HUGE TEST: Sixth-ranked Salado aims to extend special season vs. state powerhouse, No. 1 Carthage
SENIOR STRENGTH: Linebacker Peyton Miller (left) and safety/halfback/kicker/punter Wrook Brown are two of Salado's many seniors who have propelled the Eagles to an 11-1 record and a No. 6 state ranking entering their Class 4A Division II Region III semifinal against No. 1 Carthage (10-0) at 5:30 p.m. Friday at New Caney ISD's Randall Reed Stadium in Porter. Salado earned a 28-23 win over Bellville last Friday, while Carthage blasted Silsbee 49-0. The East Texas-based Bulldogs went 16-0 last season in winning the 4A D-I championship, their seventh state title in 13 seasons with head coach Scott Surratt. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
SALADO – Before he got into the details of breaking down Salado's playoff clash Friday night against perennial powerhouse and reigning state champion Carthage, Eagles head coach Alan Haire offered a big-picture, optimistic view of the fact that his team still has more football to play in a year that's been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Just to play on Thanksgiving is the reward. I'd say our guys are excited. They created this situation,” Haire said Thursday morning after Salado wrapped up its practice on Thanksgiving, one day before the sixth-ranked Eagles (11-1) challenge No. 1 Carthage (10-0) in a Class 4A Division II Region III semifinal at 5:30 p.m. Friday at New Caney ISD's Randall Reed Stadium in Porter. “These kids have handled all the protocols and had to commit to wearing masks and not doing some things they might normally do. I'm very proud of them, and that's what you would expect from a senior group and a mature group.”
Salado entered the season with great expectations and has done its best to reach lofty goals. The Eagles won the District 9-4A Division II championship with a 5-0 record, and their only setback defeat was a competitive 21-7 home defeat 2½ months ago against Grandview (11-0), winner of the last two 3A Division I state championships.
The only Salado teams to win more games than this year's group were coach Jeff Cheatham's 13-1 squad of 2007 and Haire's 2017 crew that finished 12-2.
“We're very proud to get to this point and to have 11 wins, which is tied for third-most in Salado history,” said Haire, who's 42-18 with four playoff treks to at least the second round in five seasons as head coach at his alma mater. “These guys are leaving a legacy here.”
After two consecutive weeks off, including a first-round playoff win by forfeit, Salado built a 28-10 lead last Friday night and then made a late defensive stand to stave off feisty Bellville for a 28-23 victory in an area-round battle at Mary Hardin-Baylor's Crusader Stadium in Belton.
Salado's reward is a third-round showdown with dominant Carthage (10-0), which blasted Silsbee 49-0 last week and has won seven state championships in its previous 13 seasons with head coach Scott Surratt. The Salado-Carthage victor will advance to next week's Region III title game – with a state semifinal berth at stake – to play the winner of Friday's 2 p.m. game in College Station between 9-2 squads China Spring and No. 9 Sealy.
To be sure, Salado is bracing for a gigantic challenge against Carthage, located 36 miles southeast of Longview in deep East Texas and not far from the Texas-Louisiana border. The powerful Bulldogs won last year's 4A Division I state championship at 16-0 and are 66-1 in their last 67 games, including 4A D-I state crowns in 2016 and '17. Surratt has compiled an astounding 174-28 record in 14 years at Carthage in his first and only head coaching job.
To hear Haire tell it, however, his Eagles actually might feel less pressure against Carthage – at least going into the regional semifinal – than they did entering the duel with Bellville after having to endure two straight open dates. It was the Eagles' third postseason matchup with the Brahmas in five years.
“Really it should (feel like less pressure vs. Carthage). We'll turn it loose,” Haire said. “Last week felt like more pressure – familiar foe, we were ranked and they were unranked, we were a district champion and they weren't. We had everything to lose there. You still have to play the game, and we hadn't played in 20 days, so there was anxiety all week.”
Paced by senior running backs Noah Mescher, Wrook Brown and Reid Vincent, Salado rushed for 349 yards and four touchdowns out of its Slot-T formation, and its defense limited Bellville – another Slot-T attack – just enough to withstand the athletic Brahmas' late charge and seize the second-round win.
The Eagles might be able to draw some inspiration from the fact that Carthage's only loss in its last 67 games was 44-41 against Liberty Hill in a 4A Division I state semifinal in 2018. Liberty Hill's Panthers, coached by former Rogers head coach Jeff Walker, are renowned for their relentless Slot-T rushing game.
GOLD BALL SEASON: Alan Haire has guided Salado to at least the second round of the Class 4A Division II state playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons as head coach at his alma mater. At 11-1, this season's Salado team – which won the District 9-4A D-II championship and is ranked sixth in the state – needs one more win to match the Eagles' 12 victories in 2017. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
As for his assessment of this season's Carthage team, Haire said the most difficult thing about the matchup from Salado's perspective is that the Bulldogs have no clear areas that the Eagles can exploit.
“I'd say you can't find any weaknesses,” Haire said. “When you face a team with a tremendous amount of talent, we rank their players and say, 'Who can we go at?' But there's just not a whole lot of weaknesses.”
Salado and Carthage received bi-district playoff wins because of COVID-19-related forfeits, against Rusk and Gatesville, respectively. The Eagles have outscored opponents 457-172, while the Bulldogs have outscored foes 402-67 in only nine on-the-field games. Two of Carthage's non-district victories came against fellow East Texas powers who remain alive in the 4A D-II Region II semifinals: 42-14 over Gilmer (11-1) and 35-7 over defending state champion Texarkana Pleasant Grove (9-3).
It was talent-rich Pleasant Grove that ended Salado's 2019 season one year ago with a thorough 42-14 area-round victory in Frisco en route to the Hawks' second state title in three years. Haire believes that the experience from that game and the tight battle with Grandview early this season have helped the Eagles prepare for the Carthage machine they're about to test themselves against.
“We had a tough pre-district schedule and we played in a tough district,” Haire said. “I think last year against Pleasant Grove we went in there with big eyes at the Ford Center, and that's helped us prepare (for Carthage). Our kids have not flinched. They prepare hard and they play hard, and that's all you can do.”
Versatile Salado senior Brown, who plays safety and kicks and punts in addition to rushing for 613 yards and 12 touchdowns, said after the close win over Bellville that the battle-tested, senior-laden Eagles carry more confidence into the Carthage game than last year's Salado squad had against potent Pleasant Grove.
“We're looking forward to it. It's a similar situation as last year, but we're not the same team and (the opponent is) a different team, so it's a new situation,” said Brown, who leads the Eagles with 86 tackles and ranks third in the area with 140 points scored. “We were a fairly young team last year, but we've got a lot of experience this year and that can play in our favor.”
Running behind a hard-blocking line in Salado's Slot-T offense that's racked up 379 rushing yards per game, fullback Mescher has 1,484 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns and tailback Vincent has 1,159 yards and 10 TDs. Brown contributed 93 yards and two touchdowns against Bellville as sophomore halfback Caden Strickland missed the game because of COVID-19 contact tracing. Haire expects Strickland (564 yards, nine TDs) to play against Carthage and share backfield time with Brown.
The Eagles' Slot-T will have to play at its maximum level against a Carthage defense that's shut out its last three opponents and permitted seven or fewer points six times despite having only two returning starters from last year's 16-0 championship team in 4A D-I: 6-foot-2, 265-pound lineman Kylon Lister and Austin Morgan in the secondary. Bulldogs senior defensive back Zay Woods has six interceptions, but Salado junior quarterback Hutton Haire averages only three pass attempts per game.
“They don't give up a lot of points, and their starting defense hasn't played in the second half a whole lot,” Alan Haire said of Carthage. “It's extreme speed. They're fast and physical.”
On the other side, Salado features a hard-hitting, well-balanced defense that's allowed just 248.5 yards per game. Complementing Brown are senior linebackers Kofi Stoglin (81 tackles), Lucas Morvant (68) and Peyton Miller (61) plus junior safety Josh Huckabee (74 stops).
The Eagles must be at their best to contain Carthage's explosive offense, spearheaded by prolific senior quarterback Kai Horton. The 6-4, 215-pound Horton passed for 3,746 yards and 49 touchdowns in 2019 and has added 1,957 yards and 20-plus TDs in nine games this fall.
“He's more of a pocket passer and does a real good good job of vertically stretching the field. He makes them very dynamic,” Alan Haire said of Horton, who has scholarship offers from Stephen F. Austin and McNeese State.”
Horton spreads the ball around to a deep receiving corps led by Craig McNew and Montrel Hatten. Versatile senior running back Mason Courtney scored four touchdowns against Silsbee last week and has rushed for 846 yards after running for 1,679 yards and scoring 23 TDs overall last season.
Whether it was a regional final against eventual state runner-up West Orange-Stark in 2017 or Pleasant Grove last year or Grandview early this season, Alan Haire said there's a common trait linking all of those great teams. It's the same one he fully expects Salado to see and have to deal with Friday night against mighty Carthage as the Eagles – who've already achieved special things this season – aim for an upset victory that would shock the state.
“It's extremely fast execution on both sides and there's more athletes than what you've seen before,” Salado's coach said. "When you play the West Orange-Starks and Pleasant Groves and Grandviews of the world, you have to execute under extreme pressure. We'll do what we can do.”