The turnover margin told the tale of the game on Friday night as the Denton Ryan defense forced four turnovers in a commanding 59-14 victory over Cedar Park in the 5A Division I state title game.
“I’m just real proud of the way our kids played. They played so hard and prepared all week like a mature championship football team should: stayed in the moment, got better every day, locked in on the game plan. And our coaching staff did a great job,” Denton Ryan head coach Dave Henigan said. “I’m just really proud of our kids. The effort was unbelievable. We had so many effort plays on both sides of the ball.”
For Denton Ryan, it was the school’s first state title since 2002. The victory was just that much sweeter for the Raiders considering that they exorcised their demons from a 28-22 loss in the state final to Shadow Creek a year ago.
“My freshmen and sophomore year: state semifinals and last year we lost in the state game. I just remember everything that went through my head after losing that game. When we came back, not knowing if we’d have a season or not, our coaches just preached to us,” Denton Ryan receiver Billy Bowman Jr. said. “I just feel like everyone on this team has been locked in, has been having one goal on their mind for the whole season. So it’s really been a team effort the whole time and that’s how we got the job done.”
The Raiders never trailed in this one as they opened the scoring with a field goal before running back Ke’Ori Hicks found paydirt on a 13-yard run to put Denton Ryan up 10-0 with just under two minutes to go in the first quarter.
Cedar Park got its footing underneath itself after that as Ryder Hernandez rolled right before throwing across his body to the middle of the end zone to Jack Hestera for an 11-yard touchdown. Hernandez then lobbed a pass to Josh Cameron for the two-point conversion to cut the deficit to 10-8.
Then came the Ryan avalanche.
First, Seth Henigan found Keagan Cunningham, who tightroped the sideline for a 52-yard touchdown to put Ryan up 17-8.
It was the biggest play on a good night for Cunningham as he would go on to finish as Ryan’s leading receiver with three catches for 79 yards.
Then after Ryan safety Ty Marsh picked off Ryder Hernandez near the sideline, Henigan struck again as he found Bowman over the top of the Timberwolves defense for a 37-yard touchdown.
The Raiders weren’t done with that interception-touchdown combo either.
Ryan’s defense came up with another big play as Garyreon Robinson picked off a tipped pass and returned it all the way into the red zone. Ryan made quick work of the short field as Anthony Hill Jr. barreled into the end zone from two yards out as the Raiders began to give themselves some more cushion, up 31-8.
With the game slipping away from Cedar Park, Denton Ryan slammed the door shut with the play of the game of the next drive. With the ball at the Denton Ryan 30 yard line, Hernandez found Cameron for a big completion. Cameron looked to wrestle away from Marsh for the score, but, just as Cameron was about to cross the goalline, Marsh ripped the ball away and recovered it for a huge forced turnover.
“The play that [Marsh] made where he was beat and he came back and stripped that ball, that pretty much sums up what he does. He’s an all-out guy. He’s super talented, he’s active, he can cover, he can blitz. But that is an effort play. That’s all that is,” Henigan said. “Ty Marsh’s play tonight, that will go down as one of those stories that gets told around the hallways of the Ryan fieldhouse forever.”
For Cedar Park, it was a punch to the gut just as the Timberwolves were clawing their way back into the game.
“It was a tough break for us because we had a little bit of momentum, had them on their heels a little bit,” Cedar Park head coach Carl Abseck said. “I felt like we were kind of gassing their defensive front because we were moving with tempo. It’s just unfortunate.”
The second half started much the same. Hernandez scrambled around near his own goal line, trying to make a play with his legs, but he was stripped of the football by Anthony Hill Jr. and Ryan defensive end MarQuice Hill Jr. recovered the loose ball for the score to extend Ryan’s lead to 38-8 just two minutes into the third quarter.
Ryan kept its pedal to the metal and struck again two minutes later as Henigan found Michael Davis for a 29-yard score to put the game beyond doubt with Ryan in front 45-8.
Henigan finished with 264 yards passing and four touchdowns on the night, earning Offensive MVP honors.
“When you play quarterback at Denton Ryan, there are very high expectations. When you play quarterback at Denton Ryan and you’re the coach’s kid, there’s even a higher expectation and a lot more unfair criticism,” Henigan said of his son. “All he has done is just ball out for three years. For him to finish the way he did making plays, and making plays with his legs and extending plays, it’s awesome. There’s two quarterbacks in the history of this school who have won a state championship: James Battle and Seth Henigan. That tells you all you need to know.”
Cedar Park added a consolation score as Hernandez found Cade Haught for a nine-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter, but Ja’Tavion Sanders caught a five-yard fade pass from Henigan and Ke’Ori Hicks added a five-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to put out Cedar Park’s flame and seal Ryan’s 45-point victory.
Even though it was not the ending that Cedar Park wanted, the Timberwolves still have plenty of reasons to hold their heads high after a 14-1 season.
“I couldn’t be any more proud of our kids for the season that they’ve had. Tonight didn’t necessarily go our way and we had some uncharacteristic mistakes and whatnot but it doesn’t diminish what our kids accomplished this year, going through probably the most difficult football season in history, and also the longest,” Abseck said. “I’m super proud of our kids, our coaches, our community. Sometimes things just don’t go your way.”
For Ryan, after 18 long years and plenty of heartbreak in between, the Raiders now have another state title to celebrate.
“In a year where there has been so much strife on a lot of people, to be a small part to bring something special and something positive back to [Southeast Denton], I couldn’t be more proud to be part of it,” Henigan said. “Obviously I’m the leader, but I’m just a small part of it. My coaching staff deserves a ton of credit and obviously these kids deserve all the credit.”