The Cooldown: Week 14

It’s Regional Finals time! Past round four, there are no guarantees. Last season, North Shore was the lone Houston area representative at state. This season, Houston is still alive in the 6A-I, 6A-II, 5A-II and 4A-II. Huntsville and Bellville represent Houston’s last chances to advance below class 6A. Just five games are taking place this weekend involving Houston area teams, with just one of those being a Houston-vs-Houston matchup.

The 6A-I bracket still has a possibility of an all-Houston area title with Westfield alive in Region II and North Shore and Atascocita facing off in Region III. However, Westfield will have to overcome defending state champion Duncanville this weekend to keep those dreams alive. More on that below as I’ll preview each of the five games in the Houston area this weekend.

North Shore dismantles Cy-Fair

We’ve been waiting for a North Shore performance like this.

The Mustangs held a 14-7 halftime lead against Deer Park in round one and was tied 14-14 with Clear Springs at halftime in round two, including a 7-point lead at the end of the third quarter in that game. North Shore won those games 42-14 and 49-21, respectively.

I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, but North Shore’s 35-9 lead against Cy-Fair at halftime felt like the Mustangs finally showed up to the playoffs. This is a squad that expects to win a state championship, and the final scores from its first two playoff games didn’t set off any alarms – but the halftime scores sure did. Now, after dismantling a really good Cy-Fair squad in short order, there isn’t much concern about North Shore’s ability to win a state title in 2023.

Kaleb Bailey was everything he needed to be in this game. He finished 21-of-26 passing for 315 yards and four touchdowns, but his carries speak volumes as well. His eight rushes went for 45 yards and another score, which is the type of line he might need on the ground in a state title game. Normally, 45 rushing yards isn’t anything to write home about, but contextualize that with his passing yards: Bailey is good about hanging in the pocket and looking to pass first before hurting defenses with his legs if he has to. Case in point: Bailey had a 58-yard rushing touchdown. Drop too deep into coverage and he’ll burn defenses with his legs.

Bailey’s top target was Cameron Smith, who hauled in 184 yards worth of Bailey’s 315 total. Smith had 10 catches, two of which went for touchdowns. D’Andre Hardeman and Deion DeBlanc caught Bailey’s other two touchdown passes.

The North Shore defense was also outstanding, completely shutting down Cy-Fair on the ground; the Bobcats had -2 yards rushing. The Bobcats do have Trey Owens, though, who finished 16-of-29 passing for 210 yards and a score. His top target all season, Owen Carter, was fantastic as well, catching 137 yards and Owens’ lone touchdown pass.

Summer Creek rolls against Stratford

For as good as Atascocita has been the last several years, even ending the regular season state ranked this season, it was Summer Creek that finished second in the behemoth that is 21-6A. That was enough to make the Bulldogs the Region III favorites according to many before the playoffs started. Stratford posed no struggle in round three as Summer Creek rolled, 52-15.

The story all season for the Bulldogs has been standout back Lloyd Avant, with Avant flat out carrying the offense in some games. That didn’t have to be the case against Stratford, though it has to be comforting for the Bulldogs to know they can rely on him to carry the offense if needed. Instead, it was the dual-threat abilities of quarterback Blake Thomas running the show.

Thomas finished an efficient 11-of-14 passing for 184 yards and two touchdowns and added 12 carries for 133 yards and two more scores. Avant still finished as the team leader in yards gained with 29 carries for 188 yards and three scores, though Thomas’ passing and rushing numbers out-do Avant. Caleb Welch was the leading receiver with three catches for 54 yards and a score; freshman Tre Brown caught two passes for 54 yards and Thomas’ other touchdown pass.

Summer Creek will face its toughest challenge of the playoffs next against a good Hightower squad before the winner of Cibolo Steele and Dripping Springs awaits with a trip to state on the line. More on that in the preview below.

Bellville steamrolls Silsbee

Bellville has been a machine this season, and last week was no different.

The Brahmas almost exclusively run the ball; quarterback Zach Leuschner completed his only pass in this game for 10 yards, a touchdown pass to Jacob Shepherd. As a team, Bellville ran 37 times for 339 yards, an average of 9.2 yards-per-carry in its 61-7 win against Silsbee.

Junior DD Murray led Bellville with 14 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Sam Hranicky was also over 100 yards with 12 carries going for 118 yards and two scores. Corrian Hood added 88 yards and a touchdown of his own and Leuschner also punched in a short touchdown run.

Bellville will take on Jasper in the regional final; Jasper lost to Silsbee in the season finale while Bellville just took down the Tigers by 54 points.

Player of the Week

This has to be the first time in the five-year history of this blog that my POTW took part in a game that was tied 0-0 at the half. I expected Lamar and Atascocita to be the track meet of the playoffs, given how these teams have scored this year – Atascocita still at least ripped off 34 points in the second half alone to win 34-14 – thanks in large part to my player-of-the-week.

My player-of-the-week is Atascocita quarterback Zion Brown! After both teams were a little stuck in the mud in the first half, Brown led Atascocita to 34 second half points and a 20-point win. Brown finished 12-of-19 passing for 202 yards and a touchdown, adding 52 yards and another touchdown on the ground. And oh boy, was his passing touchdown an absolute beauty. Our cameraman got a great shot of it.

Regional Final Preview

Westfield vs. Duncanville

We’ll start with the 6A-I Region II Finals between Spring Westfield and Duncanville. I’ll start with Duncanville because I don’t cover Duncanville so I’ll keep it short and sweet. The Panthers are loaded with talent. They’ve played North Shore for the state championship in four of the last five seasons and it’s looking like we might get North Shore-Duncanville V this season.

Duncanville is powered by one of the most talented backfields of any high school program in the nation. Junior quarterback Keelon Russell ranks No. 241 in the nation, a four-star recruit according to the 247sports composite. Senior running back Caden Durham is also a consensus four-star, No. 99 in the nation according to the 247sports composite. Not many teams can top that. If that’s not enough, edge defender Collin Simmons ranks as the No. 9 prospect in the country for the senior class. Woof.

Westfield is plenty talented on its own. Miles Dent has had a good year quarterbacking the Mustangs and Taji Atkins has long been one of the area’s best players. Not to mention, Westfield gave Duncanville a good game in the regional finals last year, losing 35-21. Anything can happen. Westfield previously lost to Hightower, 14-9, and North Shore, 45-9. Both of those teams are still playing so the Mustangs have been tested against the kind of competition they’ll face this week. Obviously, Duncanville is a big favorite in this one but Westfield can absolutely give the Panthers a run for their money.

North Shore vs. Atascocita

Next up is a tilt between 21-6A foes in the 6A-I Region III Finals with North Shore facing Atascocita in a regular season rematch. This is familiar territory for these teams; they’ve met in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons with two of those matchups being rematches from district play. North Shore has won all three playoff matchups against Atascocita dating back to 2019.

The Mustangs romped Atascocita 61-35 in the regular season and will likely be favorites in this game. Atascocita, who finished third in the district behind North Shore and Summer Creek, is coming off a 34-14 win against Lamar in which all the points were scored in the second half. Atascocita can’t afford to start slow against North Shore, but the Eagles have shown they have plenty of offensive firepower to hang in there. North Shore will be favored in this game, and the winner will play the winner of Lake Travis and Austin Westlake, familiar foes, in the state semifinals. North Shore defeated Westlake in last years’ semifinals while Westlake got the better of North Shore in the 2020 6A-I semifinals.

Zion Brown, Tory Blaylock and Cardae Mack represent a formidable offensive trio, in addition to a more than capable Eagle WR corps. But as we saw in round three with Texas QB commit Trey Owens and three-star receiver Owen Carter, sometimes it doesn’t matter how much talent you have when you’re facing North Shore. Heck, the Mustangs proved that against Atascocita in the regular season.

Kaleb Bailey feels like he’s a man on a mission this season. He captured a state title, albeit a defensive slugfest, as a freshman in 2021. Then, as a sophomore, he had to watch his teammates come up just short in the state title game after suffering a season-ending injury in the regular season. Now as a junior, Bailey has been torching everything in his path. I’m hoping for a good game, and I think we could see a lot of points on both sides similar to the first edition of this game a few weeks ago, but North Shore should be favored heavily and the Mustangs have earned that level of respect.

Hightower vs. Summer Creek

We’re down to two Houston-area representatives in 6A-II and they face off this weekend in what should be a great game between Hightower and Summer Creek.

Hightower has a high-flying offense with one of the best backfield duos in the area with Joseph Stewart and TCU-bound Jeremy Payne. Summer Creek might be pound-for-pound the most impressive team in the area this season. The Bulldogs aren’t better than North Shore (the Mustangs won the regular season matchup, 31-21) but Summer Creek has been really the only team to hang with North Shore, and Summer Creek isn’t the type of program that has a team that is this good every year.

As mentioned above, Blake Thomas is the quarterback and is a dual-threat. Combine that with bell cow running back Lloyd Avant and defenses facing Summer Creek have their hands full. Each team is good on offense, so we could see some big points scored in this one. Summer Creek is a decent favorite here, but this might be the best game in the area this weekend.

Huntsville vs. Port Neches-Groves

Huntsville lost three of its first four games this season and went just 5-5 in the regular season. The Hornets lost to Randle 35-6 in the regular season finale before taking down Randle 14-13 in the game that really mattered last weekend.

Unfortunately, this weekend presents a tough task. Defending state runners-up Port Neches-Groves awaits in the regional final. PNG ended the season state ranked and upset Lake Creek last weekend to get here. The Indians only loss was all the way back in week one to Port Arthur Memorial, 24-7. The Indians will likely be big favorites in this game but again, anything can happen. Either way, three playoff wins and playing into December is a big win for any team that finishes the regular season at .500 and it’s a welcome sight for a team that is a combined 8-12 in the previous two seasons following an 11-1 record in 2020.

Bellville vs. Jasper

On the other end of the spectrum, Bellville should be heavily favored against Jasper this year. Bellville is undefeated and its smallest margin of victory this season is 28 points in a 31-3 win against Navasota in week three. Bellville’s most points allowed to an opponent this season came in a 56-22 win against Cameron Yoe in week four. It’s been nearly two months since Bellville allowed an opponent to score in double digits.

On the other side, Jasper is 9-4 and lost to Silsbee in the final week of the regular season, 21-20. That’s the same Silsbee team that Bellville dismantled 61-7 last week. To say Jasper is in some trouble here is an understatement but hey, crazier things have happened.

If Bellville gets past Jasper, it will advance to what could be a grueling state semifinal game against the winner of Wimberley and Sinton. Wimberley has played for a state title in three of the past four seasons, but has lost in all of those games. Call it the Carthage Curse.

Wimberley is 13-0 this year and has been tested in narrow wins against Brock and Lago Vista. Sinton has two losses but posted a similar score against Lago Vista that Wimberley did. Whoever wins that one will be a worthy challenge for Bellville, who has yet to truly be tested.

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