SAN ANTONIO – Lanier leads the District 28-5A football race with a 4-0 record, but the Voks appeared headed for another lackluster season before breaking out of an early two-game skid.

Coming on the heels of a 1-9 finish last year, Lanier’s poor start was like a punch in the gut for a team looking to get the Voks back on track after four consecutive losing seasons. Although they dropped to 0-2 with a 35-21 defeat to Pleasanton the next week, longtime Lanier coach Don Gatian was hopeful on the bus ride back to San Antonio that night.

“Actually, the turnaround started in the second half of the Pleasanton game,” Gatian said Thursday. “Offensively, we started moving the ball. Defensively, we had three goal-line stands against them. That’s when everything kind of came together. Our kids started playing more as a team instead of individuals.”

Lanier hasn’t lost since then, taking sole possessions of first place in the 28-5A race and beating two-time defending league champion Sam Houston last week.

The Voks, 4-2 overall, play Edison (5-1, 3-1) in a key district game at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Alamo Stadium. Edison and Lanier are No. 7 and No. 10, respectively, in the KENS 5 Sub-6A area rankings.

“We’ve had some good games with Edison over the years,” Gatian said. “They’re well coached and they’ve got some good-sized kids. I told our kids it could possibly come down to the last play again. Plus, I told them when you’re undefeated you’ve got a big target on your back, too.”

A victory over the Golden Bears would give Gatian his 100th victory at Lanier, where he is in his 19th season as head coach. Gatian, 60, has a 99-98 record with the Voks. He was an assistant coach at Lanier for four seasons before succeeding Terry Hall in 1998.

The Lanier defense, putting the clamps on a Highlands ball carrier in a district game, has played a key role in the Voks' turnaround after a 0-2 start this season. 

Gatian didn’t hesitate when he was asked what has kept him at Lanier for so many years.

“Two things – the kids and the community,” said Gatian, who grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., the hometown of Pro Football Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett. “Our kids take pride in playing for Lanier, and the community always has supported us, even when we’ve been down. It’s a very proud community.”

Five of Gatian’s former players at Lanier – J.P. Boone (Class of ’99), Juan Cervantes (2002), Johnny Reyes (2007), Ivan Salazar (2000) and Salvador Tellez (2002) – are on Gatian’s coaching staff. A sixth assistant coach, David Boone, J.P. Boone's brother, is also a Lanier graduate. Salazar is the team’s offensive coordinator and Tellez heads the defense.

Gatian has led the Voks to two district championships and nine playoff seasons. He guided Lanier to the playoffs for the first time since 1940 in his first year at the helm, and the Voks’ only two postseason wins in school history have come during his watch.

Lanier leads Brackenridge (4-1) and Highlands (4-1) by a half-game in the 28-5A race, and is one game up on Edison. The Voks already have beaten Highlands, which defeated Sam Houston on Thursday night, and play Brackenridge on Oct. 27 in their next-to-last regular-season game.

Lanier jumped out to a 14-0 lead against Sam Houston, but had to make a defensive stand in the final seconds to secure a 27-21 victory.

“We had a bye after we lost to Pleasanton and we used the extra time to go back and just work on fundamentals, and prepare for the rest of the season,” Gatian said. “Our kids have played hard. They’re fighters.”

The Voks opened district play with a 33-21 victory against Highlands, and also beat Kennedy (19-14) and Jefferson (35-14) before last week’s big win over Sam Houston. Gatian said the final 90 seconds of the game against the Hurricanes “seemed like an eternity.” Sam Houston drove to the Lanier 14 in the final minute, before the Voks slammed the door on the scoring threat.

Lanier senior cornerback Damian Tovar, making an interception against Highlands in the Voks' District 28-5A opener, is one of the team's defensive leaders. 

Gatian said the victory over the Hurricanes was the most gratifying for Lanier since it beat Kerrville Tivy in the first round of the playoffs in 2006.

“It gives our players a lot of confidence in what they can do,” Gatian said. “We kept telling our kids that they hadn’t been challenged yet, but the game against Sam Houston was a challenge. Our guys rose to the occasion. When we got back on campus after the game, there wasn’t a lot of celebrating. They realized that the game could have very easily gone the other way.

“Yes, it was a win. It was a great win, but I think our players realized they made mistakes that might have made the game closer than it should have been. When we watched video of the game Saturday, some of them were picking out the mistakes they made before we could say anything to them. That win is making them focus more. They realize it takes a team to win.”

Junior quarterback J.D. Boone and sophomore running back Christian Cervantes have keyed a Lanier offense that has improved steadily. Boone has completed 57 of 113 yards, with six interceptions, for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. He is the son of assistant coach J.P. Boone and nephew of assistant coach David Boone.

Cervantes, the younger brother of former Voks running back Isaac Cervantes, has fueled the running game with 564 yards and five TDs on 92 carries (6.13 average).

“Boone has gotten better because he listens,” Gatian said. “He’s coachable. Cervantes gets better with each game.”

Gatian also praised the offensive line, which is manned by center Nathaniel Esquivel, guards Victor Castro and Elroy Helmke, and tackles Jesse Mann and Jason Lopez. All are seniors except Esquivel, a junior.

The defense has been led, Gatian said, by the all-senior group of nose guard Anthony Alvarado, end James Perez, outside linebacker Steve Torres, cornerback Damian Tovar and strong safety Julio Rodriguez.

“Since the Pleasanton game, our defense communicates with each other a lot more on the field,” Gatian said. “They make sure that everybody knows what they’re doing. When they come to the bench, they tell their coaches what’s working and what isn’t working. That makes it easier to make adjustments during the game or at halftime.”