In clash of district titans, Rangers to take on Steele

Smithson Valley gears up for battle with rival Knights

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In clash of district titans, Rangers to take on Steele

RB Jacob Forton rushes for one of his three touchdowns against East Central. A big game from Forton could swing the game in favor of the Rangers.

RB Jacob Forton rushes for one of his three touchdowns against East Central. A big game from Forton could swing the game in favor of the Rangers.

Danielle Esperiqueta

RB Jacob Forton rushes for one of his three touchdowns against East Central. A big game from Forton could swing the game in favor of the Rangers.

Danielle Esperiqueta

Danielle Esperiqueta

RB Jacob Forton rushes for one of his three touchdowns against East Central. A big game from Forton could swing the game in favor of the Rangers.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

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Winter is coming. And so are the Knights. 

With a projected kickoff temperature of 57ºF (13 MPH winds) and a low of 43ºF as the sun goes down, the Rangers are about to play in one of their coldest games yet. But the weather isn’t what they’ll be thinking about: thunder and lighting are no match for David Saenz, Jr. and the Steele Knights.

Leading the charge is junior QB Wyatt Begeal, a junior who has started since partway through his freshman year. Ranger coach Larry Hill, for one, is impressed.

“He’s a good player,” Hill said. “He’s in the mode of, though maybe not exactly the same, [Max Didomenico] at Clemens and [Mike Chandler II] at Judson in the sense that he runs the ball well, throws the ball well, but he also can also extend plays and make plays outside of structure. He’s a challenge.”

That may be the understatement of the year. Begeal has completed 65.4% of his passes thus far, resulting in a 104/1577/12, all three of which are at or near the top of San Antonio-area 6A school stat leaderboards. His performance is, however, just a sliver of Steele’s impressive offense.

“They’ve retooled a little bit,” Hill said. “They look a little different than they have in the past. Some of the things they’re featuring, throwing the ball and taking advantage of [Begeal’s] skill set a little more, continuing to run him. So, much like a week ago, and several opponents this year, we’ll have some decisions to make on what to really load up on and what to – not to concede, but maybe be a little thinner. They stretch you pretty thin. So it’ll be a challenge.”

Steele’s running backs play a big part in that. De’Quavion Thomas (42/435/10) is the most explosive, but actually has less carries than Begeal (68/358/6) and Troy Gaddis (68/341/4), and just a few more than freshman Jaydon Bailey (36/204/3). If that seems like a lot of names, that’s because it is: for most of the season, Steele’s offense has been buoyed by a committee approach at the running back position. But Thomas has emerged recently as the best of the bunch, including a breakout performance last week against New Braunfels, in which he turned nine carries into a whopping 139 yards and four (!) touchdowns. So, between his big plays and Begeal’s, which are the Rangers more worried about?

“Yes,” Hill quipped.

Ok, but really, which one?

“We play some highly ranked teams. — as good of teams as you’re going to find in the state of Texas… they keep coming and coming and coming,” Hill said. “So I don’t know if “worry” is the right word. What are we committed to trying to stop? I think most games you’ve got to stop the run and limit the big-play pass. If they nickel-and-dime you underneath, you hate that. It’s irritating, and you get frustrated watching it, but can you come up and crowd them and go nose-to-nose with them, and maybe get vulnerable to the deep ball? Or not have run support from your safeties because they’re covering people man-to-man? Those are decisions as a coaching staff you have to make. So we won’t be able to do one thing all night. We do one thing, they’re smart enough to move to a different part of their offense. We’ll have to do a little of this, a little of that, show ‘em this but it’s really know, show ‘em this but it really is… there’ll be a little gamesmanship going on there. And then we’ll need to get some takeaways. We won’t be able to go out and stone them every time, three-and-out after three-and-out after three-and-out, we’re going to have to get some cheapies. We’re gonna need some stuff like Cullen [Betsey’s] picks, fumble recoveries, help our offense with short fields.”

In a word: both. The balancing act of slowing Begeal and Thomas is made all the more difficult by the offense’s other weapons. Oh, you thought an all-area caliber backfield was already an embarrassment of riches? Well, you’re about to be in for a rude awakening. Hill hailed Steele’s offensive depth chart, congratulating them on having “good receivers, tall receivers, fast and big-play receivers, and of course a running back playing well.” We’ve talked about the running back. But who exactly are the others?
Whoo, boy. A quick look at the San Antonio area ranks will reveal that two of the top four wideouts (in terms of receiving yards) are from Steele: seniors Daryn McKnight and Jaylon Jones. McKnight currently paces the area with 47/704/6, and Jones isn’t far behind is 26/545/5. As impressive as McKnight has been, Jones will grab plenty of headlines of his own, and for good reason: he isn’t even a nominal wide receiver. The defensive back’s athleticism commands more versatile packages to get him the ball, but he’s still a corner by trade. And he’s pretty good at his craft: the five-star Texas A&M commit has offers from schools like Texas, Alabama, and Ohio State. But the Rangers can’t focus on that at the moment; instead, they have to focus on present dangers, which start with his impact on offense.

“[Game planning for Jones] is tough,” Hill said. “[There are] times we can get some help on him, times when, ‘good luck guys, you’re on your own.’ And that’s a guessing game. And then [we have to] pressure [Begeal] where he can’t wait on [Jones] all the time. That plays into it, too. And then, they’re a lot like other teams, if they can’t get it to him the hard way, they’ll get it to him the easy way, they’ll just pitch it to him or line him up in the backfield and hand it to him. So to say that we’re going to take the ball out of his hands and force them to do other things is not entirely true. We won’t be able to do that. But we’ve got to keep him from going by us and getting 70-yard catch-and-runs. We won’t be able to withstand too many of those.”

Ranger DB Cullen Betsey, who had two interceptions last week at Judson, is confident they can slow Jones and McKnight down, regardless of how well they’ve played in prior games.

“Our preparation is always the same no matter who we’re playing,” the senior said. “We recognize the talent but we’re gonna go in as a team and rely on each other. I think if we do that we can always get the job done.”

As dangerous as he is on offense, Jones is even better on defense, with two picks and plenty of pass deflections to his name already. The Rangers are already working on ways to overcome his presence, which can be felt from anywhere in the bleachers and probably in the parking lot as well.

“We move our receivers around and keep them from that matchup,” Hill said. “They have not, at least until this point, matched him up with a specific receiver. You’ve got him, whether he’s inside in the slot, outside, wide side, short side, they haven’t [put him on a specific receiver]. Maybe they will, but he has been at one side in one spot, they’ve even played him some at safety. So I don’t know that we have to game plan to necessarily stay away from him defensively, but he’s a factor, there’s no doubt about that.”

And a pretty big factor at that. The defense as a whole, while not in the same echelon as Smithson Valley’s, is still quite formidable: they have allowed just over three touchdowns per game, and have shut out Churchill (road game at Heroes Stadium) and held San Marcos to a field goal at different points this year. At other points, however, the tide turns the other way. The shutout victory was followed by a 51-48 loss against Judson. The San Marcos game came directly after the Knights allowed 28 to Clemens, more than twice what the Rangers allowed. Inconsistency has plagued this defense all year. Is home-field advantage what it will take for the Rangers to steal a victory? Well… no.

“It’s funny,” Hill said without laughing, “We’ve never beaten ‘em here, and we’ve beaten ‘em the last two [games] over there… I don’t know, I think by the time you get to game eight, there are no inexperienced players anymore, there’s not a whole lot of new anymore, you’re always jittery when you’re out there but a lot of the early-season jitters are gone, and you’ve got so much film on each other that you know each other inside and out. So there’s not a whole lot of confused players out there, there’s not a whole lot of mystery, it just comes down to guys settling in and playing. But do we like playing here in front of our fans and our student section? Absolutely. So we do think it’s an advantage. How much of which, I don’t know. Steele’s probably just going to show up and do what they do.”

And what they do is win football games. The Knights are 5-2 on the season, including 2-2 in district play, with the losses coming against a longtime juggernaut (Judson) and a surprise power (Clemens), both of which have already defeated the Rangers.

In a rivalry that last year saw the Rangers hit a 51-yard go-ahead field goal to win the game, the stakes are high. Add in potential playoff implications, and this becomes one of the season’s biggest showdowns for the Rangers who are ready as always.

“I always think we can win every week,” Betsey said. “We got the guys to do it. If we were defeated before the game started, then [might] as well not play… it’ll be an exciting game. I can’t wait to get out there with my teammates and just play our game.”

These two teams are about as close to evenly matched as any two teams can get. Predicting the final score is a crapshoot. Last season’s game was decided by a last-minute field goal, and odds are, this one will be just as close.

As the wind whips, flags flap and goalposts rattle, it’ll come down to two teams – one clad in blue, the other in white – trying desperately pull out the victory. Larry Hill knows he can’t stone them every time. But he’ll sure as heck try.

“It will be a challenge,” Hill said, a smile tugging at the edges of his mouth.

He knows what’s coming, and he can’t wait another moment. Soon comes the moment of reckoning, a moment of redemption from past defeats, a moment that can bring pride and honor to the school to which he has devoted the bulk of his professional life. Hill looks up and smiles.

It’s game time.

PREDICTION: Steele 31, Rangers 27 (OT)

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