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Steve Gamel: Sanders, Raiders out to prove they were always the better team

Let me take you back to a moment after last year's Class 5A Division I state semifinal between Ryan and Highland Park. 

Jordan Rucker, a cornerback who was forced to play as an emergency quarterback, was standing in the bowels of AT&T Stadium just outside the Raiders' locker room answering question after question while trying to wrap his brain around the team's devastating 31-24 loss. 

Meanwhile, players and coaches milled around — dejected and unsure of what to do or say.

At that moment, starting quarterback Spencer Sanders emerged from the locker room on crutches and came toward me. He knew exactly what to say.

"I know this," Sanders said with barely-dried tears on his face. He watched the game from the sideline after tearing his ACL in the second quarter. "I wouldn't have lost that game."

Football is a team game, and Sanders wasn't trying to insinuate anything different. He was and is the consummate team player. But he's also Spencer Sanders. With more than 13,000 total career yards and 167 touchdowns, he may be the best quarterback to ever come through Denton.

If the Raiders hadn't lost their centerpiece on that day, I believe they would have beaten Highland Park. Even the best sports car on the market with all the bells and whistles you can ask for doesn't work without an engine. For Ryan, Sanders is that engine.

That's a lot of what-if talk. But say what you want, it was a 7-point game last year. A healthy Sanders is good for two or three more touchdowns — on a bad day. That's why he's a game changer.

Sanders and Ryan get a second chance in Friday's rematch between Ryan and Highland Park, where the Raiders return to the scene of the crime in hopes of proving they were always the better team. As for Highland Park, the Scots want to prove they can beat Ryan — with or without Sanders.

"Redemption," Sanders said after Saturday's 69-49 win against Lubbock Coronado. "That's all I have to say about that, honestly."

Sanders accounted for seven touchdowns in this latest win and has been playing like a man possessed. His teammates are frothing at the mouth just as much and collectively made a really good Coronado team that scored 80 points in a win one week earlier look ordinary.

It was certainly the perfect marriage of precision offense and suffocating defense. Ryan forced two turnovers and held Coronado to 28 points through the first three quarters. From the word go, Sanders and his offense put up video-game stats while finishing with 647 total yards.

Sanders threw for 302 yards and rushed for 183. Emani Bailey also eclipsed 100 rushing yards, and Jamarion Robertson added 135 receiving yards. 

Once the game ended, all the attention shifted to Highland Park. Henigan told his team in the postgame huddle they can make amends — an opportunity many teams aren't afforded. This team has that chance to prove they were always the better team.

As for Sanders, you couldn't convince him of anything different. He believes in his teammates. And he believes in himself. He's not the only bullet in Ryan's chamber, but he is the one pulling the trigger. And with him healthy, the Raiders may be too much to stop on the road to a state championship — even for defending champ Highland Park.

But that's just a bunch of what-if talk for now. We'll find out Friday.

STEVE GAMEL can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @NewspaperSteve.