Ryan coach Dave Henigan and Frisco Lone Star’s Jeff Rayburn were in the same boat on realignment day in February.
Both coaches had just led their teams to deep playoff runs, and were favorites to again compete for state titles. But as they worked the room that day trying to round out their nondistrict schedules, that success was working against them.
Neither Henigan nor Rayburn could find teams willing to play them. It was clear what needed to happen.
“I think we had spoken beforehand, but it was very noncommittal,” Henigan said. “Every time we’d walk by each other — ‘Did you find a game?’ We’d keep going and — ‘Did you find a game yet?’ Finally it was like, ‘Hey, let’s just play [each other].’”
The result is tonight’s 7 p.m. matchup between two of the state’s top five Class 5A teams, as No. 3 Ryan (3-0) hosts No. 5 Lone Star (3-0) at C.H. Collins Athletic Complex.
It is Ryan’s first home game, and for both teams is a highly anticipated game in what has been a grueling first few weeks of the season.
It also will be their only meeting, since they would play in separate divisions once the playoffs begin.
“I think it’s great,” said Henigan, whose team trails Cedar Park and Aledo in The Associated Press’ 5A poll. “It’s a playoff atmosphere, and it will be good for both teams as we move into the rest of the season. That’s why you schedule good people.”
Ryan went 13-1 last year in Class 6A and was two wins shy of a trip to the state title game. The Raiders are now in 5A, a field Lone Star dominated before losing in its first title game appearance.
The teams return a combined 27 starters, adding instant star power to the game. With that said, their respective roads haven’t been easy.
Ryan had to overcome three straight halftime deficits in wins over Lancaster, Mesquite Poteet and Wylie East. Lone Star easily won its opener but trailed Mansfield Timberview and Lucas Lovejoy before pulling away.
For the Rangers, Ryan represents the perfect storm.
“We are still looking for [their weaknesses]. We’re taking any suggestions,” Rayburn said with a laugh. “Ryan is one of the most talented teams in the state. They don’t give you a whole lot, so you have to be smart with the football. We need to make plays when they are presented to us.”
Tonight’s big plays likely will come from two dynamic quarterbacks.
Ryan’s offense is led by junior Spencer Sanders, who through three games has 634 passing yards, 292 more on the ground and 13 total touchdowns. He has thrown just two interceptions and last week accounted for five touchdowns in a 40-21 win over Wylie East.
Sanders, who has offers from teams in every Power Five conference, passed and rushed for more than 3,400 yards and accounted for 36 touchdowns (24 passing, 12 rushing) a year ago. He has talented weapons in receivers like Gabriel Douglas, Tauskie Dove and Jimmy Love, and, combined with a solid running game, is tough to slow down in the second half. Ryan has scored 73 second-half points.
Lone Star’s Jason Shelley, a senior who has committed to Utah, is similar in style. He is among 12 returning starters for the Rangers, who are averaging 48 points per game. Shelley has thrown for nearly 900 yards and rushed for 156 with 10 total touchdowns.
A stable of receivers led by Jaylen Dixon and Coby Shelton, plus a veteran offensive line, only makes his job easier.
“[Sanders and Shelley] have played a lot of football, and the thing that makes them so dangerous is that they truly are quarterbacks,” Rayburn said. “Some teams will just put their best athlete back there. These guys aren’t only great athletes, but they have a high football IQ. Spencer can obviously hurt you with his legs and arm.”
To be successful, Sanders and Shelley will have to play fast against strong defenses.
“They are a very tough team,” Sanders said. “We can’t start slow, and we have to capitalize off their mistakes.”
Lone Star is giving up just shy of 20 points per game, but some would argue that the Rangers’ schedule hasn’t been as difficult as Ryan’s. Ryan, which has faced mobile quarterbacks in each of its three games, has combined to hold opponents to 23 points in the second half.
The Raiders also are putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with 8 1/2 sacks.
“The defensive line has to step up this week,” Ryan senior defensive end Kaelin Murray said. “Shelley is really good, but we’ve been against quarterbacks like him a lot.”
Henigan said his team will be ready.
“When you are ranked high, you are going to get everyone’s ‘A game’ and you will have to weather some storms,” Henigan said. “There’s no doubt Lone Star is the best team we’ve faced thus far.”
STEVE GAMEL can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @NewspaperSteve.