SALADO SURVIVAL: No. 6 Eagles stave off Bellville for 28-23 win, get No. 1 Carthage in regional semi
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
SENIOR MOMENT: Salado senior Wrook Brown ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns, played free safety and kicked four extra points to help the sixth-ranked Eagles defeat Bellville 28-23 in a Class 4A Division II area-round playoff game Friday night at Mary Hardin-Baylor's Crusader Stadium in Belton. Fellow senior backs Noah Mescher (149 rushing yards) and Reid Vincent (94 yards) had one TD run each for Salado (11-1), which advanced to battle No. 1 Carthage (10-0) in a Region III semifinal next Friday night in Porter. Carthage's Bulldogs went 16-0 last year in winning the 4A Division I state championship. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – When Salado senior Wrook Brown stretched the football across the goal line for a 6-yard touchdown rush and a 28-10 lead with 4 minutes remaining in the third quarter, it seemed that his sixth-ranked Eagles were on the verge of putting familiar playoff opponent Bellville away in Friday night's Class 4A Division II area-round showdown.
However, the stubborn Brahmas made sure that Salado – which never scored again in the teams' third postseason matchup in five years – couldn't relax until the scoreboard clock at Mary Hardin-Baylor's Crusader Stadium showed 0:00.
Back-to-back touchdown passes by Bellville's Jake Lischka sliced Salado's advantage to 28-23 midway through the fourth, and the Brahmas had one final possession to try to drive for the winning TD. But from Bellville's 39-yard line, Salado senior end Ryan Poe swarmed Lischka with intense pressure and forced an errant pass as time expired, allowing the Eagles to escape with a hard-fought 28-23 victory and earn a shot against top-ranked Carthage in a Region III semifinal next Friday.
“Ever since we got out there in August, we've had a real serious mindset about it and we know what we're here to do,” said Brown, Salado's versatile standout who rushed for 93 yards and two touchdowns, played sharp defense at free safety and kicked four extra points. “We haven't lost momentum. It's playoff football and we're excited every week to go out there.”
Complementing Brown's performance in Salado's customary Slot-T offensive attack, fullback Noah Mescher rushed for a game-high 149 yards with a 5-yard touchdown and fellow senior Reid Vincent ran for 94 yards with a 56-yard TD sprint at tailback. The Eagles rushed for 349 yards and passed for 1.
After surviving the stiff test from Bellville (9-2), District 9-4A Division II champion Salado (11-1) will challenge one of the state's most successful programs in Carthage (10-0) at 5:30 p.m. next Friday at New Caney ISD's Randall Reed Stadium in Porter.
The Bulldogs won last year's 4A Division I state championship – they dropped to 4A Division II in the University Interscholastic League's offseason reclassification and realignment – and have won 26 consecutive games, the latest one Friday's 49-0 thrashing of Silsbee.
“Here's the thing you look forward to: practicing during Thanksgiving. Any time you're practicing during Thanksgiving, you've got a shot at it,” Salado fifth-year head coach Alan Haire said after improving to 2-1 in playoff duels against Bellville and Brahmas 10th-year head coach Grady Rowe, his close friend who was Troy's head coach from 2004-10.
“One thing we've always talked about here is measuring ourselves against the best. I think we're as prepared as we're going to be. We've seen it. We're going to enjoy this one tonight, but we all know who Carthage is.”
Said Poe, a third-year varsity defensive end whose Eagles were eliminated in the second round last year by eventual 4A D-II state champion Texarkana Pleasant Grove: “We're always looking for a challenge. We're a family, like we're blood brothers.”
COMING THROUGH IN THE CLUTCH: Salado senior defensive end Ryan Poe pressured Bellville quarterback Jake Lischka on the final play to force an incomplete pass that preserved the sixth-ranked Eagles' 28-23 victory over the Brahmas in a Class 4A Division II area-round playoff duel Friday night at Mary Hardin-Baylor's Crusader Stadium in Belton. Poe helped Salado's hard-hitting defense hold Bellville running back Richard Reese without a touchdown after the dynamic junior entered with 1,736 rushing yards and 26 TDs. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Bellville running back Richard Reese entered the area-round duel with 1,726 rushing yards (averaging more than 10 per carry) and 26 touchdowns in the Brahmas' brand of the Slot-T. The dynamic junior gained 135 yards on 22 rushes against Salado, but the Eagles' defenders prevented Reese from reaching the end zone.
During a season in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many teams and games, Salado played Bellville without starting sophomore halfback Caden Strickland, who along with a few other Eagles players is in quarantine because of contact tracing, Haire said. That meant a significant increase in playing time on offense for the elusive Brown, and the battle-tested Eagles kept pushing hard to fulfill their mission of earning at least one more big game.
“From summer workouts to the (COVID-19-related) restrictions to two-a-days, our theme all year has been 'get to.' We just hoped to get to that next game. I think that's what got us by. We didn't look at the end result. It was just, 'Can we get to Friday?'” said Haire, whose Eagles are into the third round for the first time since 2017, when they defeated Bellville 13-10 in overtime to reach the 4A Division II Region III final before losing 14-0 to West Orange-Stark.
Haire and Rowe have known each other since 2004, and they often competed with each other in district play as the head coaches at Lago Vista and Troy, respectively. Rowe and Bellville knocked Salado out of the playoffs in Haire's debut season in 2016, but Haire's Eagles ousted the Brahmas in 2017 and again this year in the programs' rubber match.
And frankly, regardless of the result, they'd rather not play each other when someone's season must end.
“I think of Coach Rowe and his family so much, and it just is uncomfortable playing each other. I don't like it, and I told him that after the game,” Haire said. “I hate it for him and his kids, because I respect him and I know what they're about and what he teaches. You just wish you never played. I hope you print that, because I think the world of him.”
For Rowe, who's steered the Brahmas to a 91-35 record and 10 straight playoff berths, the feeling was mutual as his teary-eyed players consoled each other nearby.
“Coach Haire and his staff do such a good job. He and I have known each other for 17 years now, and we've battled each other for a long time,” Rowe said. “We're good friends and we talk during the week. We hate playing each other, but it's something we do.”
Although Bellville trailed 28-10 with 4 minutes left in the third period, Rowe said he knew his Brahmas had the grit and ability to come back within them. They've played inspired football throughout the season after senior tight end and linebacker Zach Hood died in a single-vehicle accident prior to this season.
“Well, our guys have faced bigger adversity in life with the passing of Zach Hood before the season started. So we've faced bigger adversity than that," Rowe said of the 18-point deficit. "Our kids continue to fight and play for him and his memory. It's no surprise that they fought back the way they did.”
After clinching its outright district crown Oct. 30 with a 66-0 romp over Robinson, Salado ended the regular season with an open date and then got another one when COVID-19 cases prevented bi-district foe Rusk from playing last Friday, handing the Eagles a playoff win by forfeit.
After three weeks in between games, well-rested Salado got off to a quick start against Bellville. Brown ran for 17 yards and gained 4 on fourth-and-3 from the Brahmas' 9-yard line before Mescher blasted through the middle for a 5-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 4:41 gone.
Bellville then displayed the strength of its Slot-T with a 79-yard, 5-minute drive that was capped by Robert Briggs' 31-yard TD dash for a 7-7 deadlock with 2½ minutes left in the first.
Salado struck again on its second possession, with junior quarterback Hutton Haire surging ahead for 3 yards on fourth-and-1 from his 41 before Vincent went up the gut and sprinted for a 56-yard touchdown on the second quarter's first play, giving the Eagles a 14-7 advantage.
Bellville marched to the Salado 8 on its ensuing drive, but the Eagles' defense stiffened and the Brahmas settled for Benito Florencio's 25-yard field goal midway through the second for a 14-10 score that held up through halftime.
Salado's hard-hitting defense set the tone 2 minutes into the second half when seniors LaTrell Jenkins, Peyton Miller and Greg Washington combined to pummel Reese for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Bellville 41, and the turnover on downs gave the Eagles a big spark.
Brown ran for 17 yards and Haire pushed for 5 before Brown took a handoff to the left side and used a block from senior guard K.C. Perkins to crash inside the pylon for a 10-yard touchdown and a 21-10 Salado lead 4:15 into the third quarter.
A strong defensive series gave the ball back to the Eagles, and Mescher charged for 43 yards to the 10 before Brown ran off left tackle, cut back inside and fought though multiple defenders to extend the ball across the goal line for a 6-yard TD that had Salado in total control at 28-10 with 4:09 left in the third.
“It's a game of momentum,” Brown said. “We gained some momentum and kept the ball rolling, and when the offense gets going it fuels the defense.”
Said Alan Haire: “I felt like our offensive line was getting to their linebackers, getting to the second level and maintaining their blocks. Noah Mescher, Wrook Brown and Reid Vincent were warriors. That's who we are.”
Rowe described the difficulty his defense had trying to contain Salado's relentless Slot-T ground game.
“They popped a couple (of long plays) on us, and they're a physical football team,” he said. “Their backs do such a great job of staying behind their blockers and almost hiding in there and then cutting upfield. They don't try to bounce things and get greedy. They get upfield quick.”
However, Salado's major momentum soon evaporated on Bellville's ensuing possession. Kyle Peschel got open behind the secondary to catch Lischka's pass for a 33-yard touchdown, trimming the Brahmas' deficit to 28-17 with 28 seconds remaining in the third.
Alan Haire made several bold down-and-distance decisions with Salado's offense, including Brown's 6-yard dive on fourth-and-2 from the Eagles' 45 early in the fourth. Salado eventually punted, but that first down allowed the Eagles to take more than 3 minutes off the clock.
Lischka's 28-yard pass to Briggs and a 15-yard penalty on Salado for unsportsmanlike conduct helped Bellville move into Eagles territory, then Trevon Green jumped above his defender to catch Lischka's 26-yard touchdown pass and cut Salado's lead to 28-23 with 5:49 remaining. The Brahmas' 2-point pass fell incomplete.
“They've got a good passing game and can stretch your defense. They're a tough matchup,” Alan Haire said of Bellville. “Mental execution on our part got us. We did some things to ourselves that caused that anxiety. We've got to clean that up. Our hardest opponent is ourselves. What we're going to do Monday is try to overcome ourselves and just go to work. Let's just get better.”
Facing fourth-and-2 at its 36 with 3:50 remaining, Salado again went for the first down and got it on Mescher's 7-yard blast off right tackle, helping the Eagles drain another 2½ minutes.
“We didn't want to give them the ball back, and we wanted to maintain the clock,” Alan Haire said. “Those things are practiced. We get four downs, the last time I checked.”
After a holding penalty negated Vincent's 37-yard touchdown sprint, Bellville's resurgent defense forced a punt and the Brahmas began their final drive at their 21 with 1:27 remaining.
“We started doing some things a little different (on defense), but we stayed basically in a goal-line, big-boy package,” Rowe said. “And then we started tackling a little better, which was a big key.”
Said Brown: “(Bellville) did a good job crashing in all night, really.”
Out of timeouts and needing to drive 79 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, Bellville couldn't crack Salado's defense in crunch time. Kofi Stoglin smothered Lischka's second-down pass, and fellow senior linebacker Lucas Morvant stopped Lischka for a 1-yard gain to the Brahmas' 39. Then on fourth down in the closing seconds, Poe grabbed Lischka and dragged him down as time expired, causing the junior's disrupted pass to fall to the turf a few yards away before the relieved Eagles celebrated their victory.
Said Brown: "Our defense is always itching and everyone wants to be the one to make the play."
Now it's on to perennial heavyweight Carthage in next Friday's Region III semifinal, and Salado believes the experience it gained from last year's 42-14 second-round loss to powerful Pleasant Grove – plus its competitive 21-7 home defeat in early September against two-time defending 3A Division I state champion Grandview (11-0) – will boost the seasoned Eagles in their quest to knock off the mighty Bulldogs.
“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,” Brown said. “We were fairly young last year, but we've got a lot of experience this year and that can play in our favor.”
CLASS 4A DIVISION II AREA ROUND
No. 6 SALADO 28, BELLVILLE 23
Salado 7 7 14 0 – 28
Bellville 7 3 7 6 – 23
Salado – Noah Mescher 5 run (Wrook Brown kick), 7:19.
Bellville – Robert Briggs 31 run (Benito Florencio kick), 2:27.
Salado – Reid Vincent 56 run (Brown kick), 11:51.
Bellville – Florencio 25 field goal, 5:52.
Salado – Brown 10 run (Brown kick), 7:42.
Salado – Brown 6 run (Brown kick), 4:09.
Bellville – Kyle Peschel 33 pass from Jake Lischka (Florencio kick), 0:28.
Bellville – Trevon Green 26 pass from Lischka (pass failed), 5:49.
First downs: Salado 17; Bellville 15.
Rushes-yards: Salado 52-349; Bellville 39-223.
Passing yards: Salado 1; Bellville 112.
Completions-attempts-interceptions: Salado 1-2-0; Bellville 7-14-0.
Offensive plays-total yards: Salado 54-350; Bellville 53-335.
Punts-average: Salado 3-22.3; Bellville 2-28.5.
Fumbles-lost: Salado 0; Bellville 1-0.
Penalties-yards: Salado 9-70; Bellville 3-30.
Rushing – Salado: Mescher 24-149, Vincent 8-94, Brown 16-93, Hutton Haire 4-13; Bellville: Richard Reese 22-135, Briggs 8-49, Lischka 6-22, Peschel 3-17.
Passing – Salado: Haire 1-2-0-1; Bellville: Lischka 7-14-0-112.
Receiving – Salado: Brown 1-1; Bellville: Peschel 3-45, Briggs 1-28, Green 1-26, Brandt Okonski 2-13.