The Mildred Eagles are a heavy underdog in Thursday night’s Class 2A Division II State Championship Game. One rating system has East Bernard picked to win by 21 points.
Coach Patrick Harvell wants his players to relish the underdog role.
Harvell knows something about not being the trendy pick in a state title game. In 2003, when he was a defensive coordinator at Gainesville, the Leopards were supposed to lose to No. 1 Burnet, which featured Stephen McGee and Jordan Shipley, two future NFL players.
Gainesville won the Class 3A Division I title game at Texas Stadium, 35-24, outscoring Burnet 21-3 in the second half.
The other time Harvell coached in a state title game, also as an assistant at Gainesville? The Leopards lost to Wimberley 21-7 in the 2005 3A DI title game.
So know that Harvell is more than comfortable being a big underdog Thursday night when he leads Mildred (13-1) against red Hot East Bernard (14-0) at 8 p.m. at Cowboys Stadium.
“It takes a little pressure off of you,” Harvell said. “I expect us to play the best game we’ve played all year.”
East Bernard can’t help but read its own press clippings. The Brahmas crushed Elysian Fields in last week’s state semifinals, 52-8. The week before they pounded No. 1 Refugio, 54-23, snapping their 27-game winning streak.
After the game, Brahmas standout quarterback Ty Slanina told Rivals.com that East Bernard expected to rally from a 23-13 deficit to Regugio, and the team wants more than just that one big win.
“We’re not going to be satisfied until we get that ring on our finger,” Slanina said. “The season's been great, but we’re not done yet.”
Mildred isn’t either. The Eagles didn’t play this season to get to Cowboys Stadium — they played to win a title after coming up short in last year’s state semifinals.
On paper, the Eagles appear to have the kind of team that can play with East Bernard. Mildred is much more balanced than the Brahmas, averaging close to 274 yards per game rushing and 182.5 yards passing.
The Brahmas, like Sonora last week, rely mostly on their running game and especially on Slanina. East Bernard averages 308 yards per game on the ground, which accounts for around 80 percent of its offense.
Slanina is the Brahmas’ leading rusher and second on the team in passing and receiving. He plays quarterback the majority of the time, but also lines up at receiver — he has 13 receptions for 277 yards — and he’ll run the ball on sweeps while flanked outside.
Mildred’s one-two punch of quarterback Nic Shimonek and Draylon Sterling allows the Eagles to adjust to just about any defense. Last week against Sonora, the Broncos packed the box and Mildred went with a tight end.
But when the ground game was ineffective against the quick Broncos, Mildred went back to the spread and Shimonek was able to move the chains.
“Nic had a very good game in the running and passing game,” Harvell said. “We made a few plays in the passing game against a good defense.”
The Eagles’ defense should be as confident as it has been all year after last week’s 28-14 win. For one of the only times this season, they were asked to keep the offense in a game in the first half.
Mildred led 5-0 at halftime, giving the offense time to build a 28-0 lead. Sonora had 48 yards of total offense with five minutes left when it made a late rally to cut Mildred’s lead to 28-14.
“We want to play great defense first,” Sterling said.
East Bernard has a swarming defense. As a team the Brahmas average 14 tackles for loss per game. Linebacker Zach Stavinoha, a 5-11, 205-pound sophomore, has 186 tackles and 14 tackles for loss. Defensive ends Justin McGuire and Jordan Darr have combined for 36 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
For his part, East Bernard coach Jerry Long doesn’t see the Brahmas as a prohibitive favorite. Maybe the fans are thinking it. Not the coaches and players.
“I know kids read that stuff,” Long said. “Our kids understand you can throw that out the window for the state championship game. It’s going to come down to who handles the atmosphere and change in routine and things that happen in big games like turnovers and big plays.”
And maybe Harvell can call upon his big-game experience as he coaches in his third state title game.
Long, in his seventh year as head coach at East Bernard with a stop at Woodsboro before that, has never coached in a state title game.
“Not many coaches get to do this,” Long said. “There are some great coaches who haven’t coached in a state title game. I know we’re blessed. We’ve had a special season just like they have.”
Harrison draws top CB
Mildred receiver Johnathan Harrison doesn’t lead the Eagles in receiving — that’s Mikey Muncy — but he does seem to gather a lot of respect from the Eagles’ opponents.
Harrison had Sonora’s best corner on him in last week’s 28-14 victory. Opponents have to respect Harrison’s size (6-5, 205) and speed.
Even as a monitored man, Harrison scores every third time he catches a pass. He has nine TD catches in 28 receptions. He just missed out on No. 10 at the end of the first half last week when he got behind a Sonora defender but couldn’t pull in a perfectly thrown ball by quarterback Nic Shimonek.
O’Sullivan keeps it up
Mildred senior place kicker Devin O’Sullivan continues to be an important weapon for the Eagles, in addition to starting at middle linebacker.
O’Sullivan nailed a 28-yard field goal late in the first half to keep the momentum with the Eagles, who took a 5-0 lead into the locker room.
O’Sullivan also converted on five extra points, which wouldn’t be a huge deal except for one of them coming after a personal foul that made the kick a 35-yard attempt.
O’Sullivan has made 90 extra points.
Youth doesn’t faze Harvell
Mildred coach Patrick Harvell isn’t afraid to call on a young player, even if it’s a pressure moment.
For the Eagles, it’s all about taking advantage of matchups.
The offensive coaches liked a matchup with freshman receiver Will Burnham and a Sonora cornerback and went for it. Burnham caught a critical 27-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter that gave the Eagles a 19-0 lead.
“He stepped up and made a play,” Harvell said.
Road to Arlington
Mildred East Bernard
Bye Bi-district Bye
Def. Cooper, 38-14 Area Def. Banquete, 47-0
Def. Clarksville, 44-14 Regional Semifinals Def. Blanco, 16-0
Def. Nocona, 45-35 Regional Finals Def. Refugio, 54-23
Def.Sonora, 28-14 State Semifinals Def. Elysian Fields, 52-8