Longhorns, Dragons target opening win as both teams look to end playoff droughts in ’17

The Bangs Dragons last reached the playoffs in 2014, while the Early Longhorns haven’t advanced past district since 2008. Both programs, under third-year head coaches, will attempt to take their first step toward ending their postseason droughts at 7:30 p.m. as the rivals meet in the “Battle of Brown County” at Longhorn Stadium.

Early comes into the season opener looking to snap a 12-game skid as the Longhorns’ last victory took place on Oct. 16, 2015 — an 18-16 home victory over Bangs.

“It’s important to win the first game no matter who you’re playing, but the fact that it’s Bangs makes it more important,” said Early head coach Blake Sandford. “It’s also important for the kids to realize the hard work they’ve done will have an equal sum with success.”

Bangs won last year’s opener over Early, 34-8, at Memorial Stadium en route to a 2-7 record as Dragons head coach Jim Bird cautioned Friday night’s result does not automatically translate into success down the road. What has been the fate for the team that lost the Battle of Brown County each of the last two seasons, however, has been an 0-10 overall record.

“A fast start, everybody likes that, you get to feeling good and everything seems positive, but it only carries you through Saturday morning,” Bird said. “Last year we had a fast start and turned around and got thumped the next week. The season doesn’t end after our rivalry game is over with. We’re going to have to keep our focus, win or lose, on getting better going into the next week. Our goal is definitely to win this game or any other game, but there’s more season after this game’s over with.”

The Longhorns scrimmaged Hico and Breckenridge in preseason action, and Sandford was pleased with the progress his squad showed.

“Their confidence is getting a little better,” Sandford said. “We’re throwing and catching well with very few drops. The defense has come along at gang tackling and being in the right spot for the most part. We do still need to work on our execution, and continue to make sure all 11 people are where they’re supposed to be. Their confidence is great and their work ethic has been great through two-a-days and the two scrimmages. I think they’re eager to get started and get to some real football.”

The Dragons took on San Saba and Hamilton in their two scrimmages, and Bird wants to see a more consistent performance out of his team going forward.

“I think at this point in the year, we’ve got some things that we need to clean up,” Bird said. “Our kids’ focus and their effort by and large is pretty good, we just have a few green people in different places and we’re cleaning that up and they’re working hard to get that done. We made some mistakes through both scrimmages and that’s fairly normal. We have to play better going forward. That’s become the focus for us, trying to eliminate mistakes and mental errors.”

Both Sandford and Bird feel the opposing team in Friday’s encounter has made strides since the teams crossed paths in 2016.

“They’ve changed a few things up offensively, but they’re still formidable in the fact that they’ve got a great quarterback and he’s been throwing and running well in their scrimmages, and that’s going to be a test,” Sandford said of Bangs. “On defense, they’re flying around and haven’t changed much from last year. We’ll have our hands full for sure because they’re so well coached. They’ll come out in a few different sets they didn’t come out in last year and that’s something we have to work on extensively.”

Bird said of Early, “They’re a spread offensively, they run it and throw it about the same amount. They throw it sideways and they throw it down field every once in a while. And they’re going to see if you can stop their run game. Defensively, they base out of a 3-4. The thing we noticed out of their two scrimmages is that they’re running to the ball and their kids are playing really hard. Coach Sandford and those guys are doing a good job getting them to get after it, which is step one when you’re rebuilding. It seems like they’ve got it going in the right direction, the kids look like they’re stronger, they look like they’ve been working out and you can tell, and they’re hustling to the ball. We have to be ready to not be out-hustled, to work harder than they work. It’s going to be a fun night. I feel like they’re improved, I feel like we have the potential to be a much improved team ourselves, and we’re hoping to be on Friday.”

Players to keep an eye on for the Longhorn offense include Ryan Trompler, who is taking over at quarterback this season, along with running backs Jose Pesina, Miguel Elizondo, Hayden Barker and Jesson Tarrant. Receiving threats include Devyn Burns, C.J. Hanley, Jim Fowler, Jonathan Morales and Ty Schafer. Up front all-district selection Jaiden Cochran anchors a unit that also includes Connor King, Ethen Portillo, Chase Cochran, John Griffin and Bailey Jones.

“On offense I want to see us get first downs, move the ball consistently and eat up the clock, get chunks of yardage at a time and get first downs,” Sandford said. “We need to control the line of scrimmage with our O-line, and our backs need to run hard.”

Defensively for Bangs, the front line will likely feature Kadon Richards, Casey Katterhagen and Hunter Lawrence among those rotating in at end, while the tackles will include Payden Eason, Cael John, Dustin Thomas and Holdyn Hoffman among others. Kobey Hoffman is expected to man the middle linebacker spot with Zach Zink and Eli Carbajal on the outside. The secondary will likely feature Colton Brewer, Seth Anderson, George Nichols, Tyler Williford, and Steven Montgomery altering snaps.

“We’re going to have to fly to the ball, cover the whole field, arrive with numbers and tackle maybe a little bit better than we’ve been,” Bird said. “We haven’t tackled real poorly necessarily, we’ve done a good job making tackles when need be, whenever we have the opportunity to make tackles, but we have to make sure we don’t miss tackles in the open field and work really hard to get as many hats to the ball as we can.”

On the flip side of the ball, the Bangs offense is spearheaded by Brewer at quarterback awith Terick Flores, Anderson, Montgomery, Zink and Eason in the backfield, along with Justin Wilson, Williford, Nichols and Richards at the receiver positions. Up front, left tackle Carbajal, left guard Katterhagen, center Lawrence and right tackle Kobey Hoffman are expected to hold down four spots, while Holdyn Hoffman and John were battling for playing time at right guard.

“We don’t need to turn the ball over, we need to control the ball, control the clock, keep their offense off the field and avoid stupid penalties,” Bird said. “We have to finish drives. That’s what we’re looking to do offensively, get some consistency, keep the ball and then finish drives.”

Early counters with a defense led by Riley Richards, Jaiden Cochran, Chase Cochran, King, Jones, Griffin and Portillo rotating in the trenches. The linebacking corps includes Elizondo, Teddy Ozuna and Jadyn Lehde battling for time in the middle along with Mason Flippin, Chase Keilers, Carlos Moreno and Schafer on the outside. The secondary will include Burns, Hanley, Ethan Rhodes, Johnny Club and Rowdy Elkins.

“I want to see our linebackers be run stoppers and our secondary do a great job in the passing game and create turnovers,” Sandford said. “We can’t get too high on the highs and too low on the lows. Once we get a little momentum going we have to ride that out and work as hard as we can for the full four quarters of the game.”

According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Bangs is a 13-point favorite.