Brown County rivals looking to end lengthy playoff droughts clash Friday night as they attempt to take their first step toward the postseason. The Early Longhorns, who last advanced to the postseason in 2008, host the Bangs Dragons, seeking their first playoff appearance since 2014, at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the 2019 season opener.
Early, under fifth-year head coach Blake Sandford, is coming off a 4-6 season — the best of Sandford's tenure — which included a 4-1 start to the campaign. The Longhorns scrimmaged Goldthwaite and Reagan County to get ready for Friday's season opener.
“I wanted to see execution and enthusiasm and great effort with a purpose,” Sandford said of his preseason goals. “When we were on defense the kids were hustling to the ball and getting in on the tackle. I was really excited about that as far as on our defensive side. We had good tackling, good coverage in the secondary, the run fits, everything that we did, but with an attitude and a hustle.
“On offense, it was nice to see our guys execute the plays we put on. When we had to make corrections it was exactly right the way our kids responded to fixing or adjusting something and coming back to it and executing it later. I was really proud of their effort on offense, moving the ball, running tough and throwing and catching and getting after it on the line of scrimmage.”
Bangs, led by second-year head coach Kyle Maxfield, posted a 3-7 record a year ago after the program mustered a total of two wins the previous three seasons. The Dragons took part in two scrimmages at home against San Saba and Comanche.
“I feel like we've accomplished most our of goals that we had in the fall camp as far as establishing positions and establishing the depth chart,” Maxfield said. “At the same time, we got a little better on both sides of the ball as we did it. As far as how we feel overall as a team, we feel like we're on a pretty good pace and we got better at being more physical.
“There's always some surprises, even though we've got some young ones we've got a freshman (Guy Powell) who made some plays. You never know how they're going to react to varsity competition but he's been a good surprise. We've had some other guys step up, role players that we've got to have, and we have a core group of guys that are establishing leadership.”
Both head coaches have been impressed by what they've seen from the opposing team during the preseason.
“What concerns me about Bangs is they have some really good athletes and they are coming off the ball, hitting people in the mouth, and they got after both teams in their scrimmages,” Sandford said. “They're very well-coached and it's obvious they've been working very hard. They'll be ready and if that's the case we better be ready. It will require us to do the best we can and to play error free.”
Maxfield said of Early, “They've got some size on defense and their team speed looks good. (Timmy) Smithson (64 catches, 1,263 receiving yards, 16 TDs), if you look at his receiving stats from last year he had a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns. Coach Sandford always does a good job and these first games there's always something unexpected that you don't have an answer for until you go through it. Hopefully we can battle with them and give them a game.”
Regarding the keys to the game, Sandford would like to see the Longhorns commit as few mistakes as possible and limit any extra opportunities for the Dragons.
“We don't want to have concentration mistakes and taking care of the football is paramount,” Sandford said. “We also don't need penalties, we don't want to be behind the chains on offense and defensively we want to get them off the field on third downs. In order to do that we have to be able to play mistake-free and be opportunistic on defense and try to create turnovers because they have some talented individuals. Limit them to three and outs, make them punt and get the ball back in our offense's hands. Then offensively, we have to execute, throw and catch, run the ball, and come off the ball at the line of scrimmage.”
For the Dragons, continuing to build confidence as the game goes along and hanging around until the fourth quarter could set the stage for a potential reversal of fortunes from the 2018 season opener. Holding on to the ball, which plagued Bangs in its first scrimmage against San Saba, will be vital.
“From the first scrimmage to the second the biggest thing for us was ball security, we didn't turn the ball over, and defensively we created some turnovers,” Maxfield said. “We're going to have to learn how to maintain some drives and not get behind the chains because we're really not an offense that can convert third-and-10 or third-and-15 right now, but hopefully we'll get there. A lot of this first game is going to be stamina and who can withstand the heat. That worries you a little bit when you play a bigger school like Early, but I feel like our guys are in pretty good shape.
“But the biggest thing is trying to gain confidence in what we're doing and I think we were able to do that in the first two scrimmages. One of the biggest differences between this first game and last year's is we have a little more confidence going into the game, and it's because of our success in the scrimmages. That doesn't translate to wins on Friday nights, but we feel like our kids in confident in their assignments and what we have to do to get the win.”
The Longhorns emerged with a 60-20 victory at Bangs' Memorial Stadium last year.
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Early is a 20-point favorite Friday night.