what he’d been doing all playoffs long,” Vanden coach Sean Murphy said of his quarterback’s poise. “He sat in the pocket. Trusted his offensive line, stepped up and made big throws. I’m really proud of him. His whole game, but especially the fourth quarter.”

Dimes found York for a 15-yard pass that got the ball to the 4-yard line and set up a 4th-and-3.

You got this. Go win this. 

“We called for slants, and the offensive line gave me great time,” Dime said. “After that it was time to go into scramble drill and just make a play. Jamai saw me scramble so he broke the receiver off and I just gave the ball to him.”

East immediately dropped the ball in the end zone and took off in a blind sprint toward the Vanden sideline.

“I don’t remember anything after (catching it),” East said laughing. “I remember I ended up on the sideline and I was tired.”

Vanden’s home crowd erupts in jubilation as Jamai East (11) arrives on the sideline just seconds after catching the go-ahead touchdown pass. (Dennis Lee photo)

Dimes remembers still being nervous. 

“Any special teams makes me nervous,” the quarterback said. “So I actually was over on the sideline on my knees praying that he would make the (PAT) kick.”

Diego Nunez-Smith drilled the point-after kick for a 14-13 lead with 1:08 left to play. Aquinas would make it just two plays into their last possession before East came up with an interception to seal the win.

Close to 30 minutes after the game, Dimes still stood near the 20-yard line — not all that far from where he released his game-winning touchdown pass — still holding the football. He watched as his teammates laughed, hugged and cried. 

“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “I love this team. I’ve been playing with them since sixth grade. It just feels great to win. We put in so much hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and losing people and being tested as a team. It just feels good to be rewarded.”

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