After building a 24-0 lead midway through the third quarter, Houston held off Sarcoxie to win 24-16 in the 2019 football season opener last Friday in Tiger Stadium.
The game was marred by a horrific injury to Houston junior Dontae Pritchett, who suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle with 1:27 left in the third quarter and was taken by ambulance to Springfield for treatment.
Houston got on the board at the 2:01 mark of the first quarter with an 8-yard touchdown run by senior Tristan Leier. The Tigers went up 12-0 on a 4-yard scoring run by sophomore running back Bailey Hurst with 10:27 left in the second quarter and led 18-0 at halftime thanks to a 39-yard run by Hurst with 6:16 remaining in the half.
Houston notched its final TD on a 12-yard run by senior Chance Mitchell with 6:37 to go in the third quarter.
The Tigers failed to connect on any extra points.
Sarcoxie got some offense going and scored on a 2-yard run by junior running back Justin Mandera at the 1:50 mark of the third quarter, and trailed 24-8 following a 2-point conversion on a pass from senior quarterback Haydon Kisling to junior running back Christian Harter.
The visiting Bears closed out the scoring with 11:19 left in the game on another 2-yard run by Mandera and a 2-point run by senior running back Kendrick Bass.
The Tigers’ defense protected the lead late in the game when senior defensive back Connor Wilson broke up a pass play deep in Houston territory with 4:35 left and freshman linebacker Anthony Carroll hauled in the ball about five yards away to give the Tigers possession at their own 20 yard line.
“I thought we played pretty well until Dontae went down,” said HHS head coach Eric Sloan, “and then we started to self-destruct and just tried to hang on.”
Houston’s offense ran 50 plays and gained 337 yards. The rushing game was led by senior Chance Mitchell who carried the ball 17 times for 85 yards and a touchdown, while sophomore Bailey Hurst ran 11 times for 64 yards and two TDs. Senior quarterback Dakota Burchett ran seven times for 34 yards, and senior running back Christian Leier ran three ties for 17 yards and one score.
Coming into the game, Sloan had hoped the Tigers would display an elevated passing game. They did just that, with Burchett completing 8-of-13 passes for 118 yards, and junior wide receiver Ty Franklin connecting on a pass good for seven yards.
Three Houston players each caught three passes, with Leier gaining 49 yards, senior receiver Connor Wilson 36 and sophomore tight end Korbyn Tune 33.
The Tigers’ defense forced three punts in the first half and Sarcoxie (0-1) didn’t make it into Houston territory until midway through the third quarter.
Houston tacklers were led by linebacker Chance Mitchell with eight (two for losses), while junior lineman Trevor Mitchell notched five (including a sack and two for losses). Before the injury, Pritchett was active from his linebacker spot and recorded five tackles (including one for a loss).
Burchett said he enjoyed helping orchestrate Houston’s more diverse offensive approach, and took the blame for the Tigers’ lack of a passing game over the past couple of seasons.
“I like some variety, and that’s what we went with,” he said. “The last couple of years, we’ve been kind of one-dimensional, and that’s mostly on me because I wasn’t mature enough. But I feel like we’ve put in enough work to make our passing game what it needs to be to have a nice balance.
“Other teams can’t just key on one dimension now.”
“That’s really the first time we’ve thrown the ball with much success since I’ve been here,” Sloan said. “It was good to see, and the kids were excited to see that part of the game come around a bit. Dakota had a pretty good night.”
Sloan thought the passing game could perhaps have been even better.
“I thought we struggled on the offensive line at times,” he said. “We missed some assignments and allowed some penetration I didn’t expect.”
Sloan said the interception by Carroll (who’s only 14 years old) couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Bears were driving and looking to score on their third straight possession.
“That was a great catch – he really laid out to get that one,” Sloan said. “At that point it felt like we were in big trouble; Dontae was on everybody’s mind and we really needed something positive to happen.”
After having his usual good performance on both sides of the ball, senior lineman Chris Cichon suffered a leg injury in the second half and might not be available this week. Going into the season, Sloan was concerned about his team’s lack of depth, and that problem is already presenting a challenge with Pritchett out for the season and Cichon dealing with an injury.
Sloan said he would “audition” some people early this week and hope to find a diamond in the rough. He also expects to shuffle up the lineup to some extent.
“We have to,” Sloan said. “We don’t have all the bodies we need.”
Houston (1-0) travels to Cuba on Friday. The Wildcats’ program was rocked by a hazing incident last Friday that resulted in the resignation of head coach Jake Montalbano and the suspension of several key players.
Sloan said he isn’t sure if those players will be back in uniform this week.