Houston’s season of firsts continues and has made its head coach James Thomas a prophet.
Winning a school record 12th game, 55-20 over White Station in the second round of the TSSAA state playoffs on Friday at Houston, the Mustangs are 12-0 and face what Thomas calls the “gold standard” in Memphis prep football, Whitehaven, this Friday in the state quarterfinals.
The game begins at 7 p.m. at Houston.
The Tigers (10-1) eliminated the Mustangs from the playoffs in the second round last season, ending their season at 10-2.
Whitehaven’s only loss this season came Sept. 13, 17-14 to Brentwood Academy. Whitehaven lost the 2018 state championship game to Oakland.
Before the season, Thomas predicted Houston had a chance to be better than last year.
“Success breeds success. They got a taste of it last year, saying what else can we do? They want to see how far they can get,” said Thomas.
The 55 points the Mustangs scored were the most the Spartans have allowed all year.
“If you had told me that we were going to score 55 points tonight, I would have told you you are crazy,” said Thomas. “I felt like they are a really good team and some things didn’t bounce their way but I felt like our guys responded, played hard and executed well and of course Lincoln Pare did his thing. It felt like it had to be every time they (Spartans) gave us the ball, they felt like, it was ‘Oh no, here comes No. 4 (Pare).’”
For the second straight week and third time this season, Pare, Houston running back, scored five touchdowns and moved into first place in the state in rushing yards with 2,522. If he gets 80 yards against Whitehaven he will become Houston’s all-time leading rusher, breaking Abe Felix’s 18-year record of 2,601.
Pare’s 35 touchdowns this season ranks second in the state behind Knoxville South-Doyle’s Elijah Young. Pare is 12th in the nation in rushing yards.
A team-first player, Pare said, “12-0 means everything. Since freshmen we have been building this legacy and when Coach Thomas became head coach he had very strict rules and he always wanted us to be great and I think his motto “Relentless” is always try to be great. I think we have done a good job with that. We have done a lot of work with Coach (Raheem) Shabazz (strength coach). I think Coach Shabazz has helped a ton. I think those two guys have led us to success.
“What we do during the week with him (Shabazz) nobody else is doing it. It is so different when our entire team is working with him at one time versus other schools, a kid here and a kid there will do it, but when you have your entire football team working with him you know something is going to happen.”
Calling the 12-0 record “pretty awesome, the winningest team in school history,” said Thomas, who congratulating players. “Obviously it is not the end of the road. It’s one more stepping stone.”
The end of the road is Cookeville where the Blue Cross Blue Shield Bowl 6A state championship will be played at 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium.
The Mustangs must take care of Whitehaven to advance to the state semifinals Nov. 29.
“The Whitehaven game doesn’t change our mindset, it’s just the next game which makes it important,” said Houston quarterback Ethan Burns.
“Everyone remembers how we lost last year, being up 10 with about 4 minutes left and couldn’t close the door. That is still fresh in our minds going into the game.” (Whitehaven won 31-27).
Pare expects the Mustangs to be “firing on all cylinders” against Whitehaven and its NCAA Division 1 commits, including three to Tennessee.
“This game is huge. I am expecting them to play tough defense. Their offense will be pretty good. I expect it to be a very good football game,” he said.
Said Thomas, “If we are going to make it here we are going to have to beat a team like them. Why not match up with the best in the area and see what you got?
“Every game is important when you are in the second round. There are no bad teams. Every round is going to get a little bit tougher, a little bit better opponent and you are going to have to fight a little more adversity so it’s important to remember the little things. We have been stressing the little things all season long. It has been paying off. The more you concentrate on the little things it makes the big things happen and it makes them seem easy.”
The Mustangs’ defense has to keep Whitehaven “off the board” said Houston linebacker Cade Young.
Against White Station (7-5) the Mustangs got on the board their first play on offense.
Pare ran 65 yards for a tone-setting touchdown.
“It was very electric,” he said. “It was great. My big guys up front, Hank Pearson, Ben Stegall sealed the edge and allowed me to run pretty much untouched down the sideline. I wouldn’t be where I am without those seven guys. Every single lineman, those top five guys, stood up.”
Rushing for 287 yards on 22 carries, Pare also scored on touchdown runs of 25, 50, 4 and caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Burns.
“The thing I love about our team, we block so well on the perimeter. People don’t understand that yes Lincoln is good but those long runs wouldn’t happen if the guys on the perimeter weren’t blocking so well to keep guys from chasing him and maybe chase Lincoln down when they had the angle on him,” said Thomas. “That is what you love to see on a team. It feels like a team run when Lincoln runs for 65 yards, not just him doing it. That’s the guys up front and the guys outside making it happen. So it’s awesome.”
Keys to victory were the line on both sides of the ball being dominant and “the run game was big again” said Burns.
White Station head coach Reid Yarbrough said, “When they scored on one play when Lincoln Pare is unleashed we thought we would be able to hem him in, hold him behind the line of scrimmage and rally to the ball. He is so patient and good when he finds a seam he hits it and he has the ability to take it.
“They did a lot with him. He hit some long runs on us late in the third quarter. They ran him out of the backfield on a wheel route as he was lined up. I thought, ‘Here it comes.’ They use him in a lot of different ways and they get other guys involved where you can’t just defend the box you got a receiver who is leading the city in receiving yards (Grayson Hitt has 821). They do a lot well so it’s hard.
“When you come out of the gate and got a little bit the first drive then stop ourselves, then punt, then they go straight to the house with it, after that it’s like, ‘Well here we go’ and we didn’t think that was going to happen tonight. We were hoping we wouldn’t have those kind of series defensively and we did. It was tough.
“When we struggled offensively in the past, our defense has kept us in the games. We really have hung our hat on defense so much of the year.
“Our defense gave up 55. We haven’t given up close to that all year.”
Houston has a 22-2 record over the last two seasons, two Region 7-6A championships, undefeated both seasons in region play. Thomas has won two region coach of the year honors. There are players from last year playing college football with more to come from this year’s team.
“It means a lot,” said Burns.
White Station defensive back/wide receiver Robert Artis said, “Defensively we allowed Houston to do what they do best, to run the football and that opened up their whole playbook.”
Pare said, “I feel like we played one of our best games because when you go into the playoffs you want to be playing your best football. I feel like our defense stepped up and our offense played. We did Coach Thomas’ game plan and we got us a win.”
Thomas echoed Pare. “We had a great game plan on defense. Coach (Robert) Armbruster is a master mind up there. He has seen it all, done it all. He asked the guys to buy into what he was trying to do and they did. They executed the game plan flawlessly. When our defense plays that well we are a hard out for sure.
“Again we scored on the first play, that is always a good start. We threw the ball well. Everything is clicking for us offensively. It’s the right time of year to be doing that.”
Passing for 124 yards on 5 of 9 completions, Burns threw two touchdowns and rushed for another one. His season-high is five touchdowns against Arlington. Burns has completed 84 of 139 passes for 1707 yards, 24th in Tennessee.
“Ethan has done a great job,” said Thomas. His first touchdown pass went to Pearson for 44 yards in the first quarter to put the Mustangs ahead 13-0 which added to Pearson’s resume.
“Hank is one of the best blocking tight ends. He is always a threat when they load the box and try to get him up the seam for a score. He got a big one tonight. He has great hands. He’s a basketball kid. He has had the ball in his hands his whole life. You can always trust him to be good. He is a heady football player. He sees a lot of things out there. He is kind of like a quarterback at tight end. ‘Coach, they are playing us here. We need to run this and that.’ He is very smart and has done a great job being a captain for us,” said Thomas.
Pearson is sixth in the state in sacks with 12. Teammate Deion Harris is fifth with 13 and third in Shelby-Metro, Pearson fourth.
Hitt, who had 2 receptions for 37 yards, is 12th in the state in receiving yards. He averages 21.5 yards per catch. He has scored 16 touchdowns, ninth in Shelby-Metro.
“Receivers stepped up,” said Thomas.
One of the biggest plays of the game came when Young recovered a fumble at the Houston 4 in the third quarter. That started a touchdown drive that put Houston on top 48-13 early in the fourth.
“Cade had a lot of big plays tonight. That was huge right there on the goal line,” said Thomas.
Playing with a torn labrum, Young, a senior, was unable to play last season because of two shoulder injuries. He will have his third shoulder surgery after wrestling season.
“I thank God for giving me strength to play through my injuries,” said Young, who attends The Orchard Church. “We have put a lot of work this off-season and this season. Our record this year reflects the work we have put it in.”
Thomas was also pleased with sophomore middle linebacker Christian Crew calling him “the guy who stood out the most.” Crew was starting his game, in for Ian Bullock who sustained a concussion against Germantown Nov. 8.
“Christian has been playing really well in a backup role. He has been doing things that he needed to do. Coming in he was our fourth linebacker and played spot duty. He knew all week it was his and he had one heck of a game. He was ferocious and played downhill. He made a lot of tackles, a bunch of big hits,” said Thomas.
Said Burns, “I thought Christian played amazing and stepped up huge for us. Everybody made plenty of plays tonight.”
Houston, with 377 yards rushing, held the Spartans to 84 yards rushing.
White Station quarterback Dwight Holmes said, “Most effective was their high-powered offense and them blitzing because we couldn’t adjust to it as well as we wanted to. We’ve got a good defense. It wasn’t clicking tonight.”
A junior, Holmes clicked for the Spartans.
He completed 18 of 26 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He was named first team Region 8-6A quarterback.
“He stepped up despite the loss. He came to play. He made some confident throws and he was able to lead the offense on some nice drivers. I believe if we had played better defense we would have given him some more opportunities to make a difference in the game. He has grown a lot since summer,” said Artis.
Thomas said, “Dwight Holmes is a good player. You have to defend him running the ball and he can throw so it’s a two-headed sword, a two-headed monster trying to defend the pass and him running.”
Burns said Holmes “played really well. He did what they needed him to do as far as throwing when he had the time and make good scrambling plays.”
Trailing 13-0 after touchdowns by Pare’s (which came with 10:04 left in the first) and Pearson, Holmes threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Shamari Covington in the first quarter to score the Spartans’ first touchdown, cutting the deficit to 13-6.
With 4 seconds left in the first, Pare scored on a 25-yard run and Carson Richards kicked the PAT and it was 20-6.
White Station got to the Houston 23 before Harris and Jaylin Lee sacked Holmes on fourth and four.
Aided by an unsportsmanlike penalty, the Mustangs drove to the Spartans 35. Pare ran 27 yards after Burns’ fake to Hitt. Burns scored from the 8 and Richards made it 27-6 with 6:25 left in the second.
The Spartans scored their second touchdown after Holmes threw first down passes James Baker. Another Holmes pass, this time to Covington set up a 10-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Harris.
Max Reid’s PAT cut it to 27-13 with 4:03 left in the second quarter.
A 30-yard kick return by Pare, who has averaged 33.1 yards per return on 397 kickoff return yards and is 10th in the state, got the Mustangs to the White Station 47. Pare ran 13 yards to the 34. An 8-yard pass form Burns to Hitt and runs by Ben Stegall and Burns got a first down at the 6. However a holding penalty forced Richards to try a 45-yard field goal which was short.
“We thought at halftime trailing 27-13, we better come out and get it right back and stop them,” said Yarbrough. “The first play of the half, touchdown. That took some wind out of our sails. From there I thought we did stupid things in terms of losing composure.”
Just like the first play of the game, Pare scored on the first play of the second half, a 50-yard run that gave the Mustangs a 33-13 lead. Richards made it 34-13.
“The main turning point was when they went down and scored and we responded quickly, coming out of halftime and going right down the field and score on the first play,” said Pare. “We never gave them any momentum. They were never in control of the game.”
With Houston’s Darby Smith defending a pass, Crew and Lee later sacked Holmes for a 5-yard loss. Reid would have to punt.
The Mustangs capped an 82-yard drive when Pare scored on the 28-yard pass from Burns for a 41-13 lead after Richards’ kick with 5:38 left in the third quarter. The drive included a 16-yard pass from Burns to R.H. Frankland.
Passes to Covington and Baker got the Spartans rolling. Jaylen Caver ran for a first down at the 15. Titus Goldson caught a 13-yard pass from Holmes and the Spartans were on the Houston 4 but fumbled that Young recovered. It was Young’s second fumble recovery this season. He’s had two pass interceptions.
“It’s huge. For them to fumble and us go down and get a score it’s huge momentum. It fires up our sidelines and gets our guys going,” said Pare, who waves a towel on third down to pump up the defense.
White Station then lost its composure.
“We had a drive. We had unsportmanslike penalties, four, on one drive. We can’t lose composure like that. It is not characteristic of us. I harped on it Wednesday, play with passion, don’t let our emotions control us. Tonight we let our emotions control us and it wasn’t good,” said Yarbrough.
Thomas said, “The game got chippy. I have been stressing to my guys play within the whistles, keep it clean, let the referees handle the rules and let me handle the referees and everything else will fine fine. Just play football.”
They did. First down runs by Pare, including converting fourth and one at the Spartans 46, and later a run by Will Stegall got a first down at the 4. Pare ran for the touchdown and Richards PAT put the Mustangs ahead 48-13 with 10:45 left.
A 13-yard run by Holmes and his 42-yard pass to Baker that went from the Spartans 34 to the Houston 21 set up the Spartans final touchdown, a 16-yard pass to Greg Rubin. It was 48-20 with 6:22 left after Reid, First-Team All-Region 8-6A placekicker and punter, kicked the PAT.
The Mustangs were not finished.
Gray Nischwitz, in for Burns, led a 51-yard drive. He ran 9 yards to the White Station 40 and then 29 yards to the 11. His 7-yard run got to the 3 and Jaylin Momon ran it in from there.
With 3:38 left, Richards kicked 56th extra point of the season for a 55-20 lead. Starting his first season, Richards leads Shelby-Metro in kick scoring with 74 points. He is 14th in the state in field goals with 6.
Thomas said of Nischwitz, a junior, “I am so proud of him. It’s been a tough year for him. He’s had to sit behind Ethan and wait his turn but his time is coming. I was so happy to see his success.”
Nischwitz, who went to see Princeton play on Saturday, was second behind Pare in rushing with 46 yards on 3 carries. Burns rushed for 23 yards, Ben Stegall 14, Will Stegall 4, Momon 3.
A first team all region running back, Caver led White Station rushing with 68 yards on 16 carries. Goldson had 9 yards, Harris 7. Baker led receivers with 78 yards followed by Covington with 75 yards, Rubin 61, Harris, and Goldson 13, Jeremy Boyland 5.
Harris is first team all-region wide receiver. Other White Station first team all-region selections are Cameron Blaylock and Kenya Taylor (offensive line), Jalen Shead (defensive tackle), Boyland (defensive end), Daniel Gwin (inside linebacker), Scott Welborn (outside linebacker), Rubin (defensive back), Goldson (kick returner).
Burns said that Gwin’s play impressed him.
Second team all-region are Goldson (wide receiver), James Wingo (offensive line), Christian Strother (defensive tackle), Javontay Boulton (defensive end), Nicholas Jeffries (defensive end), Harris (punt returner), Rubin (athlete), Kris Peat (outside linebacker).
Honorable mention are Gabe Amerson (outside linebacker), Cejai Parson (safety).
Heartbreaking is how Holmes described the loss but was glad the team came together through adversity.
“We have been through so much together. When we saw one brother down, we picked him up,” said Holmes.
The Spartans were devastated at the beginning of the season.
A former teammate and 2019 graduate, Jack Luibel was robbed while in his truck, shot and killed on Sept. 2. He was 18.
He had been lured through Snapchat to a parking lot beside a Frayser church by someone pretending to be a woman wanting a date.
“We were all down then we thought he was in a better place and he is looking down on us,” said Holmes.
Another player, sophomore defensive back/wide receiver Tylan Williams was in a motor vehicle accident in Arkansas over the summer.
A piece of metal was lodged in his brain. Surgeons removed the piece and fused his skull back together Nov. 1. Before his surgery he watched games from the sidelines wearing protective head gear. Some players shaved their heads in his honor for the Nov. 1 Germantown game.
“He is a strong young man that loves football. Every time he comes to school or a game the team makes sure we show him some love because of how much the program means to him,” said Artis, who wanted better execution against Houston.
Artis pointed to the Spartans not doing well on first and second downs thus creating third and long situations.
“Anytime that is the case scoring can be hard to come by,” said Artis. “The season had a bitter ending but I am content with how we came together and played our hearts out for Coach Yarbrough. He was a great coach especially for his first year.”
Yarbrough is Region 8-6A Co- Coach of the Year along with Whitehaven’s Rodney Saulsberry.
Picked to finish last in the region, the Spartans won more than the previous two season combined. Their most gratifying win was over Christian Brothers.
“We’ve played some close game against some great teams as well and I’m proud of my guys in each one of those,” said Artis, who has a dream to play professionally and wants to be a psychiatrist.
Yarbrough’s hiring represented new beginnings said Artis.
“When he got the job we all had hope again. Something had been missing the last couple of years. With this year’s team there was never a dull moment.”
Yarbrough was proud of his team.
“There were rising seniors who may or may not have had a lot of playing time in the past or may have played different roles. I am really proud of the senior class for setting the tone. I love this senior class. I coached them as their freshman coach. I knew they were special then,” said Yarbrough.
“I told them the first day on the job there is no reason they couldn’t be successful this year. We have had success in the past. There are no nonsense guys like Jalen Shead, Scott Welborn, Nick Jeffries, Robert Artis. I’m disappointed with the way it ended, obviously not what we wanted. Nobody is satisfied getting beat like this and I hope that it motivates us for the future. We were here last year (Houston ended the Spartans’ season in the first round 34-19).
“I told them they are not defined by one game and their identity is not one game. They have got to look at their identity as something bigger. As a football program this is not emblematic of what we want.”
Artis said, “It definitely doesn’t define us. I feel like the progression that has been made from the last two years is what defines us. We all believed in one another and fought for each other. The Ws and Ls, that is not what is most important. The brotherhood and the lessons we learn are most important. Coach Yarbrough wants us to be great sons, husbands, fathers and ultimately great men.”
Artis praised coaches, including defensive coordinator Bob Alberson, region Co-Assistant Coach of the Year, defensive line coach Dathan Brestel, Antonio Cheatham defensive backs coach.
“Those three gave us the formula to be a great defense and always gave us a chance to win,” said Artis.
Pare, who watched Dartmouth, which is recruiting him, and Princeton play in Yankee Stadium Nov. 9, has a mindset to win.
“My goal is to win so whatever I’ve got to do on the field and off the field to help my team win, that is what I am going to do. I think I have grown every game and I think that is what you should do. I have gotten a lot better,” he said.
The Mustangs have responded all year to coaching said Thomas.
“They take coaching well. That is what is so gratifying. To have a team like that that plays for each other and does what you ask them to do.”