The 2010 season marked the last time the Brownwood Lions won a district championship — and defeated the Abilene Wylie Bulldogs. The road to the District 3-4A Division I crown again runs through Wylie, as the Lions host the Bulldogs at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the league opener for both squads.
Preseason prognostications suggested Wylie would capture the district championship, but Brownwood would advance farther in the playoff by reaching the Division I-4A Region I final. Through four games, the Bulldogs (3-1) and Lions (2-2) own the district’s best overall records, and Friday’s tilt will put one of these two teams in the driver’s seat for the 3-4A Division I title.
“You like to approach each game the same each week, but when you’re playing Wylie there’s no denying it’s big,” said Lions first-year head coach Kyle Maxfield. “Their tradition and success over the years makes it a special game. Last year speaks for itself with two close games — one in district and one in the quarterfinals. Both teams are very familiar with each other and when you have that kind of history with a team it just adds a few special ingredients to the game.”
A year ago, Wylie picked up a 7-3 district victory over the Lions at Gordon Wood Stadium, then held off a late Brownwood rally for a 14-7 triumph in the state quarterfinal round at San Angelo Stadium. Though the rosters, and even the head coach for one team, are different, the intensity remains at a fever pitch.
“With last year fresh in everybody’s mind this is definitely big,” Maxfield said. “Plus the open week makes everyone a little anxious to get back on the field, so our kids are excited and ready to play.”
The Lions enter the contest two plays away from a 4-0 record and two plays away from an 0-4 record. All four of Brownwood’s games this season have come down to the final snap, including the most recent outing, a 36-35 victory over Giddings at Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. Brownwood’s four contests have been decided by a total of nine points as the Lions have also defeated Graham (34-30) while falling to Canyon (20-17) and Liberty Hill (30-29) — both in overtime.
Abilene Wylie enters Friday’s tilt on a two-game win streak, having knocked off Brownfield (53-7) and Denison (28-14). The Bulldogs had to rally late in their season opener to upend Vernon (15-9), which was followed by a loss at Class 5A Division I Lubbock Monterey (37-23).
The most intriguing battle heading into Friday night is the Brownwood offense — which managed just 10 points in eight quarters against the Bulldogs last season — against the Wylie defense.
The Lions — who average 29 points and 295 yards per game — are coming off their most balanced performance against Giddings as Brownwood amassed 166 yards on the ground and 150 through the air. The Lions also managed to overcome a season-high three turnovers thanks in part to a 79-yard kick return for a touchdown by Braden Jetton and a safety on a botched punt attempt.
“The offense showed a little more oomph than we have in the past during the Giddings game,” Maxfield said. “We had a little more rhythm and moved the ball better and hopefully the off week doesn’t set us back. We feel like we’ve had a good off week to work on some things. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off, and the same with the defense.
“We’ve pulled out a lot of stuff this year just trying to keep opponents off balance a little bit. As well as Wylie is coached, I don’t know if you can trick those guys. You just have to be good at what you do, have a good plan, stick to it, be patient and take what they give you.”
Brownwood quarterback McLane Moore has completed 44 of 79 passes for 697 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions and ranks second on the team in rushing with 93 yards on 29 carries. Gavin Jefferson is coming off a season-best 138-yard, three-touchdown rushing effort and has gained 353 yards with four rushing touchdowns this season. Leading receivers include Crystan Wright (14-163), Corleone Pressley (7-124, 2 TDs), Jeremy Brown (7-85, 2 TDs), Blaine Hughes (4-120, TD), Jefferson (4-56, TD), Patrick Nash (2-57), Jetton (1-75, TD) and Rylan Reagan (1-9, TD).
Wylie counters with a defensive unit that is allowing 17 points and 278 yards — 171 rushing and 107 passing. Free safety Cason Grant, end Dion Novil and strong safety Cameron Hanna in particular have caught the eye of the Lions coaching staff.
“Novil really stands out,” Maxfield said. “He’s a great looking kid, and gets off the ball quick. He’s about 6-3, 270 and a great athlete. He can disrupt everything so you have to have a plan for him. Grant and Hanna play both sides of the ball, and Grant picked off a pass and took it back to the house last year in the quarterfinals so he can make big plays. He’s similar to Jeremy Brown for us, just a player who makes plays.”
On the other side of the ball, the Lions are yielding 29 points and 391 yards — 253 rushing and 138 passing — with eight turnovers forced. Standouts on defense include Brown (38.5 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 INT), Hunter Mares (36 tackles, 8 for loss, 1 FR), Grant Fanara (31 tackles, 1 for loss), Hayden Donahoo (30 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 1 INT), Devonte Evetts (22 tackles, 2 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Wright (19 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 INTs), Hughes (17.5 tackles), Devon Jefferson (16.5 tackles, 1 sack), Hayden Tunnell (15 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 for loss, FR), Gavin Jefferson (14.5 tackles, 1 sack), Dylan Hickey (13 tackles, 1 sack) and Pressley (11.5 tackles, 4 sacks).
Wylie’s offense produces 30 points and 365 yards — 251 on the ground and 114 through the air.
The Bulldog ground game is anchored by Brooks Pepper (371 yards, 3 TDs), Zach Smith (220 yards, 4 TDs), Hanna (172 yards, 1 TD) and Grant (158 yards, 1 TD). Smith has completed 29 of 54 passes for 324 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions, while leading receivers include Grant (7-95, TD), Tyler Henson (5-63, 2 TDs), Hanna (4-22), Jonas Lunsford (3-52), Pepper (3-43), Conor Widder (2-16, Novil (2-13, TD), Ethan Smith (2-13) and Noah Lang (1-63, TD).
With the showdown being at Gordon Wood Stadium, the history between the teams and the contest being just the second official home game this season — as the homecoming contest against Alvarado was cancelled after a quarter-plus due to lightning — Maxfield is expecting a standing room only crowd of Lion supporters.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be packed,” Maxfield said. “Our last game had an unbelievable crowd even though we got rained out. There was electricity in the air that night and I feel like it will be the same way this Friday.”
Harris Ratings Weekly lists the game as the top contest in Class 4A this weekend, and Brownwood as a 2-point underdog.