EARLY — Having already surpassed last season’s win total and with their most victories since the 2013 campaign, the Early Longhorns are now setting their sights on ending a playoff drought that extends to 2008.
The Longhorns (4-1, 0-0), off to their best start since 2006, host the Eastland Mavericks (4-1, 0-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the District 3-3A Division I opener for both squads.
Early fourth-year head coach Blake Sandford has stated numerous times throughout the season that what has happened in the past is just that — the past. But with four victories in their first five outings, the Longhorns are heading into district with a level of positive momentum not seen in several seasons in Early.
“Our guys have a lot of confidence going into district,” Sandford said. “They were able to get some wins under their belt, they’re executing on offense and defense and the general sense among every body in our program is that we’re doing some really good things and we want to continue to do those good things.”
Early’s pre-district schedule included wins over Bangs (60-20), Coleman (41-18), Hamilton (48-7), and Hico (46-21), with the loss coming to Tolar (16-7).
Eastland has an identical record to Early with its loss also coming in the third game of the season to Childress (35-7). The Mavericks own victories over Comanche (34-15), West (28-27), Albany (48-14), and Jacksboro (41-27).
The Longhorns enter the district opener averaging 40 points and 458 yards — 248 passing and 210 rushing — per game, with five turnovers.
Ryan Trompler has completed 63 of 112 passes for 1,228 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, while Timmy Smithson has emerged as the big-play threat with 25 catches for 765 yards and 11 touchdowns. The ground game is anchored by Jesson Tarrant (350 yards, 6 TDs), Trompler (263 yards, 5 TDs) and Cale Wade (231 yards, 1 TD). Other receiving threats include Ty Schafer (16-282), Tarrant (9-56, TD), David Shields (6-53, TD) and Jonathan Morales (6-47).
Eastland counters with a defense that is surrendering 24 points per game. Leading tacklers for the Mavericks, who have forced eight turnovers, include Anthony Bonilla (44 tackles, 2 for loss, 2 INTs), Dylan Carlton (34 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 sack), Tatum Payne (30 tackles, 4 for loss), Alex Gonzales (28 tackles), and Tyler Lucky (26 tackles, 1 FR).
“Defensively, they’re going to run a 3-4,” Sandford said. “They’re going to try and attack with some overhang on those outside linebackers, which will basically give them a five-man front. They’ll try and get after us if and when they see the pass.
“Offensively we have to keep the chains moving, get the ball in the end zone and not have any mental breakdowns. We’re going to have to break tackles and block exceptionally well, and have no penalties or turnovers.”
On the flip side of the ball, the Longhorns are yielding 20 points and 265 yards — 202 rushing and 63 passing — with 11 takeaways.
Leading the charge defensively for Early are Brandon Lombrano (47 tackles, 7 TFL, 2 FRs, 2 sacks), Jose Pesina (44 tackles, 3 TFL), Schafer (40 tackles, 13 TFL, 1 FR), Jadyn Lehde (36 tackles), Stephen Holt (34 tackles, 3 TFL), Morales (34 tackles), Carlos Moreno (29 tackles, 2 TFL), Johnny Club (25 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FR), Riley Richards (20 tackles, 2 FRs), and Smithson (20 tackles, 2 INTs).
Eastland is producing 32 points though three players have spent time at quarterback — 6-3 sophomore Behren Morton (49 of 76 for 682 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT), who received an offer from Texas Tech over the summer; Zach Brown (18 of 37 for 229 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT); and Cooper Wright (9 of 12 for 194 yards, 2 TDs).
“Their man quarterback, Coach (James) Morton’s son, injured his leg early in the year but we anticipate him being back,” Sandford said. “The other two have done a pretty good job of moving the ball and directing the offense. We’re planning for all three quarterbacks to be there and we’ll adjust accordingly. It doesn’t really matter who is dishing is out. We saw their starting quarterback in 7-on-7 this summer and he’s pretty good. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”
Brandon Fielding (521 yards, 7 TDs) is the primary rushing threat for Eastland while leading receivers include Gonzales (25-461, 4 TDs), Bonilla (15-249, 2 TDs), Lucky (11-123, 2 TDs) and Brown (7-109, 2 TDs).
“Offensively, they’re an up tempo, spread team somewhat similar to us,” Sandford said. “They will put the ball in the air, they’ve got great skill players, a great O-line and great quarterbacks. They’ll try to move the ball around to different people with the quick screens and they have a great running back who will certainly move the ball.
“Defensively, we’re going to have to tackle and be good at it. We’re going to have to be good in the back end in the secondary facing an offense similar to ours. They’re going to put the ball in the air more than we’ve seen lately, so we have to be good tacklers in space and not commit any penalties.”
The Longhorns won their district opener last season, 38-37 over Brady, but were unable to parlay that into a postseason berth. Still, the sooner Early can pick up its first league victory, the sooner it can take the next step in returning the postseason.
“Everyone wants to win the district but you can’t win the district until you win some, and obviously you want to win the first one,” Sandford said. “There’s only one game a week and you try and win that game and that’s what we’re going to go for.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Early is a 22-point underdog.