SALADO'S GO-TO GUYS: Strong end Gavyn Keyser (left) and free safety Josh Huckabee are two seniors whom the Salado Eagles are relying upon to help lead the defending District 9-4A Division II champions back to the Class 4A D-II state playoffs. Keyser was the district's Offensive Lineman of the Year last season as a tackle, but he's moved to a tight end position after shedding a large amount of weight during the offseason. Salado lost a big group of defensive standouts to graduation from its 11-2 Region III semifinal squad, but Huckabee returns after making 82 tackles. Sixth-year head coach Alan Haire's Eagles open the season against familiar foe Troy at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Mary Hardin-Baylor's Crusader Stadium in Belton. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
SALADO – The Salado Eagles have advanced to at least the second round of the playoffs in four of Alan Haire’s five seasons as head coach, and several constants have contributed to their consistent success: punishing, relentless rushing in the Slot-T offense, a hard-hitting, sure-tackling defense and a hard-working, focused approach.
Those are the constants, but Haire and the Eagles also are ready and willing to change when the need arises – at least when it comes to personnel and positions.
For example, Noah Mescher was a starting safety as a junior for Salado’s 8-4 squad in 2019. But he switched to fullback as a senior and rushed for 1,575 yards and 21 touchdowns to help power the 11-2 Eagles to an undefeated District 9-4A Division II championship and a trip to the Class 4A Division II Region III semifinals.
Beau Hill was a defensive lineman last year; this season the senior will be Salado’s starting center. Aidan Wilson blocked at quick guard last season; as a senior this year he’ll get to carry the football from his new fullback position. He’ll be joined in the backfield by junior Seth Reavis, who started at cornerback last season but now has moved to tailback.
And then there’s Gavyn Keyser, whose dominant blocking at the Eagles’ strong tackle spot earned him the district’s Outstanding Offensive Lineman award in 2020. However, that was when he weighed in at 300-plus pounds.
Keyser committed himself during the offseason to losing weight and getting in better shape. Now chiseled and much quicker at 240 pounds, Keyser has moved to the strong end position, which is a tight end in common parlance and could allow him to catch some passes along with still providing his customary stellar blocking.
That kind of adaptability and flexibility helps Salado’s steady program maintain its winning ways.
“You get better at where you are, and then we’re going to find a way to plug you into where you can help our team be better. We’re not scared to do that,” said Haire, who has guided his alma mater to a 42-19 record, four playoff berths and seven postseason wins. “You just have to fill some pieces of the puzzle to help your offense.
“We try to give (the players) an opportunity to show us. I want them to be able to approach us if they want to try something, and then we’ll figure out, ‘OK, what’s best for the team?’”
Salado kicks off its schedule against traditional season-opening opponent Troy at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Crusader Stadium in Belton, where Salado edged Bellville 28-23 in a spirited area-round playoff battle. The Eagles beat the Trojans 46-27 a year ago at UMHB, building momentum for a 9-1 regular season.
In Keyser’s case, his offseason transformation was completely self-motivated.
“Last year before the first game I was about 330. I just saw myself and I looked sluggish on the field,” the 6-foot-3 Keyser said. “I didn’t like the way I looked and how I was playing. The fatigue was getting to me.”
So after Salado’s strong season ended with a 35-7 third-round loss to East Texas powerhouse and eventual state champion Carthage, Keyser got serious about working out and cleaning up his diet.
“(No more) Taco Bell. It was just drinking plenty of water and eating plenty of protein,” he said. “It just happened and I started feeling better. I lost a little bit of strength, but the speed increase is insane and I’m still strong.”
Haire said Keyser’s gradual transformation was impressive to witness.
“Gavyn powerlifts during the spring, and as he watched his diet he could see some of the weight come off and he could see his body change,” Haire said. “And he liked the ability that his feet were moving faster. He just stayed with it, and he’s 10 times faster. He can carry what he has better and doesn’t get fatigued as fast. I wasn’t going to push him one way or another, but once he wanted to make that transition, it was fine with me.”
All right, but has Keyser really gone all the way from 330 pounds to 240? Haire half-joked that he’s not so sure about those figures.
“That’s pushing it a little bit. I think he was more like 305 to 310 during last season, and in powerlifting he got in the 275-pound weight class,” a grinning Haire said. “I bet he’s 265 right now. I don’t think he’s 240, but that sounds good.”
Whatever the scale actually says, the coach believes that Keyser projects very well at his new strong end post.
“Tight end is a good role for him, because he can move his feet. If he’s going to play at the next level, they probably wouldn’t mind seeing a 6-3, 240-pound tight end that can run,” Haire said. “And (after) playing strong tackle, some of the rules are the same. The blocking doesn’t change a whole lot. I don’t know how many (passes) we’ll send his way, but he is athletic. I think he’s willing to just give great effort for his senior year and see where that takes him.”
STEADY SUCCESS: In five seasons at his alma mater, Salado head coach Alan Haire has guided the Eagles to a 42-19 record, four playoff appearances and seven postseason wins, including last year's 11-2 march to the District 9-4A Division II championship and the Class 4A D-II Region III semifinals. His youngest son, Hutton Haire, is entering his fourth season as Salado's starting quarterback, directing the Eagles' run-heavy Slot-T offensive attack. Texas Football magazine ranks Salado as the state's No. 12 team in 4A Division II. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Texas Football magazine projects that defending champion Salado will finish second in six-team 9-4A D-II behind China Spring, whose Cougars lost 28-14 to the Eagles last year but went one round farther in the playoffs before Carthage controlled them 52-14 in the Region III final. Salado travels to China Spring on Oct. 22 after beginning district play one week earlier at Gatesville.
The magazine’s preseason state rankings have China Spring at No. 7 and Salado at No. 12. Not surprisingly, Carthage is ranked No. 1.
Salado’s last two playoff treks ended against dynamic squads that went on to capture state championships – 42-14 against Texarkana Pleasant Grove in Round 2 in 2019 and the 28-point regional semifinal loss to undefeated Carthage.
“They’re well-coached, and if you want to be a successful football team in the playoffs, you’ve got to have good kids that like to be coached hard,” Haire said. “We had our chances against each of them. Those games prepare your kids, even the ones who are in the bleachers watching. ‘Hey, we can line up with these guys.’ In 2017 it was West Orange-Stark.”
Battle-tested standouts Keyser and senior free safety Josh Huckabee believe those experiences have made the Eagles stronger and smarter about what’s required to advance deep into the playoffs.
“I’d say it’s definitely a big opportunity for people to learn, because if we want to get to that level eventually in Salado, we’ve got to play with those people. The only way to do that is to get on the field with them and go quarter-for-quarter,” said Huckabee, who made 82 tackles last season. “They’re very smart teams. They know what they’re doing. They know what purpose they have on the field and they work very efficiently together.
“It just shows us their size and skill, so if we’re going to match them, we’ve got to get in the weight room and get bigger and get on the field and get the work in. And it’s also the smarts level and understanding what’s going to happen and understanding what your role is.”
Added Keyser: “I love playing teams like that. I love a challenge. You get to just test yourself and see how good you are. I feel like they have a variety of kids in a variety of spots. They have talent across the board. It’s not that they work harder than us; they just have a lot of talent.”
Salado’s challenging non-district schedule includes a Sept. 3 game at 3A Division I No. 7 Grandview (which defeated the host Eagles 21-7 a year ago) and another road test a week later against 4A D-I Stephenville at Tarleton State’s Memorial Stadium.
“If you play an easier schedule, you’re going to set yourself up to when the games get tighter and more competitive, I don’t know if you’re able to execute at that level you need to be at,” said Haire, whose squad scrimmaged Brownwood and Giddings and won't play its home opener until its fourth game, Sept. 17 against Mexia. “So you’ve got to use it to your advantage where it’ll only make you better.”
This season Salado must overcome the graduation of do-it-all performer Wrook Brown, the district MVP who scored 141 points – 14 touchdowns as a halfback plus 57 points as a kicker – and paced the Eagles with 92 tackles from his free safety position. The multiple-season stalwart now plays for Wyoming.
“He did everything,” Haire remarked.
“Of course, Wrook was an amazing player, but we can’t dwell on our losses,” Keyser said. “We have kids who can fill those spots definitely.”
Quarterback is not a glamorous position in Haire’s vaunted Slot-T offense, in which the signal-caller’s primary task is to distribute the ball to the halfback, tailback and fullback in an attack that relies on deception and angles. But QB is where his youngest son, Hutton Haire, is entering his fourth season as the starter.
The 6-1, 195-pound senior operates a ground-based attack that rushed for 363 yards per game last year. A first-team all-district player in 2020, he had three rushing touchdowns and was efficient when he did throw, completing 17 of 35 passes for 375 yards with six TDs and zero interceptions.
“Really you’ve got to have an unselfish guy that’ll just take the snap and get the ball where it needs to be,” said Alan Haire, whose oldest son, Hayden Haire, quarterbacked the Eagles in very similar fashion in 2016 and 2017 before Hutton succeeded him at QB. “We’re not scared to be run-dominant, and we’re not scared to take some shots (with downfield passes) if we need to.”
Said Keyser: “I feel like Hutton’s definitely put in his work this offseason and summer and he’s come back way better.”
Alan Haire said he’s trying his best to savor each moment as he prepares to coach Hutton in his final high school season.
“I reflect back. I sit back and take 20 or 30 seconds and try to inhale and absorb it,” the coach said. “I was talking to him the other day. You know, it’s kind of like instead of just eating that whole box of raisins real quick, just try one at a time. And I try to slow down and get one at a time. Just try to enjoy every practice and the process rather than worrying about the result.
“It’s so amazing how quickly a high school career can move, and I always try to remind them that your high school career is like steam off a kettle. It’s going to dissipate and disappear in front of you, so enjoy every second you get. I have had some moments where you get emotional about it. But there’s no slowing down time, so just enjoy it.”
Following the graduation of Mescher, 1,200-yard tailback Reid Vincent and the versatile Brown, junior halfback Caden Strickland is Salado’s top returning runner. He shared the district’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year award after rushing for 564 yards and nine touchdowns and scoring 11 TDs overall.
Joining the shifty Strickland in the Eagles’ three-headed backfield are converted guard Wilson (5-10, 210) at fullback and converted cornerback Reavis at tailback.
“We’re just trying to find athletes that are willing to give game effort,” Alan Haire said. “If they can give perfect game effort, you’ve got to find ways to get them the football.”
Salado has high hopes for its starting offensive line of junior quick tackle Jaxson Leiskau, senior quick guard Ethan Bagley, senior center Hill, senior strong guard Waylon Padleski and junior strong tackle Dray McLane. Junior Cavahn Wilson is another prospect on the line, and seniors Huckabee and Nic Bates will provide tight end depth to complement the production that Keyser plans to provide at his new strong end position.
“Every year we’re going for the whole ground-and-pound thing and eat the clock up,” Keyser said. “I feel like we’re a good, young team this year. We drive hard.”
On the defensive side, Salado will strive to replicate the stubborn form of last season’s feisty unit that permitted only 259.1 yards per game, 85.1 through the air. However, the Eagles must find productive replacements for the key players they lost to graduation, including district Defensive MVP Peyton Miller at linebacker, Brown at free safety and numerous other standouts.
“We always talk about playing fast and hitting them before they hit us,” said all-district safety Huckabee (6-2, 182), who added approximately 15 pounds of muscle since last season and is shifting to free safety after having been more involved in stopping the run at strong safety. “We always want to come out strong and hold them to as little as possible and let our offense get back on the field.”
Armed with the goal of continuing his football career in college, Huckabee has big personal and team goals for his senior campaign.
“I’d like to make first-team all-district again and I’d definitely like to make the all-state team. I’m going to work as hard as I can to get to that level,” he said. “And most importantly, I just want to be a leader on the defense and make sure that everyone can carry on after I’m gone.”
Salado’s coach has high marks for Huckabee’s skills and leadership.
“Josh was a JV quarterback a few years ago and has worked his way up the food chain. He comes from a military background and he’s seen what it takes,” Alan Haire said. “He’s dedicated himself to being the best he can be and he’s definitely one of our defensive leaders. I just see him gaining more confidence.
“He worked so hard in the spring to be more athletic and able to make more plays. We’re going to need him to continue what he’s doing and study the game and set our defense in the right position to be successful.”
Salado’s defense also expects effective play from senior Blake Volk, junior Cavahn Wilson and emerging sophomore Garrett Combs (6-3, 245) on the line and from seniors Bates and Braydon Sumners, junior Nolan Miller and sophomore Dylan Wigley at the linebacker spots. Senior Jake Windham and junior Ryland Woods join Huckabee in the secondary, as will Reavis when needed.
Nolan Miller is the brother of former defensive stalwart Peyton Miller, and Alan Haire is eager to see what kind of season the younger Miller can put together.
“He’s not Peyton, because he’s Nolan. He brings his own attributes to the table,” the coach said. “He gives great effort. He’s a defensive playmaker and he’s all over the field.”
Junior Drew Bird takes over for Brown as the Eagles’ kicker and also is in the mix at tailback and safety, while Strickland and Bates are the top options at punter.
“We’ve just got a good, tight-knit group of seniors that have played together and stayed together,” Alan Haire said. "And the junior class is talented as well. They get along.”
As Salado embarks on its quest to earn another district championship and perhaps get another shot at Carthage in the regional semifinals, experienced players such as Huckabee and Keyser aim to show their younger teammates what’s required.
“We just want to teach them the work ethic that we had last year and how hard everybody worked to get to that level (and to be) that great of a team,” Huckabee said. “We want to keep trying to build that team bond and experience.”
Keyser’s main message to his teammates: “It’s gonna get hard. It’s whether you give up or not. And our team just doesn’t give up."