The last two weeks, Ryan’s defense has given the Raiders an opportunity to pull off one incredible comeback after another.
Today, the defense will be asked to play well against the team that bounced the Raiders out of the playoffs last season.
After a lot of ice and waiting, Ryan faces the Cedar Hill Longhorns at 3 p.m. today at Apogee Stadium in the Class 5A Division II Region I final.
The winner will be one of four remaining teams left in the 5A Division II playoffs and will face Lake Travis on at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium. Cedar Hill (11-2) defeated Abilene Cooper 28-23 in the regional semifinals to advance to today’s matchup.
Ryan (10-2) will try to avenge last season’s 5A Division II area-round loss to the Longhorns. For yet another playoff game, the Raiders will have to contain an explosive wide receiver in order to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
“This is 5A football in the state of Texas,” Ryan head coach Joey Florence said. “You’re going to play some of the best people in the country. It’s fun. We like it. I really do. I’m so proud of our program and kids.”
The game was previously scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, but icy roads postponed the game until today. If Ryan wins, it will be the deepest the Raiders have advanced in the Class 5A playoffs. The Raiders lost to Southlake Carroll in the 2004 5A Division I Region I final.
Ryan’s defensive backs have the task of slowing down Cedar Hill junior wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge. Lodge has 62 receptions for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns. Auburn, Baylor, Texas and Texas A&M are just a few of the schools that have already offered him a scholarship to play college football, according to Rivals.com.
But slowing down talented wide receivers is nothing new for Ryan’s defense. The Raiders’ secondary faced Waco Midway junior Devontre Stricklin (already offered by Baylor) and Keller Fossil Ridge senior Ryan Parker (orally committed to TCU).
In three playoff games, Ryan has allowed an average of 345 passing yards per game. But the Raiders’ defense showed it can stop opponents when necessary.
Ryan’s defense played a huge role in its 13-point comeback against Midway and its improbable 31-point comeback against Fossil Ridge last week.
At the beginning of the year, Ryan’s group of defensive backs was the most unproven unit on defense.
“I think they’re playing well,” Florence said. “They’re doing a lot of good things. No doubt it was the youngest part of the team. None of those kids played last year except [senior] Randalle Williams. Those are all new guys over there.”
Seniors Paul Hunter and Ronnie Coleman were new additions to Ryan’s secondary this season, joining junior Elijah Allen, Williams and senior Robert Conner.
Sophomore defensive back Shemar Coleman didn’t play his first varsity game until the Raiders’ bi-district playoff win against Colleyville Heritage. He hasn’t had his name stitched across the back of his jersey like the rest of his teammates.
But he had a key interception against Waco Midway, one of the team’s 15 forced turnovers in a span of three games.
“Every week, everybody wanted to come at us because we were the youngest group of the whole defense,” Allen said. “We feel we had to stand up to and show everyone that we’re capable of being just as great as our defensive line or our linebackers.”
Ryan’s defensive line harassed Fossil Ridge quarterback Jacob Gnacinski in the second half of last week’s win.
“We’ve been able to do that here for many years and not have to blitz a lot and just rush with our front four [linemen],” Thomas said. “When you get pressure with your front four, it helps.”
On Thomas’ desk, along with a couple of movies and scouting reports on Lake Travis and A&M Consolidated, Shemar Coleman’s name was face down, ready to be stitched across his jersey before another big test for Ryan’s secondary.
“Each week, everybody’s different,” Allen said. “Everybody comes with their own game. Everybody comes with their different style of how they play.
“We just have to stand up and show them how we play. We have to come out with a high intensity each week as we progress through the playoffs.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.