The playoffs essentially begin for the Brownwood Lions Friday night.
With a win in Friday’s regular-season finale against the Snyder Tigers (5-4, 2-2) at Gordon Wood Stadium, the Lions (7-2, 3-1) will earn no less than a share of their first district championship since 2003 and clinch their first postseason berth since 2006.
A loss Friday would send Snyder to the postseason in the Lions’ place, as Brownwood would finish tied for third place in the District 2-3A standings and lose the tiebreaker to the Tigers as a result of Friday’s head-to-head outcome.
There are other scenarios that technically could take place Friday night — including one that results in Brownwood, Snyder, No. 9 Abilene Wylie and No. 10 Graham all sharing the 2-3A title — but with a pair of state-ranked teams facing two opponents with a combined two wins in the other district battles, those possibilities appear extremely remote.
That leaves the Lions’ fate in their own hands, and presents Brownwood head coach Bob Shipley and the rest of the coaching staff with the opportunity to officially turn the program around in their first season.
“The truth of the matter is it doesn’t matter if it’s been 30 in a row or a 30-year drought, our goal is to make the playoffs every year. But it would be special knowing it’s been a couple of years since that’s happened here,” Shipley said. “A win would automatically bring part of the district title here and that would be very rewarding for our kids. They put in an awful lot of hard work getting ready for this season and preparing during the season. It would be a great reward for them.”
Knocking off Snyder won’t be an easy task, however, especially the way the Tigers have played defense over the last three weeks. Snyder has posted back-to-back shutouts over Breckenridge and Sweetwater and, more impressively, held Wylie to 17 points.
Snyder is allowing only 19 points and 258 total yards — 164 rushing and 94 passing — per game, while forcing 27 turnovers, an average of three per contest.
And the Tiger defense has definitely caught the eye of the Lions coaching staff.
“Their defense is really something different than what we’ve seen all year,” Shipley said. “The best way to describe it is organized chaos. They typically will play with five defensive backs and then six guys in the box. They run a 3-3 stack, but those six guys are moving a lot of the time before the ball is snapped and you never know what guy is going to shoot through which gap. On one hand you don’t know what they are going to do each play, but on the other hand you can pretty much bet the farm they are going to blitz somebody from somewhere.”
Snyder is lacking size-wise this season, which Shipley feels is actually an advantage to the defensive scheme the Tigers have implemented.
“They’re probably running this to make up for a lack of size and it’s been a great strategy for them,” Shipley said. “Their 11 kids on defense play as hard as any team we’ve seen this year. They’ve really done a good job of timing their blitzes and shooting through the gap right as the ball is snapped. If they time it just right, they are past you before you ever get out of your stance.
“Obviously we have to do a good job of mixing up our snap count so they can’t get a jump on us that way. It creates a huge challenge for us, just like it did for Graham and Wylie.”
The Lions, meanwhile, are hopeful the balanced mix between the run and pass they achieved in last week’s 42-0 victory over Sweetwater can be duplicated against the Tigers this week. Brownwood finished with 237 yards passing and 182 yards on the ground, eclipsing the 400-yard plateau on offense for the second straight week.
Shipley isn’t sure which aspect of the offense Snyder will attempt to eliminate, but the head coach is confident Brownwood will be able to move the ball whether it’s through the air or on the ground.
“They’re one of the smaller defensive fronts that we’ve seen, so we would love to be able to run the ball on them,” Shipley said. “We won’t know until Friday night exactly what we’ll be able to do. If we can pick up all their blitzes, we should be in pretty good shape. The thing about that defense is it’s feast or famine. They’re going to give up some big plays and they’re going to make some big plays on you. That’s just part of the deal, it’s just a gamble.”
Brownwood’s offense averages 28 points and 380 total yards — 239 passing and 141 rushing — per game.
The Lions have been led by the steady play of quarterback Vance McShan (65-of-102, 999 yards, 7 TDs, 3 interceptions), who has a vast array of receiving weapons as his disposal. Top Brownwood receivers are Jaxon Shipley (32-593, 7 TDs), Dillon Ellis (28-472, 2 TDs), Luke Chastain (18-298, 2 TDs), Cade Johnson (18-276, 2 TDs) and Stehl Ratliff (18-189, TD).
Ratliff (97-581, 9 TDs) is also coming off his second 100-yard rushing effort of the season and scored a 28-yard touchdown last week, while Derek Longoria (35-183, 4 TDs) chipped in 70 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Levi Perez (50-266, TD) is also expected to be back on the field this week after missing the Sweetwater game.
“We can’t allow them to disrupt what we’re trying to do,” Shipley said. “We have to be able to pick up those blitzing guys and allow their big plays defensively to be minimal.”
On the other side of the ball, Snyder is mixing in more formations and throwing the ball more than in seasons past, though the Tigers do still rely heavily on the ground attack.
Snyder is averaging 31 points, 178 yards rushing and 170 yards passing per game, but the Tigers have turned the ball over 23 times.
Kennon Ward (132-672, 6 TDs, Kelton Garcia (59-288, 2 TDs), Nick Zajicek (67-175, TD) and Scott Smith (18-123, 2 TDs) anchor the ground game, while Ward has completed 69-of-121 passes for 1,149 yards with 16 TDs and eight interceptions. Anthony Taylor (25-750, 13 TDs) and Shade Roemisch (15-268, 3 TDs) are the main receiving threats for the Tigers.
“They’re still running some option, and running the spread a little bit more than they have been from looking at last year’s film,” Shipley said. “We really don’t know for sure what they’re going to do offensively. We’ve seen so many different looks from them and they run so many different formations. Their offensive philosophy is a little bit like their defense in that they like to keep you confused where you don’t know for sure where they’re going to be or what they’re going to be doing.”
While the Lions are coming off their first shutout of the season — which included a defensive touchdown on a 76-yard fumble return by Caden Ellis — Brownwood did not necessarily tackle as well as Shipley would have liked, though Sweetwater generated just 162 total yards.
Shipley stated a better defensive effort will be required to keep Snyder’s offense in check Friday night.
“They’re quicker and have more speed than Sweetwater did and they have guys that can break it and go the distance if you don’t take care of your responsibilities,” Shipley said. “The option is a great equalizer because they may not have the biggest guys, and they certainly don’t have as big an offensive line as they had last year, but you have to play assignment football. Someone has to take the dive, the quarterback and the pitch, then you have to have second-level defenders as well in case those guys get blocked. It’s critical we have guys where they are supposed to be and that they make the tackle when they’re in position to do so.”
The Lions enter Friday’s game allowing 18 points and 293 total yards — 147 rushing and 146 passing — per outing.
If Friday’s game comes down to the wire, the Lions have shown they can handle pressure situations. Brownwood blocked an extra point to defeat Graham, 28-27, with two seconds remaining, and used a defensive stand in the final minute to hold off Burnet, 27-24, in the season opener.
“That’s just a tribute to our kids and the way they compete and the way they love to win,” Shipley said. “From watching film of last year, it was just the opposite, the team found a way to lose somehow. Almost all the games were close, but they came out on the short end. I think the kids probably learned from that and know it’s a terrible feeling to lose close games. “Evidently they’ve taken the lessons they learned from last year and are trying to finish strong and win games at the end instead of losing them. I don’t know exactly why we’ve been able to win the close games, but there’s no doubt the credit goes to those kids out there competing. They’re the ones that determine the outcome when we win games like that.”