By Bill Sorrell
Photo by Kevin Lewter
On a career touchdown night for a Houston player whose jersey number was not 4, two streaks ended on Friday.
Mustangs junior running back Ben Stegall, who played behind Houston all-time rushing leader and 2019 6A Mr. Football, Lincoln Pare, who wore number 4 for a multitude of touchdowns during his career and has now taken his talents to Arkansas State, scored five touchdowns against Evangelical Christian School, his personal best.
Houston’s 48-10 victory at ECS ended a three-game losing streak, two this season and the other in last season’s state semifinal to Ravenwood.
The Mustangs also ended the Eagles’ 12-game winning streak that included a Division 2-2A state championship victory over Christ Presbyterian Academy. Their last loss was to 36-20 to Houston last season.
“Ben Stegall, my goodness,” said Houston quarterback Gray Nischwitz. “I am so proud of him. The off-season work he put in, I am proud that he got to show out what he did. Ben did a great job. Even in practices the last two weeks he was the most physical, the most energetic and special on defense. I am not surprised by his performance.”
Stegall credited his performance to his offensive line.
“The offensive line blocked really well, opened up a lot of holes for me. It’s a great feeling (career-high touchdowns). I couldn’t do it without the other 10 guys,” said Stegall, who relied on left tackle Luke Needham, left guard T.J. Rogers, center Daniel Laramie, right guard Dylan Frulla, right tackle Harrison Wilkes, who also plays left tackle on defense.
Houston head coach James Thomas called Wilkes “our bell cow.”
“He was a monster tonight driving people into the ground and loving every minute of it. He is one of our best players, if not our best player. As he goes, we go.”
Thomas said of Stegall, “You never expect five touchdowns but I’ll take it any night. He doubled his career numbers for touchdowns. Our offensive line was really opening up holes and he was hitting them hard and he was tough to take down. To have a five-touchdown night that is pretty special.”
ECS quarterback Jacob Hatcher said, “Number 2 (Stegall) had a great night. No doubt. He was just hard for us to tackle.”
Stegall rushed for a game-high 176 yards on 13 carries.
ECS head coach Trey Adams agreed, “He (Stegall) is a good football player. He had a great night.”
Stegall was not the only one having a great night for Houston.
“Everybody gave a great team effort. I have been pleading for them to give a consistent team effort throughout the night and stuff like this will happen for us,” said Thomas. “It felt like they gave that effort tonight that I have been asking for and asking for. I knew it was in them.
“They have really worked hard since June to get this feeling, a Friday night win. We have played two competitive teams in Christian Brothers and Briarcrest (both losses). We made some switches on defense. Brady Weatherly (linebacker) played really well. He is a sophomore. Will Grant (linebacker/running back) is a sophomore. He played really well on special teams and defense.”
Adams said, “I don’t think you ever kick it off expecting a game like tonight but it is going to be good for us. It’s easy to work a little bit harder when you get humbled like we were tonight. Houston had a great game plan.”
There were aspects of the game that did please Adams.
“They are going to battle no matter what is going on,” he noted. “I was proud of the way we still came out in the second half and competed. Across the board we had a bunch of guys that competed for four quarters.”
A senior, Hatcher, who completed 7 of 12 passes for 85 yards, said, “This team will never quit. We have learned from this loss and we will come back strong together as a family.”
Family is a vital component of the team.
“From the coaching staff to the players is about family. Being part of family is you are going to have tough days and good days,” said Adams, who had a “positive talk” with players after the game.
“We talked about being a family. Houston got us last year too and we turned the page and won 10 straight. We will be in tomorrow and ready to flip the page and get better. We are going to pay a little bit better attention to detail and start a little faster.”
What keyed Houston was playing with confidence from the beginning.
Stegall said, “We had two weeks to prepare and it definitely helped. We came out with a lot of confidence and that’s half the battle.”
“That is all we needed,” said Wilkes, a 6-3, 290-pound senior who has scholarship offers from Ohio Valley Conference schools including Tennessee-Martin. “We needed a little bit of confidence to get our team going. That is what turned us around. It started with practice. We had leaders like me and Gray stepping up and getting the guys going and telling them that they can do it.
“That really brought the energy to it. We knew at the beginning of the game that we were going to beat the brakes off these guys. We had the mindset and it happened. We have dogs. We got confidence now and we are sitting pretty.
“This game is big. We started out 0-2. We heard that they are a really good team. They have guys, they have scholarships. We came out and dogged.”
A good game plan and executing it the right way helped fuel the Mustangs to their first win said Nischwitz, who passed for 136 yards on 10 of 12 completions. He rushed for 47 yards on four carries.
“I don’t think I could complain about anything tonight. As a group we all did great. I think our defense did their part. I think the offensive line did a great job. I saw a tremendous progression for them. I think I had a little more confidence from game two to game three. That is the stuff that I was really pleased about.”
Stegall said the defense played its best game this season.
“We came up with huge plays. It takes all 11 guys and we did that.”
One huge defensive play was holding the Eagles to a field goal after they took the opening kickoff and drove 86 yards. A run by Tucker White put the Eagles on the 12. Stegall, who is a linebacker, sacked Hatcher at his 17 forcing a 34-yard field goal by Ethan Perkins and a 3-0 lead with 5:58 left.
White had gotten first downs at his 40 after an 11-yard run and then ran 30 yards to the Houston 30. A 14-yard pass from Hatcher to Will Arthur got a first down at the Houston 16.
An excellent kickoff return by Stegall got Houston to the ECS 40. On fourth and 9, Nischwitz threw a pass to Carson Goold and a pass interference call on the Eagles got a first down at the 13. Nischwitz then threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to 6-10 Brock Vice. Freddy Dean kicked his first of six extra points. The Mustangs took a lead they would never lose, 7-3, with 3:14 left in the first quarter.
“We call the formation basketball where we put our 6-10 guy out wide wide, we throw it up to him in the end zone and he makes a great catch,” said Thomas.
Grant said, “Once we were able to get our flow going in the first on offense and continue on with defense we just kept rolling.”
Houston increased its lead to 14-3 when Stegall ran 18 yards for his first touchdown of the game with 11:05 left in the second quarter.
Runs by R.H. Frankland and Josh Mathis preceded a 31-yard pass from Gray to Goold that got the Mustangs to the Eagles 18. Dean kicked his second extra point after Stegall’s TD.
“Very proud,” said Will Stegall, Ben’s twin brother, after the touchdown.
Soon Houston scored again. Junior linebacker Christian Crew recovered an Eagles fumble at the ECS 25. After a 10-yard penalty, Nischwitz threw a 35-yard pass to Darby Smith for a third Houston touchdown with 10:17 left in the second. Dean made it 21-3.
“Gray’s hustle was the key to the catch,” said Smith.
Thomas said, “Gray ran around for a little bit and made a couple of great throws that were big momentum changers, one to Darby, one to Carson.”
Taking over on their 33, the Mustangs got a first down at the ECS 39 on a 24-yard run by Nischwitz. Stegall then ran 23 yards to the ECS 16. Another run by Stegall and then by Mathis set Stegall up for a 2-yard touchdown run for a 28-3 lead with 6:33 left in the second after Dean’s PAT.
With Jamison Smith running for the Eagles on their possession after Houston’s touchdown, Darby Smith tackled him that caused him to flip before then Frankland finished off the tackle.
A fumble by Stegall that was recovered by Eagles’ Nathan Reithemeyer
at the Houston 48 got ECS rolling. Hatcher threw a 31 yard pass to Caiden Hill to the Houston 17. Jamison Smith then caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Hatcher. Perkins’ extra point narrowed the deficit to 28-10 with 2:20 left in the second quarter.
With 53:9 seconds left in the first half, Stegall ran 69 yards for a touchdown. Dean kicked it to 35-10 at halftime.
Scoring continued for the Mustangs in the third quarter. Nischwitz threw an 11-yard pass to Frankland who two plays later got a first down at the Eagles 46. Stegall ran two plays for a first down at the ECS 25 and then 10 yards for a touchdown with 7:38 left. The extra point pass failed and it was 41-10.
Running the pro-style offense, Hatcher hit Hill, who would lead team receivers with 48 yards on three catches, with an 11-yard pass to the Houston 49 before Wilkes tackled Hatcher for a 2-yard loss forcing a fourth down.
With Houston on its 25, the Mustangs began a 75-yard scoring drive behind Nischwitz’s passing to Frankland, a run by Mathis, a personal foul penalty against ECS, a run by Stegall that got to the Eagles 14. Stegall then ran a 14-yard touchdown with 11:51 left and Dean gave the Mustangs a 48-10 lead.
Grant cited chemistry and consistent execution “play after play” that helped guide the Mustangs (1-2) to their first win.
“We made the most of our bye week and capitalized on the time we had to improve our game. Multiple players made some big-time plays varying from Carson and Darby to Ben, Josh and R.H. Our team is making big plays on both sides of the ball,” said Grant, who is working to develop himself as a player, learning from juniors and seniors “to help translate their success to my game and becoming the best I can be for my team.”
Houston had 453 yards total offense with 317 rushing, 136 passing. ECS rushed for 108 yards, 85 passing for 193 total offense.
Stegall was impressed with Weatherly, Wilkes and Frulla, who was starting for the first time. “Brady had a heck of a game (a team-high eight tackles, two for loss). Harrison had a great game. Dylan had a heck of a game,” said Stegall.
Smith, who gained 26 yards on nine carries for the Eagles, “stepped up when we needed him to” said Hatcher.. “All of our guys played our hearts out.”
Said Adams of his team, “They work hard. They have great work ethic.”
“ECS is a hard-nosed team. They get after it and get physical. They did that on their first drive. They did a good job coming down the field.”
Before sustaining an apparent collarbone injury in the first half, White, Eagles junior running back, had rushed for a team-high 63 yards on seven carries.
“Tucker was running the ball hard in the first quarter,” said Adams.
Dietrick Pennington, a 6-5, 326-pound senior offensive and defensive lineman who has committed to Clemson, and junior running back Jaylen Greenwood were both sidelined with injuries. The game was stopped in the second quarter when ECS junior fullback Ben Lucas was taken off the field on a stretcher after an injury and taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital.
“Dietrick and Jaylen Greenwood missing had an impact but that is not an excuse for us,” said Hatcher. “Coach always says next man up and Jamison did a really good job.”
Adams said that Hatcher, who is 6-2, 225, “managed the game well tonight. I am happy with him.”
Said Thomas, “ECS is a good team. They are a little banged up and I get that. I told our kids that we have got every excuse in the world to not play well dealing with COVID regulations, this and that, but we are not going to talk about excuses. Coming out here and whoever the 11 are on the field I want you to give your best effort. I promise good things will happen to you.
“We were making a lot of mistakes the first two games. A lot of those were due to playing good teams obviously.”
Impressed with his defensive line, Thomas said that Jack Greer, a senior who also plays tight end, is “getting better and better every snap.
He is 6-5, 240 pounds. He is cut up and he looks the part. This is his first year playing football. He was really green and didn’t know a lot but he is getting better every game. He is bringing a good effort. I thought Ian Bullock (sophomore fullback/linebacker) who played nose guard tonight did a fantastic job. He commanded a double team. He made some plays.”
The Eagles, who have 19 seniors returning from a 14-1 team last season, have nine or 10 players who rotate on both sides of the ball.
“We have a bunch of difference makers,” said Adams, who will try to fill voids created by Division 2-2A Mr. Football in 2019 Austin Hill (fullback/linebacker), who is playing at Army; Preston Daniel, a freshman tight end at Florida State; Josiah Tingley, offensive/defensive lineman who is at Tennessee-Martin; Carson Gagnon, wide receiver/defensive back at Ouachita Baptist University; Ethan Saunders, tight end/linebacker, Matthew McMeans, running back/defensive back.
“You hate to lose any seniors because your try to impact their lives,” said Adams, who will rely on leadership from seniors Peter Nearn (wide receiver/defensive back who has multiple scholarship offers), Pennington, Luke Pleban (offensive/defensive lineman), Andrew Agapos (fullback/linebacker with multiple college offers), Kut Kut (offensive/defensive lineman), Hatcher “among many others.”
Hatcher wants to repeat as state champions this year.
“It’s the greatest feeling you could ever feel because all of the hard work we put in we saw pay off,” said Hatcher.
Said Adams, whose team runs a 50 defense, “I think the hardest thing to do in any sport at any level is repeat. We have talked about it. We understand that we are going to get everybody’s best shot.”
Thomas thinks ECS has a good shot to repeat.
“We know they are a good ball club. When you play a team that is coached by good guys they are going to be gap sound and you have to fight for it and you have to use that extra effort to get them out of those gaps. I think we did that tonight. They are going to be fine. They are going to be a good team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win it again,” said Thomas.
Hatcher said, “We know Houston was a very good team and we knew it was going to be a hard game to win but you always expect to win. We did not start as fast as we should have but we learned a lot from the game. They were an all-around good football team. They did not have many weaknesses.”
Adams said, “Coach Thomas does a great job over there.”
He added it was not a revenge game.
“It is two different teams. They lost a lot. We lost a few pieces. It certainly wasn’t a revenge game tonight.”
Pacing the Mustangs were rushers Mathis who gained 47 yards on 12 carries, Xander Carroll 16 yards on 4 carries, Drew Haynes 33 yards on 4 carries. Goold led with 60 receiving yards on 3 receptions, Darby Smith 43 yards on 2 catches, Vice 13 yards on one reception. Crew had 4 tackles and a fumble recovery.
For ECS Hatcher rushed for 11 yards on 5 carries, Clayton Garrison 5 yards on 1. Arthur caught 1 pass for 14 yards, Smith 1 for 17 yards.
Grant said, “It feels great to beat such a successful team but we’re just ready for the next game and everything we need to do prepare for it.”
Houston hosts Arlington (3-1) at 7 p.m. Friday in a Region 7-6A game.
Thomas said that region wins are like gold. The Eagles host Northpoint (1-0) at 7 p.m. Friday.
“Coming off two losses at the beginning of the year is not a good feeling. Getting this win is huge. It was a great night and a great win,” said Stegall.