CONVERSE — When Judson and Smithson Valley meet on the gridiron, there’s usually something sizable at stake.
The 2019 matchup is especially big for the Rangers (4-2, 2-1), as their District 26-6A title hopes likely ride on a win against the Rockets. For Judson (6-0, 3-0), its unbeaten record will be on the line, as well as its spot atop the league standings.
Smithson Valley head coach Larry Hill realizes there’s plenty of hype surrounding tonight’s matchup, but that hasn’t affected his players’ approach during the lead-up to the game.
“We’ve been playing Judson since 2004 and those have been some monumental battles,” Hill said. “I think our players are excited. There’s certainly a lot of attention on the game, but at the same time, they’re doing a good job staying grounded. Sometimes you can get caught up in that and you forget about taking care of your Tuesday practice or your Wednesday meetings or paying attention in film study — that type of thing.”
The Rockets come into tonight fresh off a 54-20 victory at Unicorn Stadium in which they looked every bit like the defending league champions. Judson’s defensive front made life rough on New Braunfels all night, while the offense took flight under the direction of quarterback Mike Chandler II, running back De’Anthony Lewis and wide receiver Amarea Bailey-Davis.
“Their running back is really talented and the quarterback has made so many good throws, both within the structure of the play, and at times using his feet to extend the play — and, of course, he’s a great runner,” Hill said. “It’s difficult to say we’ve got to stop this or we’ve got to stop that.”
The trio of Chandler II, Lewis and Bailey-Davis combined for 431 yards and seven touchdowns against the Unicorns during a game that got out of hand in the opening quarter. On the season, the three standouts have accounted for 2,580 yards and 34 scores, which is over 84% of the Rockets’ total output on offense.
Hill said it’s important to avoid the early knockout punch.
“I think we’ve got to do what I’m sure the other six opponents have tried to do, and that is slow them down early in the ballgame,” Hill said. “They’ve kind of run off and hid from everybody early in the game. When you’re in a big deficit early in a ballgame, it kind of takes you out of what you want to do. We’ve got to try to find a way to keep that from happening.”
The Rockets’ defense has more youth than in the past, but there’s still plenty of ability. Judson’s front three of E’vaunte Freeman, Nathaniel Pryor and Dajuan Carmichael consistently pressured New Braunfels quarterback Peyton Driggers, and the secondary and linebackers were often free to fly around and cause chaos.
Hill said his offense must find a way to move the chains, whether it be with big chunks of yardage or small, steady gains at a time.
“You’ve got to play good defense and get stops when you’re out there, and the offense has got to help you,” Hill said. “Not only do you try to go down and score, but you try to possess the football and extend the game.”
The Rangers are coming off back-to-back district wins over Canyon (51-7) and East Central (45-13) and have some offensive weapons of their own.
Senior Greg Eggleston has already racked up 865 total yards and eight TDs and is averaging 14.2 yards per touch. Fellow senior Jacob Forton leads the team in rushing with 636 yards and nine scores, while quarterback Luke Gombert has passed for 855 yards and eight TDs.
Meanwhile, the defense has made strides since the opener against Midland Lee, as the Rangers are giving up just 8.0 points per game in their last five outings.
“I like our guys, I like their commitment to football and I like the way they prepare,” Hill said. “We’re like most coaches — we feel like we’re getting better each week. As the season goes on, you begin to identify what you’re good at and what you need to feature and what you maybe need to downplay a little bit.
“I thought the last two weeks have been good for us. We’ve been able to be explosive at times and then use ball control other times and limit the explosives of the other team, and I think that’s important any game, but certainly in this league where everybody is so capable of scoring in one play.”
Smithson Valley is one of the rare teams that can boast a winning record against Judson all-time, as the Rangers lead the series 9-5. The Rockets recorded a 28-0 victory last year in Spring Branch, but Smithson Valley won the two meetings prior to that by scores of 40-37 and 44-14.
The stage is set for another installment in the saga between the two highly-regarded programs. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. tonight at Rutledge Stadium in Converse.