Early Longhorns eye another upset against Shallowater in area round

Mike Lee
Special to the Bulletin
Early quarterback Jaxyn Price looks for a receiver in the Longhorns' game against Jim Ned. Jim Ned won 46-14 on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, at Longhorn Stadium in Early.

It’s common in Texas high school football to see the same traditional powers excelling in the playoffs every season. From Class 6A schools like Katy and Austin Westlake to 5As like Aledo, 4As like Carthage and 2As like Refugio and Mart.

It feels refreshing to see a new team like the Early Longhorns experience success in the postseason. Early (9-2) faces Shallowater (9-2) in a Class 3A Division I area playoff game at 7 p.m. Friday at Clyde.

Shallowater has much more tradition than Early. The Mustangs from the Lubbock area have qualified for the playoffs for the last 12 years, including five appearances in the state quarterfinals. They’ve played in 66 all-time postseason games. On the other hand, the Longhorns ended an 11-year playoff drought last season and have played in just 23 all-time postseason games.

But don’t expect Early to be intimidated by Shallowater’s tradition – not after the Longhorns have beaten tradition-rich programs from Wall and Pilot Point to get this far. Like Shallwater, Wall has been to the playoffs 12 straight years, including eight appearances in the regional round. Pilot Point has won three state championships and played in 106 all-time postseason games.

None of that mattered to the Longhorns. Early had to beat Wall by nine points or more in the final regular-season game to earn a No. 3 playoff seed and get out of the unenviable No. 4 spot.

Early trailed Wall 14-10 in the fourth quarter, but junior defensive tackles Casey Moseley and Chris Fernandez recovered fumbles on back-to-back Wall possessions. On Early’s first play after each turnover, the Longhorns scored on passes of 77 and 44 yards and rallied to beat the tradition-rich Hawks 24-14.

The 10-point margin elevated Early out of the No. 4 playoff spot, meaning the Longhorns didn’t have to play No. 2-ranked Brock in bidistrict. Still, the Longhorns had to face a Pilot Point program with an overall tradition that runs deeper than Brock’s.

No problem again for Early. Despite traveling all the way to Saginaw – which is practically in Pilot Point’s back yard – Early raced from the starting gate with a quick touchdown, an interception return for a touchdown by John-Stewart Gordon, and a forced fumble by Gordon that Tre Beam picked up and returned for a touchdown.

Early led 29-0 with time remaining in the first quarter, and the Longhorns beat the tradition-rich Bearcats 43-21.

“You could see the energy rise out of the kids toward the end of the Wall game, and that set us up to play well against Pilot Point,” second-year Early head coach Daniel Price said. “Those were program wins, changing-the-culture wins. Nobody thought we could beat Wall, and not very many thought we could beat Pilot Point.”

Price said Early’s success this season stems from three factors: a goal set last year, a true family culture and the performance this season of its defense.

After last year’s 42-7 bidistrict loss to Brock, the Longhorns set a goal on the field immediately after the game to win a playoff game in 2021. The best way to do that was by finishing higher than fourth in district and avoiding Brock in bidistrict.

The Longhorns accomplished that goal, but they did it the hard way after opening District 3-3A Division I with losses to Jim Ned and Breckenridge.

“We worked on that goal of winning a gold football (the trophy for winning a playoff game) from last November to last Friday night,” Price said. “We did it, and it was so exciting to see the kids reach a goal they had to work so long to get. The atmosphere on the field after the Pilot Point game last week was something you can’t recreate.

“It was genuine.”

The family culture is one of those motivational tactics sports teams employ that make outsiders roll their eyes because it doesn’t always work. It has to be more than talk. But family is the first thing Gordon mentioned in an interview after the Wall game.

“This win means everything to us as a family,” said Gordon, who scored the go-ahead touchdown against Wall. “Our team is built around family. We call each other brothers. There had to be a reason for playing this season.”

Price said, “It means something to them to get to play high school football with each other because they feel like they’re brothers. There’s a mutual respect. They pour it all out for each other every week. They trust their teammates to be in the right position and to make plays.”

Early’s defense is allowing 17.3 points per game and has 26 takeaways this season, highlighted by the game-changing turnovers against Wall and Pilot Point.

Senior safety Tucker Hale leads Early’s defense in tackles with 96 while junior end Caleb McCullough has 94 stops and four forced fumbles. Sophomore middle linebacker Kalen Ozuna has 94 tackles while end Korbin Hall has 73.

Linebackers Beam and Franky Villarreal have combined for 131 tackles, and Beam has eight sacks. Gordon has six interceptions and fellow cornerback Jeremy Brown has three picks. Vic Cooper, a 6-foot-4 safety, has provided a commanding presence on the back end.

“Our defense has kept us in games when the offense was struggling,” said Price, a defensive assistant before becoming a head coach. “Everybody sees who scores the touchdowns, and the defensive sometimes gets lost. But defense is where big games are won.

“You can’t win in the playoffs unless you get some defensive stops.”

Mike Lee writes a weekly high school football column for the USA Today Network's Texas newspapers. Contact him at michaellee7@att.net.