SALADO STRONG: After taking district title, hard-working Eagles charge into playoff rematch vs. Rusk
STINGY IN SALADO: Senior outside linebacker Lucas Morvant (left) and senior inside linebacker Kofi Stoglin are two of the leading players for a Salado defense that allowed 239.5 yards per game during the regular season as coach Alan Haire's Eagles (9-1, 5-0) won the District 9-4A Division II championship. Stoglin has made 70 tackles and Morvant has 58 stops. Ranked sixth in the state in Class 4A Division II, Salado begins the playoffs with a bi-district battle against Rusk (5-5) at 7 p.m. Friday at College Station A&M Consolidated's Tigerland Stadium. It's a first-round rematch of Salado's 57-16 win over Rusk in 2019. The Salado-Rusk winner will play 9-1 Bellville in next week's area round. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
SALADO – This is Alan Haire's fifth season as Salado's head football coach, and even though he previously guided the Eagles to a 12-2 season and two other second-round playoff trips, he isn't hesitant to say he believes this current group of Eagles is the best all-around squad he's had at his alma mater.
“I think so, top to bottom. We've got a great senior group, and when you have great seniors who work hard and care about each other, it makes it easy,” Haire said Wednesday as Salado (9-1) prepared to play Rusk (5-5) in a Class 4A Division II bi-district playoff game at 7 p.m. Friday at College Station A&M Consolidated's Tigerland Stadium. “They've been a fun group to coach. They're easy to coach because they care, and they care about each other. They've been around each other a long time.”
Added Eagles senior outside linebacker Lucas Morvant: “It's been crazy. We've been really pushing it hard this year – more than in other years – and I think it's really paid off with what we've done as a program. Everybody's working as a team.”
Riding the relentless, balanced rushing of its Slot-T offense and a physical, sure-tackling defense, District 9-4A Division II champion Salado has outscored opponents 427-149. The Eagles have won eight consecutive games since their 21-7 home loss Sept. 4 to Grandview, whose Zebras are the two-time defending 3A D-I state champions and are ranked No. 1 this season at 10-0.
“It's been a great season. It all comes back to our discipline and hard work in practice,” Salado junior offensive tackle Gavyn Keyser said. “Like Coach Haire says, if you practice hard the games are easy.”
Senior inside linebacker Kofi Stoglin said a grueling non-district schedule – headlined by Grandview and including Troy, 7-4A D-II champ Mexia and playoff qualifier Stephenville – has paid large dividends for Salado's seasoned crew.
“Coach Haire set it up like that so we could prepare for playoffs and see what great competition was going to be, with Grandview being two-time (defending) state champions,” Stoglin said. “We played good teams, so we're prepared for what comes next.”
“I worried about our predistrict being a little too tough, but I knew the experience would help us no matter what the record was. Definitely that prepared us,” said Haire, whose Eagles finally got an open date last week to get refreshed for the playoffs after playing 10 consecutive Fridays. “I'd say the Grandview game probably prepared us more for district than any (other) predistrict game simply because you learn more from getting beat than you do winning.”
Regardless of how much confidence and chemistry Salado has produced, it will be quite challenging for the Eagles to match the length of their 2017 postseason trek, when they won three games and reached the 4A D-II Region III final before losing 14-0 to eventual state runner-up West Orange-Stark.
That's because this year's Region III bracket is jam-packed with elite teams. Texas Football magazine ranks Salado sixth in the state, and the Eagles' region also features top-ranked Carthage (9-0) – last year's 4A D-I state champion and a potential third-round opponent for Salado – plus No. 2 West Orange-Stark (7-0), No. 4 Jasper (9-1) and No. 9 Sealy (7-2). And if the Eagles advance past Rusk, their area-round foe next week will be Bellville (9-1), whose only loss was by three points at Sealy. The Brahmas of former Troy coach Grady Rowe blasted bi-district opponent Sour Lake Hardin-Jefferson 41-10 on Thursday night.
“That's tough. It's tough,” Haire said of the Region III gauntlet. “I think Bellville was ranked at one point. It's hot and heavy as soon as you get going. It gets tough quick. I think as you get more experience in this deal, you don't peek (past your current game). I don't even open the UIL bracket. I just know who we're playing. All we want to do is advance.”
In an odd twist, Salado-Rusk is a rematch from last year's bi-district round even though both schools were moved from Region II to Region III in between seasons. Salado's Eagles rushed for more than 500 yards as they dominated Rusk's Eagles 57-16 in that playoff opener in Corsicana, a week before Salado's run ended with a 42-14 loss to eventual 4A D-II state champion Texarkana Pleasant Grove in Frisco.
Although Rusk has a different head coach this year in Thomas Sitton and a new quarterback in skilled junior Owen McCown, son of longtime NFL quarterback Josh McCown, Haire isn't a big fan of seeing the same team again in the first round.
“I really didn't want that, simply because you want to play someone you haven't played. In the playoffs (you want) something new. That makes it a little more difficult, for sure,” said Haire, who has a 40-18 record with Salado and directed the Eagles to the second round or beyond in each of their previous three postseason trips during his tenure.
Rusk is in its first season with Sitton, whose eight-season run (2009-16) at Tyler Chapel Hill was highlighted by a 15-0 run to the 3A D-I state championship in 2011. He was Converse Judson's defensive coordinator from 2017-19.
Owen McCown has boosted Rusk's offense in his first season in East Texas after his family moved from North Caroilna. The 6-foot-1, 165-pound junior is 90-of-177 passing for 1,075 yards and nine touchdowns against four interceptions, and he's rushed for 270 yards and eight TDs on 79 carries.
His younger brother is sophomore safety/receiver Aiden McCown, who's made two interceptions and six catches for 68 yards along with scoring 16 points as Rusk's kicker. He's also the backup QB to his older brother, passing for 89 yards and a TD on 7-of-8 accuracy.
Owen McCown has scholarship offers from several college programs, including Virginia Tech, Texas-San Antonio and Lamar. His top target is senior receiver Joseph McGowan (34 catches, 461 yards, six touchdowns), and senior running back Alex Jones (631 yards, nine TDs) paces Rusk's ground game.
“They're better,” Haire said, comparing this Rusk team to the one Salado pounded one year ago. “McCown is a lefty who can throw it really well.”
Junior Caleb Ferrara and senior Caleb Gates are linebackers who lead Rusk's defense with 122 and 109 tackles, respectively, and each player has forced four fumbles. Two-way standout Jones has 67 tackles at outside linebacker.
Rusk got off to a 2-0 start but has gone 3-5 since then and hasn't won a game on the field since Oct. 16, 37-29 over Madisonville. In District 10-4A-II action, Rusk lost 51-7 to top-ranked Carthage and 35-18 at Center in last week's regular-season finale, with a forfeit win over Shepherd in between.
“In their district they've got Carthage and Jasper, so they're used to playing tough competition,” Haire said. “They're a very sound football team that's going to cause us some problems defensively with throwing the ball around. They've got athletes, so it's a good 1-vs.-4 matchup, for sure.”
Said Stoglin about Rusk: “They're better and have some new talent. The approach is the same. We just want to go 1-0 and make it to the next round.”
Keyser said Salado is determined not to let its guard down against Rusk despite 2019's blowout result.
“Never overlook an opponent,” Keyser said. “We beat them last year by a lot, but I'm expecting a great team.”
Speaking of great teams, it was 3A D-I juggernaut Grandview that dealt Salado its lone loss, 21-7, in the Eagles' rainy home opener nearly 2½ months ago. In a close, low-scoring duel, the Zebras returned an Eagles fumble for a touchdown on the first half's final play. With 8 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Salado forced Grandview star quarterback Dane Jentsch to fumble into the end zone, where an Eagles player was unable to recover the ball before a Zebras receiver finally pounced on it for a vital touchdown.
“We talked about execution and made it a priority as far as taking care of the football and then also getting on the ball,” Haire said. “We didn't execute on a play (right before halftime) and gave them seven points, and then they put it on the ground and we had a chance at the ball. Both of those scenarios haunt you a little bit. If you've got 11 guys hustling after it, it might make a difference. So that just made it a priority as far as ball security both offensively and defensively, for sure.”
SLOT-T STRONG MAN: Offensive tackle Gavyn Keyser, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior, is a two-year starter for Salado's relentless Slot-T offense, which has averaged 382 rushing yards per game for the 9-1, No. 6-ranked Eagles. Seniors Noah Mescher, Reid Vincent and Wrook Brown and sophomore Caden Strickland have rushed for a combined 3,484 yards and 47 touchdowns this season, helping Salado to a 5-0 record for the District 9-4A Division II crown. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
For Salado's traditional Slot-T offense, the spread-the-wealth rushing game has been a constant source of strength, accounting for 382 of the Eagles' 417.2 total yards per game. Rugged senior fullback Noah Mescher leads the way with 1,335 yards and 19 touchdowns, shifty senior tailback Reid Vincent has 1,065 yards (10.9 per carry) and nine TDs and athletic sophomore halfback Caden Strickland has 564 rushing yards and nine TDs.
Haire said Strickland's emergence allowed do-it-all senior Wrook Brown – who rushed for 1,165 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019 – to focus on playing safety on defense, where he's made a team-high 77 tackles. But along with punting and scoring 52 points as a kicker, the versatile Brown still has gotten enough opportunities on offense to rush for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns on only 47 carries and also make two TD receptions.
“Caden Strickland is an unsung hero for us at halfback,” Alan Haire said. “Wrook played that last year, and if we didn't have anyone (else) at halfback then Wrook would have to double-time it. We bring Wrook back over offensively when we need him.”
The 6-3, 300-pound Keyser is a two-year starter on a powerful, effective offensive line that also includes senior tackle Avery Womack, senior center Bryce Dobbins, senior guard K.C. Perkins and junior guard Aidan Wilson – a junior varsity halfback last year – plus senior tight end Nick Sibbitt. Keyser described what it's like to be a key blocker in the Slot-T attack.
“You have to run a lot, but it's a great offense for a team that's a power running team. The offensive line has to get after it,” said the imposing Keyser, who rushed for one touchdown in Salado's “Bus” package. “We like to wear down teams to where they don't want to come back anymore. That happens a lot.”
Third-year starting QB Hutton Haire doesn't get many accolades as chief distributor for Salado's ground-based machine, but the 6-2, 180-pound junior and son of the Eagles' coach has rushed for three touchdowns and passed for 352 yards and six TDs on only 31 attempts.
“In our offense, you've got to humble enough to get it to the kids at the back positions who can do something with it,” Alan Haire said. “But when (Hutton's) been called upon to put the ball where it needs to be, I think he's done a great job. He's gotten stronger and faster.”
Meanwhile, Salado's defense – whose coordinator is John Kirk – has been excellent through the season, permitting only 239.5 yards per game. Seven Eagles have at least 45 tackles: safety Brown (77), Stoglin (70), junior safety Josh Huckabee (66), Morvant (58), senior inside linebacker Peyton Miller (55), senior safety LaTrell Jenkins (49) and senior outside linebacker Greg Washington (45).
“It's just assignment football,” the 5-11, 215-pound Stoglin – his district's defensive newcomer of the year in 2019 after missing the 2018 season with an injury – said of Salado's defensive plan. “We all do our job and one of us is going to make the tackle, so it doesn't really matter who it is. We're all going to be happy.”
He added that Huckabee has stepped forward with a strong season at safety.
“Huckabee made some key plays in the China Spring game,” Stoglin said of the Eagles' key 28-14 home win Oct. 16. “Throughout the season he's just been a solid, fly-around safety back there.”
Alan Haire said Huckabee and junior Nolan Williams and sophomore Seth Reavis at the cornerback positions “really helped solidify our secondary.”
The other victory that catapulted Salado to a perfect district record was a 20-15 decision Oct. 9 at Waco Connally.
“The Connally game on the road was difficult. Not only are they athletic and a good football team, but it's on the road and an environment that's not the norm,” Alan Haire said. “China Spring matches up well athletically and that was a big matchup, with the distractions because it was all the news channels' game of the week. That adds pressure.”
Salado's players still gain motivation from their season-ending, 28-point loss to heavyweight Pleasant Grove last November at the Dallas Cowboys' Ford Center at The Star.
“As far as the feeling goes, it sucked. It was terrible,” said the 6-1, 185-pound Morvant, a two-year starter. “I had a whole bunch of senior friends and I knew that was going to be their last game. I felt bad for them. That game fueled our drive for this year and helped us progress and know that, 'Hey, we don't want to feel that again.'”
Alan Haire made his team stay on the field to watch as Pleasant Grove's powerful Hawks celebrated their second of an eventual six playoff victories.
“You play Pleasant Grove, who then wins state, so now your kids have seen the best that's out there,” the coach said. “And they realize, 'OK, I've got to work to get there, but they're not too far-fetched for us to keep working toward.' And then scheduling a tough predistrict where you face a two-time defending state champion (Grandview) and then Stephenville and Mexia, so you get yourself prepared and then it's just you against yourself. If you can win against yourself daily, then you can be successful on Fridays.”
With a formidable first-round foe in Rusk and potentially several top-notch opponents waiting in future playoff rounds, Salado plans to stick to its successful strategy: run the Slot-T, play stingy defense and outwork other teams.
“Coach Haire tells us, 'We might not be the most talented team, but we're going to be the hardest-working team, and hard work beats talent,'” Stoglin said. “So that's what we do. We work.”
He got no argument from his fellow linebacker Morvant, who's determined to help Salado advance beyond last season's second-round appearance.
“Coach always tells us that on certain days when we're off, we're doing it and (opponents) probably are not going to be doing it. We're putting in the extra effort and that's what's going to win us games,” Morvant said. “I think we can go as many games as we want to go. We have to put in the hard work."