“Business as usual” for Rangers as rival Judson looms large

Smithson Valley takes on undefeated Judson in the biggest game of the year


Danielle Esperiqueta

Greg Eggleston (left) and Luke Gombert celebrate an Eggleston rushing touchdown against East Central. Eggleston will need more big plays if the Rangers want to beat Judson.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

The Rangers haven’t lost since September 20th. That could change this week, as Smithson Valley takes on the juggernaut Judson Rockets in Converse. 

Led by world-class quarterback Mike Chandler II (75/1355/13 passing, 59/397/7 rushing), who has received interest from Division I schools like Utah and Northwestern, Judson’s offense is nothing short of incredible. After unanimously winning District 26-6A offensive player of the year as a junior, Chandler came back for more, and has played lights-out every single week. Even the Rangers are impressed.

“He’s a talented football player,” Smithson Valley coach Larry Hill said on Thursday. “They’ve got a lot of talented football players. He makes them better with his talent and they make him better with their talent… He can do so many things: he can take the ball and drop back on a smoothly-executed play, throw on rhythm and throw very well. He can do that same thing [on a busted play]; Maybe not find an open receiver, [but when he] gets pressured [he can] scramble and extend the play, extend the play, extend the play, then find someone open. Or he can…extend the play and take off running. Or he can do a designed quarterback run. And so, he’s just so good in all those areas that it just makes it difficult to prepare. But that’s what we gotta do, and our defense is up for the challenge.”

If the Ranger defense is up to the challenge, they’ll be the first to do so all year. The Rockets are averaging over 50 points per game, which would presumably constitute a district record if they hold serve. Even in their worst offensive performance, a 39-0 win over Harlingen, three missed extra points cost the Rockets. The challenge is stiff.

“You can’t cover everything every play,” Hill said. “I mean, I guess you can, but you’re going to be spread thin, and may be vulnerable in every area. So we’re going to have to mix our looks, I don’t think we can present them with the same look, trying to take away the same threat, on every play. Because…they have multiple playmakers, and they’ll quickly shift to someone else [if something isn’t working]. So sometimes we gotta do this, sometimes we gotta do that, sometimes we gotta make it appear as if we’re doing this when we’re really doing that, and vice versa. Now, we’re going to have to tackle well. You know, sometimes you spend a lot of time trying to put [the players] in the right places, make the perfect call, but there’s still a human element. You’ve still gotta tackle good players in space, so it’s going to boil down to execution.”

The idea that Judson quickly shifts from weapon to weapon is spot-on analysis. In the aforementioned Harlingen game, the Rockets were having trouble (for once) getting the passing game going. So what do they do? Well, just allow Chandler and RB De’Anthony Lewis (75/828/14) to rush for a combined 272 yards and four touchdowns. No big deal. 

And if the rushing attack isn’t working, then they can always go back to the air. Last week at New Braunfels, Lewis and Chandler struggled to pound the rock through the Unicorns’ defensive front. So what did the Rockets do? Well, let Chandler complete 18/22 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns, obviously!

154 yards and three touchdowns of that stat line went in the direction of Amarea Bailey-Davis, a 6’1 stud wide receiver who has hauled in 25 passes for 633 yards and eight scores. His height and big-play ability may give some astute readers flashbacks to Midland Lee’s Loic Fouonji, who torched the Rangers back in week one for 168 yards and two scores on just two catches. But, to quell a few of your fears, Fouonji was 6’4 rather than 6’1. And though the difference may seem minor or even negligible at first glance, for the Rangers’ pair of 5’10 cornerbacks, those three inches may be the difference between a touchdown and a batted ball. 

The key to helping those corners out, then, is to quickly pressure Chandler. The more time he has, the more open his receivers get. And at that point, you might as well call off the game. Hill understands this as well as anyone.

“We’d rather [mobile quarterbacks] throw on rhythm and not be able to extend the play,” Hill said. “It’s hard to cover for six, eight, ten seconds… So there’s emphasis on keeping [Chandler] in the pocket. Obviously other teams have had that same goal, with limited success, but that has been an area we’ve worked on this week in practice. So our preference would be for him to throw from the pocket… and get pressure, but not pressure to where we lose contain and he flushes. We’ve gotta be only the upfield shoulders and either sack him or… [make him] step through so the defensive tackles will have a chance. We’ll have a linebacker spying on him, take him out of coverage and spy a little bit. You sacrifice some coverage when you do that, but we feel like, of the two evils, we better take care of that.”

And they really are both evils. The Rangers need players like QB Luke Gombert to steo up, now more than ever. The winner of this game becomes a near-lock to top the division at year’s end, not that Smithson Valley’s coach would ever let on to the importance of this matchup. To him, every game is the same.

“We treat every game the same,” Hill said, toeing the line between coach-speak and eloquence. “And I don’t mean to downplay the significance of anything, I just think as a coach, if you start playing up a game or games on your schedule as ‘the game’ or ‘game of the year’… if you win that game, you tend to flatten out, because you were up, up, up, up, you got what you wanted, and then the inevitable flatten-out. If you do that in this league, you can get your brains beat in. And the reverse is true: if you lose the game, if you’ve built it up as the game of the year but you lose it, you still gotta play. So we embraced that idea long ago, that all games are ‘checklist games,’ and we try to check all the boxes before 7:30 on Friday. 

After a while, though, Hill had to admit that the game did have a different air about it than other games this season. Even as a staunch every-game-is-the-same advocate, he knows what this game means to the program.

“There’s no getting around it,” Hill said. “Our kids are not stupid, they know what’s at stake, what could be at stake, and certainly the media plays a role in that, too. So they’re not dumb, but at the same time, Tuesday is Tuesday. Wednesday is Wednesday. We’re going to do the same things Thursday as we always do. And I think players develop comfort in a routine. I think they develop confidence that we have checked all the boxes, they know they’ve given themselves the best chance to win. So it’s been a business-as-usual approach this week.”

Despite his not-so-subtle jab at journalists, his answer was a good one: stay the course, and let your work speak for itself. Hill told me that we shouldn’t expect to “see things that you haven’t seen before,” and his message rang loud and clear: we can beat this team. Since that week one loss at Midland Lee, the Rangers are outscoring opponents by an average of 38-10 (In the same time span, Judson has, on average, outscored opponents 52-19. The difference (5 points per game) is the rough equivalent of a coin flip. Can the Rangers hold Judson to ten points? No. But the Rockets aren’t going to drop 50, leaving the game in the hands of just two factors: the Ranger offense and Rocket kicker Humberto Villareal.

The Rangers don’t have the kind of offense that can match Judson’s, especially for a full game. Gombert is proving himself to be more of an athletic game manager than a star, and unless WR/RB Greg Eggleston can break another big run or two, the Boys in Blue prefer to grind out drives on the back of RB Jacob Forton. Even if everything goes right, the Rangers will likely end up around 30 points. And leaving the tiebreaker up to special teams is exactly what the Rangers are hoping for.

Ranger kicker Joaquin Rodriguez has been about as efficient as a kicker can be, with only two missed field goals, both in one game, to his name. Villareal, however… that’s another story.

Luckily for him, Villareal hasn’t been asked to win any games yet. The senior has hit just 30 of his 37 extra point attempts, and has hit two of his five field goal tries. If the game comes down to special teams – and believe me, if that happens, Judson’s home crowd may riot – Smithson Valley will have a clear advantage, and that’s before you even mention DL Trey Moore’s propensity to block punts. Judson has more talent across most of the board, but special teams and defensive discipline are where the Rangers really shine.

If Hill and his staff can slow down Chandler, contort the Judson defense with Forton’s nickel-and-dime approach before busting it open with Eggleston’s speed, and get a couple breaks in the kicking game, Smithson Valley has a shot to win this game. Is it likely? Of course not. But crazier things have happened, and you don’t have to squint that hard to see an upset peeking just around the corner. 

PREDICTION: Rockets 34, Rangers 24