FOOTBALL 2020: Lessons from Salado's playoff loss to state champ motivate Eagles for another charge
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
SET FOR THEIR FINAL FLIGHT: Outside linebacker Peyton Miller (left) and safety/running back/kicker/punter Wrook Brown are skilled and experienced leaders for Salado, whose strong senior class propels the Eagles into the 2020 season. Salado, 8-4 last year, seeks to snap a two-game losing streak to area rival Troy when the Class 4A Eagles battle the 3A Trojans at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mary Hardin-Baylor's Crusader Stadium in Belton. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
HAIRE AT THE HELM: Alan Haire enters his fifth season as Salado's head coach with a 31-17 record, three playoff appearances and five postseason wins at his alma mater. Junior Hutton Haire, his son, enters his third season as the starting quarterback in the Eagles' run-heavy Slot-T offense. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
SALADO – The Salado Eagles accomplished a lot of good things in 2019. They won eight games, recorded a playoff victory and rushed for 355 yards per game.
But last Nov. 23 inside The Star's Ford Center in Frisco, Salado coach Alan Haire had his team stay on the field and watch Texarkana Pleasant Grove rejoice after the dominant Hawks ran for 349 of their 488 total yards and controlled the Eagles 42-14 in a Class 4A Division II area-round playoff game.
Pleasant Grove, which current Salado senior all-purpose standout Wrook Brown described as “smothering,” went on to reach its third consecutive state championship game and capture its second state title in three years.
Haire wanted Salado's players to fully appreciate what a state championship-caliber team looks like, because in 2020 the skilled, experienced Eagles are determined to advance as far in the postseason as possible.
“It helps us. They were the best team in the state in 4A Division II last year,” Brown said about Pleasant Grove, against whom he rushed for 46 yards and caught four passes for 57 yards as Salado finished 8-4. “Seeing how they fired off every snap and competed every down, we learned we had to (elevate our level of play).”
Current senior linebacker Peyton Miller had a similar reaction to Salado's rough playoff exit.
“Obviously we were all mad that we lost. I don't know if we really felt like we hung in there or not. I think it showed us what the best is and how we should prepare for it,” said Miller, a first-team all-district performer who collected 93 tackles – 11 for loss – and six sacks. “(We have to) keep it in our minds all week that they're big and they're going to be strong, but we just have to outwork them to play with anyone that size.”
Haire has no doubts that the Pleasant Grove experience has rubbed off on his 2020 team.
“It's got to. We've played the best in the state. So if we can line up and play football against them, now we know what it takes. I think that's a blessing if you ask me," said Haire, who's 115-86 in 18 seasons as a head coach, including 31-17 with three playoff trips and five postseason wins with Salado as he enters his fifth season at his alma mater.
Furthermore, Salado opens this season with a very grueling schedule. Ranked No. 21 in 4A Division II by Texas Football magazine, the Eagles start with a clash against area rival Troy – No. 9 in 3A Division I – at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mary Hardin-Baylor's Crusader Stadium in Belton.
Salado will challenge powerhouse Grandview next Friday night at Eagle Stadium. The second-ranked Zebras have won the last two 3A Division I state championships behind prolific quarterback/safety Dane Jentsch, a senior who's been the offensive and defensive MVP in both state title game victories.
Troy has been a thorn in Salado's side, beating the Eagles in seven of the previous eight seasons (Salado won 33-0 in the 2017 opener). In last year's season opener at UMHB, Troy then-junior Zach Hrbacek rushed for 213 yards and two 75-yard touchdowns and added a 27-yard TD reception to lead the Trojans to a 28-14 win despite Salado's 314 rushing yards.
Salado shoots to break its two-game losing streak against Troy, which won 12 games last year before Grandview eliminated the Trojans 34-13 in the 3A Division I Region III final.
“They're good and very balanced,” Haire said of Troy's offense. “Any time you have such a dynamic back like theirs, it doesn't matter if it's the standard I (formation) – you don't have to block a lot of people for (Hrbacek) to get loose.”
Fortunately for the Eagles, their 3-4 defense has a slew of talented and experienced players returning. Among them is 6-foot-1, 205-pound outside linebacker Miller, a third-year varsity player.
“He's smart. He's a student of the game,” Haire said. “It's important to him, so he puts his athletic ability with his intelligence and he's someone you can trust on the field.”
“My mentality when I'm on the field is to be as physical as I can,” said Miller, who has a football offer from NCAA Division III Carleton College in Minnesota. “Fast and physical is what we preach. Coach (John) Kirk likes to yell that a lot. Everyone gets to the ball as fast as they can and rallies around it. Everyone on our defense has been working extremely hard. It's the same with the offense, though.”
One guy who can be found on offense, defense and special teams is Brown, another third-year varsity standout who kicks and punts. Although the 5-11, 175-pound Brown rushed for 1,165 yards and 14 touchdowns last year in Salado's punishing Slot-T attack, the versatile senior's most important role this season will be at safety.
“I didn't work really any defense last year until the end of district and the playoffs,” Brown said, “so going into this year having played quite a bit of defense in practice, that'll be a good thing.”
Haire feels good about letting Brown put more attention on defense because senior fullback Noah Mescher and emerging sophomore halfback Caden Strickland are slotted to join senior tailback Reid Vincent (1,203 rushing yards) in the Eagles' three-pronged backfield attack.
“He'll still do a bunch of everything,” Haire said of Brown, “but right now it's a little less offense. If (the other running backs) can manage, it just puts Wrook in his natural (safety) position and gives him a chance to use his athletic ability. He's gonna have to be in there too offensively.”
Said Brown about Strickland: “He got moved up late last year and he's done real well. He'll be a big playmaker for us.”
Salado's defense brings back a large crew of dependable senior players. Joining Miller and Brown in that group are linebackers Kofi Stoglin (87 tackles, five sacks) – last year's District 8-4A Division II defensive newcomer of the year – Lucas Morvant and Greg Washington, ends Ryan Poe and Kory Walker and cornerback LaTrell Jenkins.
“We've got a lot of returners and more experience, and that'll play in our favor,” Brown said.
Aggressive, persistent blocking is essentially what butters the bread of Haire's customary Slot-T rushing attack, and first-team all-district senior center Bryce Dobbins leads the offensive line. He's joined by senior quick tackle Avery Womack, junior quick guard Aidan Wilson, senior strong guard K.C. Perkins and junior strong tackle Gavyn Keyser along with senior tight end Nick Sibbitt.
Junior Hutton Haire certainly doesn't put up gaudy statistics, but he's entering his third season as the starting quarterback and has the experience to adeptly facilitate and execute the Slot-T offense for his father, Salado's head coach.
“The mentality of this offense is we're a physical team. We pride ourselves on that,” Brown said. “It's always a good thing to try to be the most physical team when we're on offense.”
Salado will compete in six-team District 9-4A Division II and is picked to take third place behind 15th-ranked Waco Connally (12-1 last year) and No. 18 China Spring. Gatesville, Jarrell and Robinson are the Eagles' other district opponents.
With Salado moving from Region II to Region III, it can't match up with Pleasant Grove again until the state championship game. However, a potential bi-district opponent for the Eagles is top-ranked Carthage, which dropped to 4A Division II after its 16-0 run last year to the 4A D-I state championship.
If Salado manages to steer clear of Carthage in the first round, the Eagles might earn an opportunity to battle the dynastic Bulldogs deeper in the Region III bracket. If that transpires, the lessons they learned from last November's lopsided postseason loss to Pleasant Grove could pay major dividends for this seasoned Salado squad.
“This senior group has been together for a while. A lot of us got pulled up (to varsity) our sophomore year. We didn't have very much success that year, but last year we kind of got the ball rolling,” Brown said. “This year we're full steam and ready to go. We all have the same mentality. We go hard. It means a lot to the seniors."