Rocket around the Christmas tree

Football prepares for regular season finale at Judson


Ari Calderon

Luke Seminaro (96) celebrates a sack with his teammates. The defense will have their hands full this week against Judson’s dynamic offense.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

The “Tep & Stepp Podcast” called them legacy programs.

They call each other “rival.”

For the ninth straight year, football will take on Judson in a game with more off-field significance than mathematical impact. The Rockets have clinched the top seed in Division II, and the Rangers are locked into their No. 2 seed in Division I.

Many would argue that the teams should take it easy, rest their starters and focus on staying healthy for the playoffs. A few radicals even suggested that the teams should fake a positive coronavirus test as an excuse for canceling the game – a practice other high school teams have been accused of. But these teams just aren’t built that way.

“We don’t [balance winning with rest],” said Larry Hill, head football coach at Smithson Valley. “We play every game to the hilt. And that’s just the way we’ve always been … [I]f we had won last Friday, this would be for the district championship. We didn’t, and yet our preparation and our approach to it, it’s the same. We’ll worry about next week, next week. 

“We wanna win this football game.”

But that’s easier said than done. The Rangers lead the all-time series 9-6, but just two of those victories have come since 2013, and none since 2017.

The Rockets’ offseason was rife with drama, as a pair of big-name players – Brandeis quarterback Jordan Battles and Wagner running back LJ Butler – announced that they would be transferring to Judson. The offense looked unstoppable.

But, just weeks before the season began, the UIL and District 27-6A Executive Committee threw a wrench into the works, declaring the two seniors ineligible to play for the Rockets. Butler returned to Wagner, Battles enrolled at Holy Cross and the Judson offense was left high and dry. 

They struggled all around in their opener, a 37-0 blowout loss to DeSoto that saw starting quarterback Michael Burroughs benched late in the game. But since that lone preseason game, they’ve come roaring back, outscoring their next six opponents 210 to 105, not to mention a forfeit win over South San.

Much of that improvement has come from the offense. Burroughs, a dual-threat junior, has crossed the 1,000 total yard mark, scoring seven touchdowns apiece passing and rushing. Backfield mate De’Anthony Lewis has rushed for 761 yards and six touchdowns on 8.2 yards per carry (!), and has earned offers from big FBS schools like USC and Nebraska along the way. He’s also caught 10 passes for 89 yards and another score.

Burroughs and Lewis’ scoring often get the starters off the field by the end of the game, but the offense keeps pushing, as backup running backs Isaiah Washington (195 yards rushing, 8.3 yards per carry) and Aristide Brown (164 yards rushing, 9.1 yards per carry) each play their own efficient roles.

This yardage comes largely from explosive plays, which doesn’t jive up well with the Rangers’ defensive strength, maintaining drives. Last week against Steele, the Ranger defense held the Knights to 124 total yards … except for two other massive gains, a 77-yard dump-and-run pass and a 56-yard quarterback zone read that single-handedly (double-handedly?) doubled the Knights’ yardage total. Forcing long Judson drives is a must for a Smithson Valley team that’s struggled at times to put up points.

“We’ve got to find a way to take away their one-play drives,” Hill said. “There’s just scads of them littered throughout all their game tape. The first play of a drive or just a few plays into the drive, they get an explosive run or throw … I’m sure every team [that] has played them, went in with [this] same strategy, but we’ve got to make them drive the football. 

“And I think the other side of that is, their front seven on defense is so talented. You don’t see [their opponents getting] many non-three-and-outs until the game’s out of hand … But we’ve got to make them play for six, eight, 12 plays at a time. And, yeah, we’re going to need some big chunk plays too, that we didn’t get enough of the other day (against Steele). But we gotta get their offense off the field, and then we need to keep their defense on the field. And [that’s] easier said than done, but that’s certainly our approach as we go in.”

The Ranger defense has certainly been among the best in the area this season: they’ve allowed just 55 points in six district games, and 88 points in eight games overall, including shutouts of New Braunfels and South San. Only three opponents have mustered more than a touchdown: Harker Heights scored 27 in a season-opening home win, Wagner put 27 in a district-opening, overtime road loss and Steele managed 14 last week.

The Rangers will need that defense to slow down a Judson offense that’s averaged 42 points per game in district play this season. That number has only climbed as the year has progressed, culminating in last week’s 63-34 beatdown of Wagner. The offense is clicking, and the Rockets look like the favorite to make it out of Region IV in Class 6A Division II. 

But that isn’t to say the team is without flaws. A defensive backfield composed mostly of converted wide receivers has picked off five passes, but also allowed solid passing performances from Clemens quarterback Max DiDomenico (249 yards passing, 3 touchdowns) and Wagner quarterback Isaiah Willams (96 yards passing, 2 touchdowns). Both of those quarterbacks are dual-threats, who forced the defense to account for the run and the pass. 

In that vein, Ranger quarterback Jalen Nutt (703 yards passing, 3 touchdowns; 579 yards rushing, 9 touchdowns) bouncing back from last week’s four-turnover game is critical. The Rockets are simply too good to pick off four passes and lose.

The Rangers are clear underdogs in this game, but there’s plenty of reason to think this game could be close. The Rockets resting their starters, Nutt returning to form with a big game, the defense preventing big plays while the offense breaks off a few of its own, the receivers gaining consistent separation against the Judson secondary, or some combination of those things could swing the game Smithson Valley’s way. It wouldn’t even take a Christmas miracle.

But it would be pandemonium in the present.


The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Rutledge Stadium. It will be streamed live on Rangers Network.