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Football: Raiders’ road arrives at Apogee

Profile image for By Ben Baby / Staff Writer
By Ben Baby / Staff Writer

While there’s plenty of festivities during the week of Thanksgiving, the two days after the holiday are what football coaches across the state cherish.

Ryan coach Joey Florence and his father, Mickey, used to sit and watch all the high school games at Texas Stadium as they munched on turkey leftovers. A few years ago, the Ryan coaching staff and their families would take their food and eat in the parking lot of Arlington’s AT&T Stadium before they watched the games.

The Ryan coaches won’t be spectators this weekend. Instead, the Raiders will be trying to extend their season for another weekend.

Ryan (9-2) faces Keller Fossil Ridge (9-3) at 1 p.m. today at Apogee Stadium in the Class 5A Division II regional semifinals. The winner will face Abilene Cooper or Cedar Hill in the Region I final.

“This is my favorite week of the year,” Florence said. “One of the great things about coaching is being able to practice during this week. It’s a great week. You don’t have school. You’re up here, getting to hang out with the kids and practicing football.”

Fossil Ridge and Ryan are two of 16 teams left in the 5A Division II playoffs. Ryan is looking for its first regional final appearance in three years. At the 5A level, the Raiders have only reached the regional finals once, when Ryan lost to Southlake Carroll in 2004.

Fossil Ridge and Ryan are coming off big wins in the area round of the playoffs. Last week, Ryan erased a 13-point halftime deficit to defeat Waco Midway 34-33 in Arlington. Fossil Ridge defeated San Angelo Central 39-7 in order to reach today’s contest in Denton.

Ryan has forced 15 turnovers in its last three games, including four in last week’s win against Midway. Florence said that at this point of the year errors earmark the teams that don’t advance.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Florence said. “The teams that win right now are the teams that make the fewest mistakes. You’re not just going to go out there and whip somebody, and we don’t feel like they’re going to come whip us, either. The team that plays the best that day usually wins.”

Fossil Ridge boasts a strong passing attack spearheaded by quarterback Jacob Gnacinski. Gnacinski has passed for 2,557 yards, 25 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Gnacinski also leads the Panthers on the ground with 849 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.

“This will be the best dual-threat quarterback we’ve seen this year,” Florence said. “He’s a good one. I’m really impressed with him.”

Gnacinski’s biggest weapon has been wide receiver Ryan Parker, who leads the Panthers with 1,102 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. Both of those totals lead the team by wide margins.

Ryan will have to contend with a strong Fossil Ridge front line led by senior defensive end Anthony Villalobos.

This part of the season is where Ryan’s District 5-5A schedule will pay dividends, Ryan junior offensive lineman Dakota Laws said. Facing teams like Hebron and Coppell has prepared the Raiders for what it could face down the road.

“It gets us get ready for good teams because we’re playing really good people,” Laws said.

Ryan’s offensive line opened holes for senior running back Tyrone Williams in last weekend’s win over Midway. Williams went off for 159 yards and two touchdowns to give Ryan its ninth win of the season.

In six previous seasons at the Class 5A level, Ryan has won 10 games on one occasion. Florence said he’s not concerned about the accomplishment. Senior defensive back Paul Hunter agreed with Florence and said the team has higher aspirations.

“I want to win state,” Hunter said. “So it has to be more than 10 [wins], right?”


BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.