EARLY — Bragging rights, pride and positive momentum are on the line for the Early Longhorns (6-3, 6-0) and the Ballinger Bearcats (7-2, 5-1) as they prepare for Friday’s 7:30 p.m. District 6-2A showdown at Bearcat Stadium.
Early has already sewn up 6-2A’s Division I playoff spot and its third straight district championship. With a win Friday, the Longhorns will have their second outright championship in that three-year span.
Ballinger is also playoff-bound, having locked up the district’s top seed in Division II with last week’s 14-13 overtime win at Coleman. Still, the Bearcats would like to earn a piece of the district championship.
“We’re already in the playoffs, but our kids feel like they have something left to prove,” said Early head coach Robbie Tindol. “Our kids want to go through district winning every district game. We also want to go into the playoffs on a high note and not worry about regrouping and wondering what we did wrong. We want to stay on that good roll and continue to win.”
Early will be gunning for its seven straight victory heading into the postseason as the Longhorns’ 0-3 start is a distant memory.
“We came into the season with not a lot of returning starters, so we were a relatively young ball club that hand to find out who was going to be able to do what,” Tindol said. “We’ve grown by playing the schedule we did. We played those hard games and we could have won if we did some things right in them. That experience taught our kids how to take things to a different level. It taught them how to approach games and approach practices and to work hard for the things they wanted to have happen. We wanted to get progressively better and we have. The kids are having a good time now and are enjoying playing the game of football.”
Ballinger has also shown plenty of improvement throughout the season as the Bearcats have won four straight games and seven of the last eight — with the only hiccup being a 29-12 loss to Jim Ned — after opening the season with a 32-7 loss to Class 3A playoff-bound Clyde.
“Ballinger had a big, emotional win last week against Coleman and they’ve suffered only two losses on the year, so this is a team that’s used to winning also,” Tindol said. “They’ve gotten better since last year and we expect Ballinger to come out with everything they’ve got. They want a share of the district title, so we have to come ready to play.”
Having the opportunity to keep the district championship all to themselves will definitely be a driving force for the Longhorns, however.
“This is a goal they wanted to achieve, saying they’re district champs and have it be something nobody else can say,” Tindol said. “There’s been a lot of talk about our other outright district championship, but it’d mean a lot to these kids to have their own. This is something they’d feel like they’d have some ownership in and some pride about.”
In order for the Longhorns to knock off the Bearcats, they must find a way to solve a Ballinger defense that has allowed just 11.8 points per game over the last four.
“Defensively, they base out of a 3-4, move people around and slide their front to give a four-man rush sometimes,” Tindol said. “Against our spread, they’re going to try and bring a lot of heat and not give us a whole lot of time to throw. They have good people in the secondary and their defensive line has shown it can stuff the line of scrimmage like they did a little against Coleman. “They’ve played a lot of low-scoring, tight ball games and they’re not accustomed to getting points scored on them.”
Early will counter with an offense that’s averaging 27 points per game and has scored at least 34 points in four of its last five contests. The Longhorns have been extremely balanced, passing for 183.6 yards while rushing for 177.2 yards per game.
Collin Rome leads the ground game as he’s eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark with 1,095 yards and 11 touchdowns on 151 carries, an average of 7.3 yards per rush. Bo Ross has chipped in 283 yards and a touchdown, while Shane Morris has 162 yards rushing and a score.
Through the air, Nick Lyle has completed 87-of-177 passes for 1,472 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Cody Bullard leads Early with 25 catches for 420 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Seth Coolbaugh and John Moore have added 10 receptions each. Coolbaugh’s catches have covered 244 yards with three touchdowns, while Moore has 185 yards receiving and a pair of scores.
The offense will also get a boost by the return of receivers Austin Cochran and Sean Aly, as Tindol stated he did not expect any Longhorns to miss action Friday night. Cochran enters the game with 18 catches for 277 yards and three touchdowns, while Aly has four receptions for 70 yards and a 23.6-yard average on punt returns with a 65-yard touchdown.
As impressive as the Ballinger defense has been, the Bearcat offense has been inconsistent at best. Only once in the last five games has Ballinger broken the 20-point plateau, and during their win streak the Bearcats are averaging just 17.8 points per game.
Ballinger’s big-play threats include quarterback Tucker Travis, running back Jaison Strambler and receiver Michael Pena.
“They run a spread offense and like to throw the ball around,” Tindol said. “They run a lot of screens and reverses and very seldom will they line up in a tight formation. Almost every snap is out of the shotgun, and they like to call plays from the sideline and see what kind of defense you line up in. They have a good quarterback that they can utilize some as a runner, but most of the time they try and get you outflanked and throw the football.”
Early is allowing 293.4 yards, but only 85.4 yards passing and 16.5 points per game. The Longhorns have given up just 32 points in their last four games, three of which Early surrendered a touchdown or less.
The Longhorns have also forced 21 turnovers, including 12 interceptions. Moore leads the team with five, including a 33-yard return for a touchdown, while Morris has four.
“This will be a big test for our defense to cover those guys, put pressure on the quarterback and take care of our responsibilities,” Tindol said. “We have to have as many three-and-outs defensively as we can.”
After Ballinger earned a one-point win over Coleman due to a blocked extra point last week, Tindol stated the Longhorns will put additional emphasis on the kicking game.
“The kicking game is going to be big,” Tindol said. “Ballinger has shown it can block some kicks and you don’t want one play dictating what happens for the whole football game.”