About a month ago, Vance played at Charlotte Catholic in the first round of the N.C. 4A high school football playoffs. Vance, a gifted passing team with a talented quarterback, was getting into position to upset the unbeaten Cougars.
Vance coach Aaron Brand called for a bootleg, where junior quarterback Kingsley Ifedi would roll out to pass, moving away from his blockers who rolled in the other direction.
Then Ifedi would throw to tight end Jeremiah Hall, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior who has scholarship offers from N.C. State and Charlotte. Everything worked perfectly, except Charlotte Catholic linebacker Xander Gagnon wasn’t fooled by the motion of the offensive linemen - at least not completely.
As Hall caught the ball and turned upfield, Vance coach Aaron Brand thought he had a big play, perhaps a touchdown.
Gagnon used his large hands to grab Hall and pull him down.
Brand’s potential touchdown? It became a 2-yard gain.
Catholic won 26-20 in overtime, then won three more games to advance to Saturday’s 4A state championship in Winston-Salem against Greenville Rose.
“That wasn’t the first time he’s done that this year,” Brand said Wednesday of Gagnon. “That guy is rangy and tough to game plan for. I had my doubts about him last year, but he’s very, very worthy of the praise and accolades he’s getting.
“Don’t take this out of context, but I remember reading about (Panthers linebacker) Luke Kuechly when he was coming out of high school. Everybody thought he was a step slow, a step soft, a step small. This kid is kind of in that mode. Everybody’s not giving him credit, but he gets it done. He just flat out gets it done.”
Gagnon, who has a 3.5 grade-point average, has 133 tackles this season. Along with lineman Connor Miller (94 tackles, 10 sacks), Gagnon is the leader of a Cougars’ defensive unit that has five shutouts and allowed just 114 points in 14 games.
Gagnon -- who chose Duke over North Carolina, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest -- said two of his biggest assets are his long arms and hands. Everyone at school is always comparing their hand size to his. So far, he said, no Catholic student has mitts that are bigger.
“I know they’re more physical kids than me,” said Gagnon, who is 6-foot-3 and 225 pound. “But I get it done with other things. I use my hands more than other people, and with my long arms and hands, I can shed a block and get a hand on someone, and when I do they’re not escaping it.
“It’s not your classic form tackle, but it does get people to the ground.”
Gagnon switched from safety to linebacker his sophomore year. He said it was a tough adjustment, but he’s more confident in his new role. Cougars coach Mike Brodowicz said he sees the improvement in Gagnon’s play.
“The Northwestern coaches were the first ones to talk about his great hand strength,” Brodowicz said, “and he’s exceptionally fast. He ran a 4.56 (40-yard dash) at Duke, and I never thought he could run that fast.
“But he covers so much ground. He drops in pass coverage and can cover up a whole zone with his size and length. And he rarely ever misses a tackle.”
That stands out to Ardrey Kell coach Joe Evans: Gagnon doesn’t miss tackling opportunities.
“He’s a baller,” Evans said. “His instincts are great and he’s very athletic, a big strong kid, and he does all the little things you want a linebacker to do. He doesn’t miss many tackles. You can’t get him out of position, and you know you have to get to him and Connor Miller.
“With Gagnon, you can’t do a lot of things you do to other teams. He’s a guy on defense you’ve simply got to account for.”
In 2004 and 2005, Charlotte Catholic won back-to-back N.C. 3AA championships. Since then, the Cougars reached the state finals in 2006, 2007, 2012 and 2014 but lost. Gagnon said Catholic is determined to end that drought.
“It’s a different story with us,” he said. “We’re a team that has a lot of talent. We’ve got a stronger defense than we have had in past and not putting all the weight on a guy like (former running back) Elijah Hood.
“Our class has been special from the beginning. I think this is our year. We have four Division I players on the field and shutting guys out left and right on defense. I think we’re going to get it done.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr