SPRING BRANCH — The stage has been set for yet another dramatic finish to the District 26-6A schedule.
With one round of games remaining, the league’s fourth and final playoff spot is still up for grabs in an all-out melee between Smithson Valley, New Braunfels and East Central. That postseason berth will be sorted out tonight when the Rangers (5-4, 3-3) host the Unicorns (5-4, 2-4) and the Hornets (5-4, 3-3) welcome Steele to San Antonio.
For Smithson Valley, the equation is simple. A win puts the Rangers into the Class 6A playoffs, and Smithson Valley can actually lose and still qualify for the postseason as long as the margin is fewer than three touchdowns.
“We only control ourselves, so we don’t really need to spend a whole lot of time worrying about other folks,” Rangers head coach Larry Hill said. “We’re in a pretty good position in the sense that we control about everything.”
New Braunfels’ path to the playoffs is more cluttered, as the Unicorns need to defeat Smithson Valley by 21 points and also see East Central lose to Steele. Head coach Glenn Mangold said he was up front with his team this week about what it will take to sneak into the postseason.
“I told them exactly what we needed to get into the playoffs and we’re going out and we’re going to play our best game possible,” Mangold said. “Hold them to as few as we can and score as many as we can and see how that turns out.”
New Braunfels certainly faces a tall task, but not an impossible one. The Unicorns were up 7-0 last week against district co-leader Clemens and driving toward another score before a pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown the other way.
Mangold said his team must be able to retain possession of the ball on offense and also avoid costly penalties and even more harmful turnovers.
“To win this type of game, we’ve got to minimize those and almost eliminate them,” Mangold said.
When the Rangers have the ball, New Braunfels will look to slow Smithson Valley’s smash and dash combination of Jacob Forton and Greg Eggleston. The tandem has run for 1,770 yards and 19 TDs thus far, with Forton being the more physical, bruising back and Eggleston serving as the team’s biggest home run threat.
The Unicorns must also watch out for the Rangers’ play action passing game, which compliments the run and features quarterback Luke Gombert and wide receivers Cooper Douglass, Maverick Freeland, Eric Titzman and a handful of others. Eggleston is also Smithson Valley’s leading receiver with 21 receptions for 426 yards and two scores.
“Almost all of their passing game is mostly play action where they try to get you to play the run and hopefully get behind you or hit some under routes,” Mangold said.
The Rangers’ defense is headlined by a solid front four and a secondary that has snagged nine interceptions. Cornerback Cullen Betsey has a team-high four picks, while cornerback Jalen Nutt and safety Mason Livingston have added two apiece.
Mangold said his team must make sure senior defensive tackle Trey Belyeu-Witcher is blocked at all times.
“Their defensive line as a whole is good as always,” Mangold said. “[Belyeu-Witcher] is really good — strong, powerful and one of the better D-linemen in our district.”
Smithson Valley’s goal defensively is to try and control the line of scrimmage and make New Braunfels one-dimensional. It won’t be easy, as the Unicorns utilize multiple receivers, including Lucas Dorrow, Craig Johnson, Bryson Dyer, Zak Aleman and Garrett Thompson, in addition to the running talents of Ryker Purdy, Aaron Seidel and Josh Rice.
At quarterback, New Braunfels is guided by Peyton Driggers, who is a dual-threat signal caller.
“They do a great job of spreading the field and spreading the ball around,” Hill said. “Multiple playmakers, and the quarterback, it all runs through him in terms of distributing. They’re very multi-faceted in both their run and pass games and very difficult to defend. We’ll have our hands full.”
On defense, Hill said the Unicorns are aggressive in their goal to stop opposing runners. New Braunfels linebackers James Windrow, Jonathan Umana, Matt Littlejohn and Clay Coronado all drew praise from the Smithson Valley coach.
“Their linebackers are very active and all four of them tackle really well,” Hill said. “Their front does a good job of keeping blockers off of them and their safeties are their fifth and sixth linebackers. They surround in pretty tight and insert on the run very fast and it’ll be a real challenge to run the football, but we’re going to have to try to find a way.”
It doesn’t come as a surprise to many that the final week of the regular season will hold so much importance regarding the playoff picture. It was a similar story last year when the Rangers fended off New Braunfels 20-3 to sew up fourth place.
“Not just us, but a lot of teams have grown accustomed to what it’s like in 26-6A,” Hill said. “It just goes down to the wire and most of us knew that coming in. Sure enough, that’s where we’re at.”
Tonight’s kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Ranger Stadium.