At any level of football, it’s safe to say that wins are always a good thing. But it’s also accurate to say that some wins are better than others.
The Houston High School football team got a victory that was definitely of the better variety Friday night in Mountain View, beating Liberty 18-14 in the final South Central Association game of the season for both squads.
The win vaulted the Tigers from fifth to fourth in the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSSA) Class 2 District 3 standings, and subsequently earned them a home game in the first round of the district playoffs this Friday against East Newton.
“In my mind, it’s like the playoffs right now,” said HHS head coach Eric Sloan. “I’m so happy for these kids.”
The contest started out as the average fan might have expected, as the host Eagles took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
After Houston began the game with a nice drive that stalled deep in Liberty territory, the Eagles responded by moving the ball quickly the other way with a drive featuring quarterback Jaris Acklin completing 3-of-4 passes, including one for a 40-yard gain to the Houston 6-yard line. Acklin finished the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run at the 6:33 mark of the quarter, and Liberty led 7-0 after an extra point kick by Zach Stretch.
Then with only 52 seconds to go in the period, Acklin and Stretch hooked up for a 26-yard TD passing play, and another successful point-after kick by Stretch put Liberty up 14-0.
But that was it for Liberty, despite scoring 50 points or more on several occasions of late.
Early in the second quarter, the Eagles went for it on a 4-and-4 play at their own 40-yard line, but a run by Acklin came up short and Houston took over.
The Tigers offense then moved the ball quickly on a pass completion from senior quarterback Dakota Burchett to sophomore tight end Korbyn Tune and a couple of good runs by senior Chance Mitchell. Mitchell scored a touchdown on a 6-yard run with about 8:30 to go in the quarter, and after a failed 2-point conversion run, Houston trailed 14-6.
The Tigers made it clear that they were in-it-to-win-it late in the second quarter when senior lineman Chris Cichon recovered an Acklin fumble at the Houston 35-yard line, stifling what had appeared to be another scoring drive for Liberty. The same thing happened early in the third quarter, as the Eagles failed to score despite moving the ball inside the Tigers’ 10-yard line. Holding penalties hurt Liberty on both possessions.
Houston (4-5, 2-5 SCA) crept closer with a lengthy drive including two successful fourth-down plays that concluded with a 26-yard touchdown pass from Burchett to Tune with 42 seconds to go in the third quarter. After another failed 2-point try, the Tigers were behind by only 2 at 14-12.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Liberty had a first-and-goal play inside the Houston 5-yard-line, but a bad snap went over Acklin’s head and Mitchell (at linebacker) recovered.
Houston’s offense took advantage of the key turnover and scored on an 8-yard run by senior Tristan Leier with about 2:10 left. The drive included a huge 5-yard gain by Leier on a fourth-and-2 play at the Liberty 34-yard line and a long gain through traffic by Mitchell to move the ball inside the 10.
After a third failed 2-point try, the Tigers had the lead at 18-14.
Liberty had one final chance on offense, but Houston’s secondary thwarted several pass plays with time running down. With less than 2 seconds to go in the game, an interception near the goal line by Burchett (at defensive back) sealed the victory for the Tigers.
“Even down 14-nothing, the kids didn’t lay down,” Sloan said. “We’ve typically struggled with names on certain uniforms – like Liberty – so to see them fight back and not give up another score for more than three quarters was really cool.”
Several of Houston’s losses this season can be attributed to allowing “big plays,” but that didn’t happen against Liberty’s renowned passing game.
“A lot of guys stepped up on defense,” Sloan said. “We had so many chances to blow coverages and get beat deep, but we were just there. They had a pretty good completion percentage, but we were tackling them for 5 or 6 yards instead of giving up the big play.”
Senior defensive back Connor Wilson led Houston in tackling with 11, while Burchett was one of the team’s leaders with 6.
“They did extremely well defending guys who have 50 or 60 catches on the year and refusing to get beat deep,” Sloan said. “Usually when guys in your secondary are getting that many tackles, it’s a bad night. But they did a great job.”
Mitchell ran for more than 100 yards for the fifth time this season, gaining 120 yards on 26 carries. Burchett completed 8-of-16 passes for 110 yards, with no interceptions and a touchdown.
Houston’s success through the air added a dimension that helped boost the ground game.
“I didn’t know if we were going to be able to throw against them, because that’s what they do so their defenders are pretty good at dealing with it,” Sloan said. “But Dakota did a good job and I think you’re starting to see receivers gain some confidence.”
Prior to Friday, the Eagles (4-5, 4-3 SCA) had won four straight SCA games.
“As the game went on, you could kind of see the kids’ confidence building,” Sloan said. “It was really cool.”
For the first time in 2019, the same players have started for Houston’s offense for three weeks in a row. He said three freshmen have “grown up” significantly during that stretch, including Casey Merckling, who has actually started at center for eight straight weeks.
“That group has had a lot of reps in practice and finally gelled as a unit,” Sloan said. “It’s fun seeing it come together.”
The Tigers have won two in a row for the second time this season, and by beating Liberty for the first time since 2005, they will host a first-round playoff game for the first time since the same year.
“It’s pretty special to beat a team no one thought we could beat,” Wilson said. “Even our fans; no one thought we would win.”
“It kind of showed that the adversity we went through for most of the season didn’t define us and we were still fighting,” Burchett said. “And we haven’t given up yet.”
East Newton (from Granby, near Neosho) plays in the Western Division of the 14-team Big 8 Conference, a league that forces the Class 2 Patriots to face class 3 and class 4 teams almost every week. Sloan said their record isn’t indicative of their talent.
“If they played in the SCA, I think they would be one of the top seeds,” he said. “They’ve got some big, fast, strong athletes and it will be a tough test.”
The winner of Friday’s game will take on the winner of the matchup between top-seeded Ava (9-0) and No. 8 Mountain Grove (0-9). Sloan believes his entire team is reaching its peak right now and welcomes the chance to play whoever is scheduled.
“It’s been great knowing the kids have bought in and watching them decide, ‘hey, we can do this,’” he said. “With what we’ve got going right now and all the confidence we have, let’s play.”