SOUTHLAKE — The Ryan players had heard the whispers for months.
The ones that said to expect an “off year” from a Raiders football program that has made deep playoff runs a regular occurrence. The reasons included a senior class lacking the eye-popping Division I prospects of past teams and a move up to Class 5A.
But you don’t grow up in a program that’s been a state championship-game regular without learning some lessons. And Ryan’s more than two dozen seniors did themselves proud in writing their final chapter.
“Everybody doubted us and didn’t think we were going to do much,” said Desmond Oliver, a senior who was a bright spot this season for a Ryan defense that met its match against Cedar Hill on Saturday. “We proved everybody wrong by fighting hard today. Even when we were down, we still fought hard, came out and played our best to the end.”
To say the Raiders took some blows in the first half of the second-round playoff game would be putting it mildly.
But the fact that Cedar Hill scored more points — 35 — in the first two quarters than the Raiders had surrendered in any single game this season was not cause for the Denton players to tuck tail and head for the house.
“We just never give up,” senior wide receiver Kevin Ray Jr. said after the 48-35 loss that ended Ryan’s 13th straight playoff season. “We just fight. Coach tells us to stay together, so we just stay together and try to fight it out until the end.
“We felt like we could come back the whole game, but things just didn’t turn out like they should have.”
After twice trimming Cedar Hill’s three-touchdown lead to 14 points in the third quarter, the Raiders found themselves down 13 points, 48-35, after Reynal Caldwell’s 20-yard scoring run on a reverse with 4:29 to go.
Marc Orozco’s onsides kickoff try then bounced out of bounds before it went 10 yards. But even then, the Raiders’ veteran head coach wasn’t saying die.
“I didn’t think we were ever out of it, to be honest with you, until they stopped us on that last one,” Joey Florence said, referring to a fourth-down miss by the Ryan offense with only 41 seconds left.
The Raiders had gained their last possession by stopping the Longhorns on fourth down at the Ryan 25.
“Our defense stepped up and made a great play,” Florence said. “Give Cedar Hill credit, though. They stopped us.”
It took some doing by Ryan to be in the game after a first half in which Cedar Hill scored on its first five possessions and wasn’t stopped until kicker Brooks Ralph came up short on a 46-yard field goal try with 15 seconds left in the first half.
Special teams troubles had helped the Longhorns score back-to-back touchdowns twice in taking a 35-14 halftime lead.
First, Cedar Hill pulled off an onsides kick in the game’s fifth minute. Then a muffed kickoff return by Ryan left the Longhorns needing only 14 yards for their fifth touchdown before the bands took the field.
“That’s part of it,” Florence said of the not-so-special team plays. “Good for them. They executed well and we muffed one. That happens.
“That wasn’t the difference in the game. We just couldn’t stop them.”
Ray said he and his offensive mates saw early that the game was going to be an offensive shootout.
“It was an offensive game all day,” he said. “Our defense couldn’t get stops, so we just tried to keep scoring and scoring and scoring and see if anything happened. But it didn’t go our way in the end.”
The Raiders’ 35 points matched their second-best effort of the season, second only to an opening week 40-28 win over Corsicana. Ryan suffered back-to-back losses in the next two games, against Wichita Falls Rider and Wylie East, and then dropped two of three to fall to 4-4.
“It’s a good tradition here,” Ray said. “We just try to live up to it and keep it going.”
The fact that the games have ended was eased a bit for Oliver by the way the Raiders went out.
“I love all these guys,” Oliver said. “They played hard for me. I played hard for them. We didn’t win, but I’m glad we lost the way we lost.”