MILDRED — —
When Noah Pennell missed most of the preseason workouts and both scrimmages with a knee injury, sophomore Keanu Fathal was thrust into a starting role on Mildred’s offensive line. On a team as prolific as the Eagles are on offense, it’s a big role to fill.
Three months later, with Mildred entering the playoffs, Fathal is still holding his ground, as are two other new starters on an offensive line paving the way for ridiculous numbers.
Mildred (9-1) opens the playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday with Cooper (6-5), a team with bruising lines of its own. Mildred coach Patrick Harvell (44-13 in his fifth season) always preaches line play, and this year the Eagles have delivered up front.
“If you can’t win a game up front, you can’t win a game,” said Harvell, whose current team is making last year’s juggernaut numbers on offense look mild. The Eagles are averaging 7.9 more points per game (59.9), 83.9 yards more rushing (278.6) and 63.2 yards more overall (474.9).
Mildred had a first-round bye last week.
Pennell, a 5-10, 230-pound senior left tackle, and junior center Jasper Marshall (5-9, 160) are the only starters back ... on offense, anyway.
“We made the decision about half way through the year that we have to keep (our lineman) fresh,” Harvell said.
What they did is create one-way starters. Senior Thomas Finigmow (5-9, 210), who missed some time with a shoulder injury, went straight defense after starting offense last year, and for several games this year. He’s paired up at defensive tackle with fellow senior Taylor Barlow (5-10, 210), who started the season at center as Marshall nursed injuries.
With Marshall back by district, and Pennell returning for the second game, that left three spots to be settled on. Fathal never relinquished his job, and senior Austin Pair (6-0, 240), who did not play as a junior, became a staple at right tackle. Senior Danny Hanna (5-11, 250), who was injured in the second game but is now healthy, found a home at left guard next to Pennell after starting the season at tackle.
“Guys like Danny Hanna and Keanu have done great jobs all year long,” Harvell said.
Did he see Fathal staying put once everyone was healthy?
“I wouldn’t be truthful if I said I’d thought he’d start on varsity,” Harvell said. “But once he did, he definitely proved he was a varsity lineman.”
Pair was a bit of an unknown too after sitting out last year.
“Pair has done a good job, and Danny was hurt at the first of the year, then we moved him from tackle to guard to rest Finigmow for defense,” Harvell said.
It’s worked out well for the Eagles. Occasionally, Pennell spells a defensive tackle, but otherwise the interior guys go one way.
“At some point, we had to find a way to even out playing time,” Harvell said.
In district, where the Eagles averaged 69.3 points per game, Mildred did not need great games from its line. In the playoffs, especially this week with Cooper, it will.
“Cooper is big and physical,” Harvell said. “They ground and pound you.”
Harvell compared the Bulldogs to Hughes Springs, a team the Eagles beat 21-13 in the third round last year. Hughes Springs had 332 yards rushing on 61 carries.
Cooper prefers to run the ball, averaging 269.7 yards per game on the ground. The Bulldogs don’t have a 1,000-yard rusher, but four with more than 300. Jermey Mims (152-975, 13 TDs) and Demarcus Robinson (90-747, 14 TDs) lead the way.
The Bulldogs 44-22 win over Leonard to open the playoffs wasn’t as close as the score indicated, Harvell said.
“This is going to be a ball-up your fist, bloody nose type of football game,” Harvell said.
Region II-2A DII Area Round
Mildred (9-1) vs. Cooper (8-3)
7:30 p.m. Friday, Lindale’s Eagle Stadium
Radio: The Ranch 106.9 FM (7 p.m. pregame)
Mildred RB Draylon Sterling vs. Cooper LB Colby Early
Sterling averages a ridiculous 13.8 yards per carry, and keys a ground game that chews up almost 280 per game. Early, just a sophomore, leads the Bulldogs with 12.5 tackles per game. Sterling has speed and will go outside, but the Eagles like to run it up the middle, too.
Handle the role
Mildred must prove it can avoid a letdown and handle the favorite role. Cooper’s record is deceiving, Mildred coach Patrick Harvell insists. Three of the teams that beat Cooper are still playing. Only one that did missed the playoffs (Mount Vernon) finished fourth in a district with Daingerfield, New Boston and Redwater.
The line of scrimmage
Harvell has a favorite saying, “the guys with their hands on the ground win games.” This game should be a good one up front. The Bulldogs are big and physical on the lines, Harvell said, and Mildred has been dominant on both sides. Expect a slugfest between two talented groups.
Mildred hasn’t had to pass out of necessity, but has done very well behind senior Nic Shimonek (120-185-4-1,963, 27 TDs), the most prolific passer in the history of the Golden Circle. Cooper’s Kasey Leatherwood has attempted 10 or more passes only four times this season, three times in losses, and completed 44 percent of his passes on the season. He has as many interceptions (5) as TD passes.
— Raymond Linex II