Hightower overcomes Manvel, in regional final for 1st time since '11
MISSOURI CITY—Hightower coach Cornelius Anthony has a difficult time finding a way to explain his team's success.
How is it that a team under a first-year head coach—a team that did not have spring ball or an offseason to work through because of the late hire of Anthony and his staff—and starts eight sophomores, after graduating 39 seniors, not only wins a share of the championship in one of the toughest districts in the state, but makes it to the regional final and stands two wins away from the state championship game?
Anthony has no clue. No earthly idea. And after watching his team conquer District 10-5A rival Manvel, 31-21, in their Class 5A-Division I regional semifinal Friday at Hall Stadium, Anthony's only answer revolves around a higher power, a higher being.
"The only explanation I can give you is it's God," Anthony said. "I thought this would be a rebuilding year. The only explanation is all glory to God. He is using a team like this to demonstrate His power and might."
.@HightowerFB coach @coachanthony46 talks to his team after its 31-21 regional semifinal win over district rival Manvel tonight. #txhsfb @FBISDAthletics @HHS_Canespic.twitter.com/KE5nBbsggy— VYPE Houston (@VYPE Houston) 1637989467
The Hurricanes' 11 wins are tied for second-most in program history. It's their first season with 10 or more wins since 2015. They are in the regional final for the first time since 2011, when they lost to Southlake Carroll in the state championship game.
"It feels great," said senior receiver Caleb Douglas, who hauled in four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. "To still be playing football into December? I ain't ever done that before."
More importantly, Hightower (11-2) exacted revenge against Manvel (10-3), which won last year's regional semifinal meeting, 31-7.
"We didn't eat big on Thanksgiving," sophomore defensive tackle Dailon Ellis said. "We wanted tonight. This is our Thanksgiving right here. This was our dessert. People say we can't face adversity, and, hey, look what happened."
Adversity was certainly in attendance Friday night.
First, the Hurricanes had to find a way to play through the shock of seeing senior defensive back Jeremy Strawder suffer a horrible injury less than two minutes into the game.
Anthony said Strawder seemed to jam his neck while making a tackle. Strawder remained motionless on the field for a lengthy amount of time before being placed on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance.
"That's our bro," Ellis said. "We fought for him. We all wanted this for him."
The game was stopped for 25 minutes as medical and administrative personnel attended to Strawder. After the game, Anthony told his players Strawder was awake and moving at a local hospital.
"That kid is the heartbeat of our defense," Anthony said. "If anything, it inspired our kids to go out there and win it for him. Our kids knew we needed to win, so we can have the opportunity to play again when he's healthy. That sparked a fire in our guys."
Hightower next had to overcome sloppy, undisciplined, and just outright bad football. In a first quarter that was scoreless and lasted 57 minutes, the teams combined for 12 penalties and 115 yards.
At halftime, it was 20 combined penalties for 188 yards. Hightower had 10 penalties for 88 yards.
But Anthony, again, saw some good out of bad, and told his team as much at halftime, with the game tied at 14.
"The main thing I tell my guys is the only team that can beat us is us," Anthony said. "I honestly believe that. So, for us to have that many penalties and play as badly as we did and still be tied … that's scary. So, let's play our brand of ball, eliminate or minimize mistakes, and then see what happens. That's what happened. We shaved penalties and were able to pull away."
The teams exchanged quick scores early in the third quarter.
Senior Ty Harris, the Mavs' primary running back after star senior De'Monte Seymore left the game because of injury after compiling 14 yards on six carries early in the first half, scored on an 18-yard run. Hightower answered when Douglas used all his 6-foot-4 frame to leap over a helpless defensive back, turned, and sprinted into the end zone for a 30-yard score.
"Good defense, but a better catch," Douglas said, grinning.
The game remained 21-21 until senior Armando Ventura drilled a 28-yard field goal with 9.2 seconds left in the third quarter to put Hightower ahead to stay.
Junior tight end Alijah Jones' nine-yard scoring catch from sophomore quarterback Kendron Penson Jr. put Hightower up 31-21 with 6:34 left.
Alijah Jones! Touchdown. Nine-yard haul on third down. Tough catch. 31-21 @HightowerFB, 6:34, 4Q. #txhsfb @FBISDAthleticspic.twitter.com/3JR356S1nW— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1637986322
The Hurricanes essentially sealed the win when Ellis sacked Manvel quarterback Kaeden Smith for a six-yard loss on 4th-and-2 on the ensuing drive.
"I've been watching film this whole week," Ellis said. "I knew my time was going to come. I've been waiting patiently. I just tried to make a play. I got my one-on-one, which I love, and knew it was time to work."
But none of that could have happened for the Hurricanes without the third consecutive 200-yard rushing game from sophomore running back Jeremy Payne.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder was spectacular with 235 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
"Cutbacks," Payne said. "I knew No. 6 (Manvel senior linebacker Justin Medlock) would be coming down; good player. I knew he'd be looking for me the whole time. I just had to read the blocks and cut it back. It's a great feeling, not just for me but the whole team. I'm playing for my seniors."
Payne was the most electrifying athlete on the field in a game that was full of electrifying athletes. He showed off an unbelievable mix of power, speed, balance, and vision.
Payne accounted for 55 percent of the Hurricanes' total offensive production.
"He's a man-child," Anthony said. "The kid's been playing football all his life, and you can tell. He's our workhorse. For him to be a sophomore, it's scary how good this kid will be in the next year or two."
.@jeremypayne_!! 55-yard spree. #txhsfb @HightowerFBpic.twitter.com/VMMOJ5mkA3— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1637983888
Hightower totaled 430 yards to Manvel's 324. But the Hurricanes' defense tightened considerably in the second half, limiting the Mavericks to one touchdown on 90 total yards.
The Hurricanes adjusted to keep Smith, who had both of Manvel's touchdowns in the first half, from getting to the outside and bluffing on blitzes.
"Being Thanksgiving week, we knew there would be distractions," said senior defensive back Julian Payne, the leader of that stingy defense. "But we saw it as opportunity. Everybody else is home and we worked. But we can't get too high or too low. It's a confidence boost, but we've got to stay even-keel."
HUGE sack by @HightowerFB\u2019s @_JulianPayne for a 12-yard loss to force a punt. Big, big play. #txhsfb @FBISDAthleticspic.twitter.com/NyZy9kwN36— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1637984934
The win was Hightower's second over Manvel this season. The Hurricanes nipped the Mavs in the initial meeting Sept. 23, 16-12.
'The first time, we were prepared," Ellis said. "But we were prepared even more tonight, plus we already knew what they wanted to do. The running, the play-action go routes … we knew it."
And the reward is a trip to Rice Stadium on Dec. 3 to play 11-2 Paetow, another district rival, with a state semifinal appearance at stake.
"I'm speechless," Anthony said. "That's a great, athletic, physical team with a great coaching staff. For us to come away with the victory, I'm extremely proud. We're teaching everything we do on the fly. So, when you see the penalties and lack of discipline, it's because we haven't had the opportunity to mold them to be disciplined like you would during an offseason or spring. I don't know.
"I'm a God-fearing man, and I can only tell you this is because of Him."