EARLY — The Early football program has enjoyed several firsts during its run of three consecutive postseason appearances. Saturday, the Longhorns (10-3) have the opportunity to achieve another first, and unquestionably the greatest one to date — advancing to a state championship game.
The journey to the Class 2A, Division I state semifinals — where the Longhorns will tangle with the Farmersville Fightin’ Farmers (11-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Waco ISD Stadium — might have been the rockiest of the past three years, which makes the fact that Early is still playing that much more gratifying, especially for the senior class.
With many of the key contributors from the 2005 state semifinalist and 2006 state quarterfinalist squads lost to graduation, Early opened the season with several new faces in the starting lineup. The Longhorns’ inexperience led some prognosticators to believe Early’s run of good fortune was destined to end. Even some closest to the Longhorn program felt this year’s team couldn’t live up to the success of the previous two seasons.
“Nobody ever expected anything from our class,” said senior receiver/defensive back Jordan Pfenenger. “Our sophomore year we had teachers telling us that we would amount to nothing and our coaches hated us and all this stuff. We turned that into motivation.”
The Longhorns’ 0-3 start did very little to quiet the rumblings that Early could indeed be on the decline. Despite playing what turned out to be three playoff teams, the Longhorns losing as many games to start the 2007 campaign as they did in the ’05 and ’06 regular seasons combined only added to the frustration.
Add to that the program now consisted of players unfamiliar with the struggles Early experienced for a near five-decade stretch, and three straight losses created a sour environment in the locker room.
“We argued a lot,” said senior offensive/defensive lineman Jose Rosales. “There was a lot of tension between the team. But we grew up together and started getting better together. We love everybody now.”
A players’ meeting was eventually called to clear the air, and with the Longhorns’ change in attitude, their fortunes soon followed.
The District 6-2A opener against then-unbeaten Jim Ned arrived and the winless Longhorns rose to the challenge, picking up a 21-6 victory. That triumph served as the springboard to a 10-game win streak that has Early on the brink of program history.
“The first three games we were upset and we’d been crabby,” Pfenenger said. “We knew that we were better than that. Jim Ned was undefeated, we beat them and that was when we knew we could do it. That really helped our confidence a lot.”
As the season progressed, the Longhorns continued to show marked improvement each week. As is often the case with state championship caliber football teams, Early has saved its best performances for the postseason.
In fact, the Longhorns are on such a roll they feel if they play to their full potential Saturday night, the Fightin’ Farmers will be left scratching their heads.
“If we’re playing our best ball I don’t think they’ll be able to stop us,” said senior receiver/defensive back John Moore. “I don’t think they have a chance.”
No team has stood a chance against the Longhorn defense this postseason. Early is allowing just 13.3 points and 255.4 yards per game in the playoffs.
“At the start of the year we realized how much potential our defense had, but we hadn’t played to that,” Pfenenger said. “I think the first game we really stepped it up was against Coleman (20-18 win). They had been scoring as many points as they wanted to and we pretty much shut them down for the most part.”
The offense hasn’t been too shabby either, with the Longhorns doing the bulk of their damage on the ground the last few weeks. Early has rushed for 240.3 of its 362.7 total yards per game in the playoffs.
“It’s frustrating for a defense when we are able to consistently run against them,” said senior offensive lineman/defensive lineman Tanner Brown.
Added Rosales, “We just want to run the ball. Before the game we make sure and ask the coaches if we can run the ball more, please.”
The Longhorns certainly aren’t underestimating the task before them — defeating a red-hot Farmersville squad that has won eight straight — but a gleam comes across the seniors’ eyes when they discuss the importance of a potential victory.
“We were thinking about that the other day,” Pfenenger said. “We win this game and people can call us the best that ever came through Early. That would mean everything, but ultimately our goal is to win a state championship, not just make it to state.”
And a state championship was a goal the seniors never dreamed possible when they suited up as freshmen in 2004 — the final season of a 47-year playoff drought for Early.
“When Early wasn’t winning before, state championships is what you talked about other people doing and you never took it serious,” Moore said. “Now that we’re here, it can be a reality.”