Football prepares for “dog fight” in playoff opener

Rangers head to Lake Travis to battle the Cavaliers


Danielle Esperiqueta

DE Trey Moore sheds a blocker during a loss against Steele. Moore and Trey Witcher will play a big role for the Rangers in this week’s playoff opener at Lake Travis.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

“It’s going to be a dog fight.”

That was Trey Witcher, a senior defensive tackle for the Rangers. He’ll play a key role as Smithson Valley (6-4, 4-3) travels to Lake Travis (9-1, 8-0) to open their playoff run. It’s a familiar scene; last year’s team had to make the same trek to Cavalier Stadium. The Cavaliers won that game, 45-14, on their way to a berth in the 6A state semifinals. But Witcher is convinced that this year, things will be different.

“We will have to make less mental mistakes than them and set the tone early on,” Witcher said. “We’ve got a lot of schemes and plans that we’ll run that’ll be good against their passing game.”
Setting the tone will be difficult, but not impossible. Behind a stout defensive front lead by Witcher and DE Trey Moore, the Rangers have allowed just 19.5 points per game, despite playing plenty of high-level opponents. In fact, the four teams the Rangers lost to – Midland Lee, Schertz Clemens, Converse Judson, and Cibolo Steele – combined to win 35 of 40 games, averaging over 43 points per game. But the Rangers held them to about 31 apiece, an important 12-point swing, especially for a team preparing to enter hostile territory.

But Lake Travis has a defense of their own, led by, oddly enough, two defensive linemen named Trey (Sofia and Wright), who have played well; Sofia has earned 59 tackles and six sacks, and his counterpart Wright has 48 tackles and three sacks. So, I asked Witcher and Moore about it. Does the Battle of the Treys’ at all elevate the importance of the game?

“Not really,” Witcher said.

“No,” Moore echoed.

As minor a detail as it may be for most players, the media (me) will surely jump all over it. Witcher seemed proud to be a member of a school with such a proud Treydition (my word, not his), referring to former teammate and current TCU safety Trevon (pronounced TREY-von) Moehrig-Woodard. Moore, as well, seemed a bit taken aback, texting, “lol um it’s a funny coincidence, but no, that doesn’t add much.” However, if you think logic will dissuade analysts from commenting on any abnormal situation, you are sorely mistaken. If this were a less important game, this matchup may be Storyline #1.

Regardless of name-based tomfoolery (Treyfoolery?), Lake Travis is one of the few schools in the state that can rival the Smithson Valley’s defensive prowess. The team has allowed just 16.5 points per game, including two shutout victories (49-0 at Akins and 63-0 against Austin). But aside from dominant victories over their three sub-.500 opponents – Akins, Austin, and Lehman (seven points allowed) – some cracks have shown. In their other seven games, the Cavaliers have allowed 22.6 points per contest, still a solid figure, but one more indicative of their true capabilities. On the other side of the aisle, removing sub-.500 teams from the Rangers’ resumé leaves them with an allowed-points average of 23.7, a nearly identical figure despite a much stouter slate of foes.

A strong defense isn’t all the Cavaliers boast, however. Their calling card is offense. And boy, can they score the rock. Senior quarterback Hudson Card went down with a foot injury against Austin Westlake, but the University of Texas commit has a chance to return this week. Smithson Valley coach Larry Hill said on Tuesday, “we’re prepping as though he’ll play,” but the Austin-American Statesman’s Jay Plotkin reported later that night that “Hudson Card… will miss the game.” However, this was immediately followed by Cavalier coach Hank Carter saying that “whoever is healthy enough is going to play.” So the situation is really up in the air. If Card can play, the Cavaliers will get back a four-star signal-caller who has really impressed Hill.

“The Card kid is an outstanding runner,” Hill said. “He could sign Division I as a running back. He’s that talented.”

As good an athlete as Card is, his arm is just as dangerous. In seven games, he has completed 106 of 159 passes for 1,646 yards, with 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions to boot. A healthy Hudson Card led the Cavaliers to a state semifinal berth last season, and a 6-1 record to open this one. A healthy Hudson Card is not someone the Rangers want to face.

On the other hand… the backup plan may be just as deadly. Junior QB Nate Yarnell received his first Division I offer (Houston) last season as a sophomore, and has only improved since then. His season slash of 59 completions, 917 yards, and 11 touchdowns is pretty great. But the deeper you dive into the tape, the more impressive he gets. Hill praised his “talent” and “big-time arm,” saying he’s “certainly shown his mettle.” So regardless of whether Card’s original 4-6 week recovery timeline is accelerated by a week, they’re in good hands.

Card isn’t the only player for Lake Travis who has been struggling with injuries. Former leading rusher Marcelo Alanis tore his ACL early in the season, but the waves of replacements keep coming. Weston Stephens, for instance, now leads the team with 77 attempts for 502 yards and ten touchdowns. Wesley Erwin, who last week turned 15 touches into 110 yards and three scores. And don’t even get me started on the receivers. Kyle Eaves has caught 57 passes for 1024 yards and 12 touchdowns, and his partner in crime, Grayson Sandlin, has tossed his own 43 catches, 724 yards, and ten scores into the ring. The Rangers lead District 26-6A with 12 interceptions, including five from Cullen Betsey, but they’ll have their hands full on Friday with a terrifying passing attack looming.

But as scary as the Cavaliers are, the Rangers have some fear-mongers of their own, not the least of which being Greg Eggleston. The senior athlete – there’s no position classification big enough to describe his role – has been lights-out in his first full season as an offensive starter. The track star has compiled 1,680 and 15 touchdowns in ten games, averaging 11.7 yards per attempt. Carter is in awe.

“He’s a really good player, and they use him every way they can,” Carter said. “They hand it to him, throw it to him and give it to him on jet sweeps. I’m not comparing him to Garrett [Wilson], but the way they use him is not too different.”

Wilson, a Cavalier last season, was a five-star recruit who is now contributing at Ohio State. While Carter was careful not to compare the two, the fact that Eggleston evokes images of the star wideout is very indicative of the dominant fashion in which he’s played so far this season. For the Rangers to have a chance, Eggleston will need to dominate.

Smithson Valley’s preparation should never be questioned. The squad was stuck with five marquee games this season: at Midland Lee, at San Antonio Madison, vs Schertz Clemens, at Converse Judson and vs Cibolo Steele. The team hung with District 2-6A Midland Lee to the tune of a two-score loss on the road; embarrassed District 27-6A champion Madison at a neutral site, 44-0; was a touchdown away from upsetting District 26-6A champion Clemens at home; and fell to 9-1 Judson and 8-2 Steele in mistake-laden games that still went chalk. And this experience, as well as last year’s experience in Cavalier Stadium, has Hill looking calm and cool-headed in the face of a daunting foe.

“You hope [experience helps],” Hill said. “You know, every time you’re in a big ball game, whether that’s a playoff game, or even regular season games we’ve had that have been so monumental, the next time you go out there, the game slows down a little more, a little more. Doesn’t mean you’re going to play well or win or thrive, but I think you’re a little more comfortable. Sort of like riding a bike, you get a little bit better at it, you get a little better, you get a little better, and after a while it doesn’t faze you. And so we’re bound to gain from that.”

And he hopes it doesn’t faze his team either. Although hope may not be the right word; he seems pretty sure of his players’ capabilities.

“I’m very confident [in this team],” Hill said. “They’ve been in big games. Some they’ve won, some they haven’t, but they’re not gonna get rattled. And this is the type of game we’ve got to win to get where we wanna go. And a lot of times, you run into this caliber of opponent in the fourth round, in the fifth round, the sixth round. And the way the realignment gods have placed us all, you play that caliber of game in the first round. Well? OK! You said you’re going to have to win it anyway. Well, I guess it’s now.”

“I like our guys,” Hill continued. “It’s as good a group – and we’ve had some great ones – it’s as good a group as we’ve ever had, as far as preparing well, and paying attention in meetings. Not that we’ve ever had a bad one, but they’re very easy to coach. We’re not having to scream and yell and demand effort from them, and drag stick-to-itiveness from them. It’s a pretty mature group, and that’s the kinda group that you’ve gotta take when you’re playing in a game like this, especially on the road.”

Lake Travis is an unambiguous juggernaut, an unbelievably talented team oozing with oodles of potential. But across the aisle stands Smithson Valley, a team recognized across the state for rigid discipline and sound coaching. Pair that with stars like Eggleston, Betsey, and the two Treys, and you suddenly have an uber-intriguing contest to open up the playoffs. Hill has a plan to come out on top, but all of that starts out with a pregame message. And it just so happens that he’s already planning that message out.

“It’s a cliche, and it kinda sounds trite, but you just gotta play this play,” Hill said when asked what he most wanted his players to remember. “There’ll be about 160 to 170 of ‘em. But we gotta play this play. If it’s a tight, tense game, like you hope that it is, then it’s gonna end in one or two plays. And when is that? Is it this play, or is it 20 plays from now? You don’t know. And the atmosphere – they’re gonna have a bigger crowd, they’re gonna have all the advantages that go with playing at home. But when it boils down to it, it’s just 11-on-11. And while that’s stating the obvious… you’ve gotta remind your players of that, because it’s real easy to get caught up in all of the foofoo.”

In the end, regardless of how much foofoo-catching the Rangers do, home-field advantage may rule the day. The Cavaliers haven’t lost at home since August 30th against District 4-6A champion Martin. Accounting for game location places a fair public betting line somewhere around Lake Travis -15.5. But give me the under. This Ranger team is scrappy and fired up. Win or lose, they aren’t going to quit. That should keep the final score close regardless of what happens in the first three quarters. And, who knows! The Rangers could pull off the upset. For now, though, I think it’s prudent to stick with chalk, albeit with plenty of room for apology if Smithson Valley comes out on top.

PREDICTION: Lake Travis 31, Smithson Valley 17