ARLINGTON —If you weren’t ready for an instant classic wrapped in heart-attack gift wrapping, John Stephen Jones and Spencer Sanders brought you up to speed quick, fast and in a hurry Friday night at AT&T Stadium.
The two quarterbacks led their teams to a combined 49 first-half points during a 45-35 finish that sent Highland Park High School to the state championship game for the second consecutive year.
If you ask senior running back Conner Allen, though, it was a special component that propelled them to the promised land of high school football.
“We didn’t have one person pick us to win this game but we didn’t feel like the underdog. Everyone said we were going to lose this game and we still didn’t feel like the underdog,” said Allen, who found out after the game his birthday falls on the same day as Sanders.
Not giving up meant rallying after score after Denton Ryan score and several attempted knockout punches from Raider team looking to land a game-ending left hook early.
“We knew we were the better team, that we were going to win. We just had to work our butts off to do it,” he continued. “We got grit. We have a lot of winners on this team. A lot of guys who don’t know how to give up.”
First the Scots survived Sanders’ 1-yard touchdown and his 34-yard strike to Gabriel Douglas. Then they weathered the furious flurry of Chritauskie Dove 36-yard leaping receptions over two Highland Park defenders with 8:59 left in the second quarter.
Back-to-back touchdown passes to Saustad — his third of the half — and Carson Bryant earned Highland Park a lead it would never relinquish. Allen’s two touchdowns and 110 total yards helped first stretch the lead and then put any hopes of possible Raider rally to rest.
Two turnovers via a second-quarter interception by Ryan Coxe and via an Elliot Newsom fumble recovery may have played an equally large, if not larger, role in the win.
“I can count on that defense every single time I step on that field. “There’s never a time I don’t think they won’t get a stop for me,” Jones said of his defense’s heroics.
Highland Park allowed 427 yards — the Raiders’ total yardage this season — and 35 points scored — Denton Ryan’s second least. The Scots countered with Jones’ 377 yards and five touchdowns on 25 of 36 passing and Cade Saustad’s eight receptions, 104 yards and three touchdowns.
“We knew we had to score because they were going to score,” said Randy Allen, Highland Park’s head football coach. “We had to take some risks but John Stephen was hot and we were able to swap scores with them. We got field goal [from Matteo Cordray] and an interception— we didn’t get a touchdown because of a penalty but we got a field goal that put us up 10 — to end the half, which were big turning points in the game.”
Sanders finished 18 0f 28 for 256 yards, three touchdowns, and the one interception. His leading receiver was Chritauskie Dove, who hauled in seven catches for 107 yards and touchdowns.
Against Mansfield Lake Ridge High School in the state quarterfinals, Highland Park’s defense forced three turnovers and produced key drive-halting tackles. One such play included a diving tackle that stopped the Eagles on fourth-down.
And just when they needed it, the identity of grit that had carried them through battles with Mansfield Timberview, North Forney, Rockwall, Texarkana Texas and West Mesquite High Schools, came roaring back to the forefront.
“We’re the Highland Park Scots,” said Randy Allen, who has a chance to become the first head coach in Highland Park history to win back-to-back titles, about his team’s identity. “What else can you say? We work hard and we play hard. It’s as simple as that.”
Highland Park will play Manvel High School in the UIL Class 6A Division I Championship next Friday at AT&T Stadium.
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