Vance tops Gazette's all-area team
JANESVILLE—The third-grade version of DJ Vance thought he was fast, but he didn't know for sure until his soon-to-be football coach set up a foot race.
Vance was to run against the coach's brother, who was a couple years older than Vance.
“I beat him, so he was like, 'You're fast, why don't you go out for football?'” Vance recalls. “That was really the moment.
“I always thought I was fast, but when I could easily sprint away from kids on the football field it was just like, 'I really am.'”
Eight years later, Vance still has speed to burn, and some of his Big Eight Conference opponents learned it the hard way.
The three-time WIAA state track and field meet qualifier showed off his speed on the football field this fall. He led the conference with 1,294 rushing yards, good for a league-best mark of 143.8 yards per game. And he scored 13 touchdowns—12 rushing—to help lead the Vikings to a 4-6 record and their first playoff appearance in four seasons.
For those efforts, Vance is The Gazette's area player of the year.
A quick look at DJ Vance's times on the track show exactly how fast the Parker junior can run.
He took eighth at state in the 200-meter dash this past spring, running the race in 22.65 seconds. Vance also ran the anchor leg of Parker's 4x200 relay team that set the Big Eight meet record and finished just shy of qualifying for the Division 1 final heat. He was also part of that same state-qualifying relay team his freshman year.
“It's that track speed,” Parker football coach Clayton Kreger said of what makes Vance special. “Once he gets to that second level, there's no catching him.
“But I think a lot of people don't give him enough credit for how hard a runner he is. He's a physical guy, a tough guy, and you're going to have to force him to come out of the game. He won't take himself out.”
To Vance, the difference between track and football isn't the difference in what he's carrying—a football instead of a baton—but the patience and eyesight.
“With football you have to fit into smaller places,” he said. “You have to figure out a way to go and what to do. In track, you stay between the two solid lines.”
Vance had no trouble finding the holes his Vikings linemen opened up for him this season.
He rushed for at least 73 yards in all nine games he played and eclipsed 100 in five of them. Vance almost certainly would have made it six had he not been knocked out of the regular-season finale at Madison West with a neck injury after just 11 carries (90 yards).
In all seven games that Parker scored at least one touchdown, Vance had at least one of his own.
He became the feature back of an offense that was looking to get back to the hard-running days that sent the Vikings to the playoffs every year but one from 1996 to 2011.
“We wanted to get back to Parker football, and that's running the football,” said Kreger, a first-year coach who played during the Vikings' glory years. “We just went with the hot hand, and a lot of the time it was DJ.
“He really bought into our program, and the thing about DJ is he just keeps getting better.”
Never was Vance better this season than during a Dec. 18 home game at Monterey Stadium against Madison East.
He rushed 22 times for 310 yards and four touchdowns, but it was actually a play through the air that set the tone in a 36-15 Vikings victory.
In the first quarter, Vance streaked down the field through a driving rain and looked up as Deang Deang seemed to have an interception between his hands. Instead, Vance lofted up and snared the ball away for a 44-yard touchdown catch that propelled him to a night of 354 total offensive yards.
“I was excited because I caught the ball and didn't know how I did it,” Vance said. “Coach was actually worried before the game because it was raining and I had gloves on. He made everyone else take off their gloves, and I was the only one that kept them on. I don't know if that meant something, because it gave me good luck.”
Vance said he'll work on his footwork and cutting heading into his senior football season. After adding 13 pounds to his 6-foot frame for this year, he's also still working on bulking up.
He has received most of his college interest to this point on the track but hasn't decided which sport he would most like to pursue at the next level.
Most importantly, however, Vance is looking forward to helping lead the Vikings to another playoff appearance in 2016 after the late-season neck injury relegated him to cheering on the sidelines during Parker's trip this year.
“We had good teamwork,” Vance said when asked what he'll remember most about the 2015 season. “When we were on the sidelines, we'd talk to each other.
“It was our dedication of trying to win and trying to achieve our goal of making it to the playoffs, and we did it.”