Getting Defensive: HP, Ryan Clash in Semis

John House and the Highland Park defense have been dominant during the playoffs so far. (Photo: Chris McGathey)
John House and the Highland Park defense have been dominant during the playoffs so far. The Scots will face unbeaten Denton Ryan on Saturday in the Class 5A Division I state semifinals. (Photo: Chris McGathey)

Once again, a powerhouse from Denton ISD is the hurdle standing between Highland Park and the state championship game.

Three years ago, Denton Guyer slipped past the Scots 22-16 on its way to a Class 4A title. On Saturday, HP will meet unbeaten Denton Ryan for the chance to return to the state final for the first time since 2007.

The Class 5A Division I state semifinal is slated for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where both teams won regional final games last weekend — the Scots (12-2) against Mansfield Legacy, and the Raiders (14-0) against Colleyville Heritage.

Statistically, there’s not a lot of difference between two teams that each have benefited from a drop to 5A this fall from this 6A ranks a year ago. Both have been solid both on offense and defense this season, and especially in the playoffs.

HP has soldiered ahead despite losing top playmakers Jack Kozmetsky, Cade Saustad, and Scully Jenevein). The Scots always have plenty of depth to compensate for such attrition, but the loss of Kozmetsky — the team’s leading rusher — seemed to make an impact during a 14-7 win over Legacy.

The Scots struggled on offense in that game but still advanced thanks to a stellar effort by the HP defense, which has limited eight of its 14 opponents this season to seven points or fewer. The Scots stifled a powerful Legacy offense, with George Stewart knocking down a pass in the end zone in the final minute to help preserve the win.

Still, HP has plenty of firepower to put points on the board, including quarterback John Stephen Jones, whose stellar junior season includes more than 2,700 yards passing and 27 touchdowns. He’s also rushed for seven scores. J.T. Dooley and Jack Toohey have emerged as top receiving options late in the year, and Paxton Alexander has 11 total touchdowns.

The Scots will have their hands full with the Raiders, who have not exhibited many weaknesses during their 14-game winning streak. They matched a season low in points during the 24-10 victory over Colleyville Heritage, but their defense has been remarkably consistent by limiting nine of their past 10 opponents to 14 points or fewer.

On offense, Ryan has a handful of big-time college recruits. Dual-threat quarterback Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State) has thrown 38 touchdown passes and rushed for 18 scores. His top two receivers, Gabriel Douglas (Texas Tech) and Chritauskie Dove, have combined for more than 2,000 yards and 33 touchdowns). Tyreke Davis (North Texas) is a two-way standout who surpassed 1,000 yards rushing last week.

The winner of Saturday’s clash will face either Temple (11-3) or Richmond Foster (14-0) for the state championship on Dec. 17, again at AT&T Stadium.

The Raiders played two of HP’s District 15-5A rivals during nondistrict play, earning a 24-13 win over Mesquite Poteet—who’s still alive in the 5A Division II bracket, by the way—and a 40-21 victory over Wylie East. The Scots topped Poteet 40-29 but fell to Wylie East 20-9 in the regular-season finale.

Here’s a footnote: Ryan head coach Dave Henigan was an assistant at HP before leaving for Ryan, where he was a longtime offensive coordinator before returning as head coach in 2014.

That won’t mean a lot on Saturday, but he was on the Raiders sideline when the teams met in the state semifinals in 2003, when Ryan claimed a 45-24 win and earned a title the following week.

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