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Football: Ryan looks to clear Highland Park hurdle in push for title game

Ryan is headed back to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, the site of the Raiders' last loss. And a familiar opponent awaits.

Ryan (14-0) faces Highland Park (13-1) at 9 p.m. Friday in a Class 5A Division I state semifinal. The showdown between two of the state's top teams is a rematch of last year's semifinal, which saw Ryan quarterback Spencer Sanders tear his ACL early in a 31-24 loss.

Highland Park went on to win the state title the following week. A win for Ryan not only would provide redemption but also lift the program to its sixth state title game appearance.

"The way I see it — they are the defending champs. They are the favorite, and we are the underdog," Ryan coach Dave Henigan said. "They have something we want, so we have to beat the best to be the best. 

"I anticipate a heavyweight battle until the end."

Ryan, the state's No. 3 Class 5A team, is averaging 475 yards and 48.6 points per game. But No. 7 Highland Park deserves the benefit of the doubt. Not only are the Scots the defending champs, but their offense (484 yards, 45.3 points per game) is more explosive than the one that put up 194 rushing yards against Ryan last year. 

Ryan lost Sanders, an Oklahoma State commit, in the second quarter. Still, the game was tied in the fourth before Highland Park scored with 7:24 remaining and hung on to win.

Paxton Alexander rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns for Highland Park. John Stephen Jones, the grandson of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, threw for 184 yards. Both are back for the rematch and have been playing lights-out. Jones has thrown for 3,989 yards and 52 touchdowns. Alexander is nearing 1,000 yards in rushing (960) and receiving (817).

Jones has the most passing yards and touchdowns of any Dallas-Fort Worth area player — regardless of classification. 

"I told [the defense] that they have an opportunity to do something that last year's team couldn't do. And I loved last year's defense," Ryan defensive coordinator Shane Tolleson said. "When Spencer got hurt and the offense started going three-and-out, our defense got tired. It was tough. The quarterback is a good player. We have to keep him in the pocket, and we have to stop the run."

Players like senior rover Carson Kennedy said playing the Scots last year helps.

"We know what we are getting into," Kennedy said. "And we saw the mistakes we made last year. We're just watching a lot of film and trying to do better this time around.

"Some kids are calling it redemption week. We're excited to get out there and play this game."

The biggest difference offensively with Ryan this year as opposed to last is its offense has been more productive in the passing game. The Raiders finished last year averaging 248 passing yards per game. They're averaging a staggering 262.2 yards this year and have scored 13 more touchdowns through the air.

Gabriel Douglas, a Texas Tech commit, and Tauskie Dove have combined for 2,150 receiving yards and 38 scores. But Jamarion Robertson is second on the team in receiving yards with 927. Billy Bowman Jr. and Ja'tavion Sanders have combined for 472 yards and four touchdowns.

Combine that with two 1,000-yard rushers — Emani Bailey (1,233 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Sanders (1,220, 14 touchdowns) — and Ryan arguably is harder to defend.

Spencer Sanders has thrown for 3,589 yards and 51 touchdowns. He was chosen as the Gatorade Texas Player of the Year on Monday and undoubtedly will be a force for Ryan. Sanders accounted for seven scores in last week's 69-49 win against Lubbock Coronado. 

"We feel great, obviously," Bowman Jr. said. "Spencer is ready and we're just following his lead. There isn't just one threat [on offense]. There's more like six, and then we have backups like Ja'tavion. It feels amazing to play with a quarterback like Spencer. We're on a roll right now, and we'd love to keep that going."

At the end of the day, neither team appears to have many weaknesses, which should make for one wild night to determine who moves on to the state title game.

"This isn't Coronado. This is Highland Park," Henigan said. "In games like these, it all comes down to turnovers, key special teams plays and red zone stops. It's going to come down to which team makes the least mistakes. That's what Highland Park does. We have to match that."

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

What you need to know

What: Ryan vs Highland Park
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: AT&T Stadium in Arlington
What happened last year: Highland Park won 31-24
Steve Gamel — Ryan 45, Highland Park 35 
Jimmy Isbell — Ryan 49, Highland Park 38
Brady Keane — Ryan 49, Highland Park 42
Clay Massey — Ryan 35, Highland Park 28