EARLY — The Early Longhorns were unable to collect their first victory during non-district action, but the results from this point forward are what will determine whether head coach Brad Bowden’s squad makes the program’s first trip to the playoffs since 2008.
The Longhorns (0-4) open District 3-2A Division I competition with their longest road trip of the season as they battle the upstart Ingram Tom Moore Warriors (4-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Warrior Stadium.
Though Early has a total of six games on its 3-2A schedule, Bowden feels earning a victory Friday is imperative to setting the right tone for the remainder of the district race.
“Winning that first district game is critical,” Bowden said. “As far as I am concerned, it’s a must-win game for us. I know our kids will play hard on Friday, but we have to execute properly.”
Early is coming off a 30-12 loss at undefeated Ballinger, a game in which the Longhorns surrendered 24 points in the first nine minutes before settling down.
“I thought our kids played hard throughout the game at Ballinger,” Bowden said. “We had two turnovers that Ballinger turned into points early in the first quarter and that turned out to be the difference in the game. We played well on defense all night and the offense improved in the second half.”
While Early is still winless, the Longhorns’ four opponents are a combined 11-5. Meanwhile, Ingram Tom Moore is off to an undefeated start against foes with a combined record of 2-13. The Warriors’ four victories this season are already more than their previous three campaigns combined, including last year’s 0-10 mark.
“For years, Ingram struggled being the small school in a really tough 3A district, which included some teams like Wimberley which are not just good teams, but teams that were winning state titles,” Bowden said. “Obviously, the drop to 2A has helped them a lot. They dropped down two years ago and Coach (Jeff) Kowalski came in about that time and helped get their kids headed in the right direction. Now they are in their third year in 2A and I think they are just finally getting some momentum.”
The Longhorns enter the district opener averaging nine points and 183 yards — 126 passing and 57 rushing — per contest, with 10 turnovers. Early scored a season-high 17 points in its second game against San Saba, but managed just a dozen points over the last eight quarters.
Quarterbacks Cameron Denison and Kwinton Reno have shared time behind center as Denison is 37 of 73 for 387 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while Reno has connected on 14 of 32 attempts for 116 yards with one touchdown and four picks.
Leading receivers for the Longhorns include Chase Riker (13-130, TD), Austin Isom (11-168, TD), Colin Walker (8-74), Rowdy Johnson (5-35), Kellan Jackson (3-27), Jake Fisher (3-11), Brandon Brownlee (2-28), Charlie Tongate (2-10), Cameron Denison (1-10, TD) and Ricky Corona (1-5).
The ground game has been anchored by Fisher (41-197, TD), Denison (28-71, TD) and Chris Moreno (27-61).
“Offensively, we haven’t looked very good the past two games,” Bowden said. “Becoming consistent offensively is our biggest concern right now. At times, we have moved the ball well and maintained a good balance. However, in the last two games, we lost the battle at the line of scrimmage and that led to our struggles offensively.”
Defensively, the Longhorns are yielding 35 points and 329 yards — 287 rushing and 42 passing — per outing with seven turnovers forced.
Cody Morrison leads Early with 42 tackles trailed by Junior Sanchez with 32, Fisher with 30, Brandon Moore with 21 and Fidel Olalde with 18, while Isom has intercepted three passes.
“I think our defense and our kicking game has improved considerably in the past two weeks,” Bowden said. “Defensively, we are getting better and better each game. You can tell our kids are getting more comfortable with their roles and that has them playing with more confidence. The tackling has improved and we are forcing some turnovers. They are growing up a little more each week and hopefully they will continue to progress like they have.”
Ingram Tom Moore enters Friday’s game averaging 29 points per contest, and are led by quarterback Keaun Valverde. Valverde contributed 277 yards of total offense in the Warriors’ 27-6 win over Harper and scored the game-winning 48-yard touchdown late in the fourth period of a 21-14 victory over Center Point. Ingram Tom Moore also began its season by rallying from an 11-point deficit to knock off Natalia, 32-18, and picked up a 34-14 victory over San Antonio St. Anthony’s last week.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Warriors are giving up 13 points per outing.
“Ingram runs a spread offense,” Bowden said. “They have a good athlete at quarterback. He is a pretty decent passer, has good speed and is pretty quick running the ball on their read plays.
“Defensively, they run multiple fronts with two really big defensive tackles anchoring the line. We have struggled to win the line of scrimmage the past two weeks, so I’d say that is the most critical factor for our offense this Friday. We have to be able to create some running lanes for our backs and be consistent with our passing.”
In terms of what it will take for Early to return home with its first victory of the season, Bowden stated the Longhorns must control the trenches, keep their hands on the ball and avoid immediate trouble.
“We need to win the line of scrimmage and eliminate turnovers to win the game,” Bowden said. “Our defense has been playing better, but we have to stop putting ourselves in a hole with turnovers and we must block better on the line. If we do that, we will win the game.”