Game Ball Honors: Best Texas High School Players of the State Semifinal Round

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Photo: Sara Carpenter/TexasHSFootball

EDITORS NOTE: Every week, TexasHSFootball will present their official game ball honors to those that were the most impactful under the Friday Night Lights. Our experts watched numerous games and decided on the very best that the UIL State Semifinal round had to offer.

Please post your game ball honorees below and tag @texashsfootball and use the hashtag #GameBallHonors through our various social media channels. Readers can also submit suggestions via email at [email protected] (no later than 4 p.m. each Sunday). 

We’ll be sure to keep an eye on all suggestions — and possibly name them a Texas HS Football Game Ball Honoree or an Honorable Mention.

The Texarkana Pleasant Grove Defense

Texarkana Pleasant Grove punched their ticket to the state final in dominating fashion with a relentless defensive swarm that neutralized a potent Graham squad and down it 45-14.

From the opening whistle, Pleasant Grove set the tone with a huge hit on the quarterback that seemed to pretty much upset the rhythm of the offense the entire night. Its defense nearly pitched a complete game shutout and tallied a total of six sacks to give themselves one more final game in what has been a historic season. – Tim Verghese

Tanner Patino (RB, Brock) and Dawson Littlepage (RB/LB, Brock)
Dawson Littlepage scored two touchdowns — one offensive and one defensive — to help propel the Eagles into their second state title game in three years. Sherry Milliken/TexasHSFootball
In a game that nobody expected the Eagles to be in, the duo dominated on both sides of the ball.
Littlepage broke the game open on the first drive with a 53-yard run to get Brock in the red zone on the third play of the game. The two totaled for 189 yards and three touchdowns on offense, while both accounted for a turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
Patino recorded an interception while Littlepage recovered a fumble and took it in for a touchdown. These two will be very hard to stop in their upcoming state championship. -Nolan Ruth 
Trai Gardner (WR/FS, Tenaha)
Gardner totaled four touchdowns — three offensive and one defensive — during Tenaha’s state semifinal rout of Burton High School. Blake Dunbar/TexasHSFootball
To say the Tenaha was Trai Gardner-powered may be a bit of an understatement.
During the Tigers’ 60-22 dispatching of Burton High School during the UIL Class 2A Division II state semifinals, Gardner had a 96-yard pick-6, two touchdown runs of 65 and 71 yards and a 53-yard touchdown reception. In possibly the finest performance of his prep career, the senior totaled more than 390 yards and four touchdowns — including 159 on four receptions.
His 65 yards rushing were the highest total since Tenaha’s 40-6 regular season victory against Timpson (5 rush, 93 yards, TD) and his receiving total was the third highest of the season (he had 178 against West Sabine on Oct. 6 and 222 against Wortham on Oct. 20). Gardner’s back-breaking interception return gave him the team lead in the statistic with three.  – Marcus Matthews-Marion

Matthew Barnhill (LB, Waco Midway)

Barnhill (10) and his game-sealing interception topped Longview’s bid for a state championship berth. Photo courtesy Waco Tribune-Herald

Waco Midway and Longview provided arguably the best semifinal game this past weekend that came down to a field goal in the winding seconds which benefited the Waco Midway squad as they won 28-26.

In what was a sloppy affair at times with weather playing a factor in the ability to handle the ball, loose balls, and turnovers were inevitable.

Perhaps one of the biggest turnovers came in the form of linebacker Matthew Barnhill, whose interception put a damper on Longview’s drive late in the fourth quarter that helped preserve the 28-26 lead at that moment in the game before the wild finish commenced in this playoff classic. – Jonathan Rodriguez

Jace Terry (QB, Mart)

Jay Crain/TexasHSFootball
Mart is through to the state title game for the first time since 2009, after prevailing in a game which despite appearing one-sided on the scoreboard, was a closely fought chess match. Stratford ended up with more yards than the Panthers, but Mart prevailed in a 20 point win, in large part to the performance of Terry.
Though the senior rusher accounted for only 89 yards on the ground on 14 carries, the three touchdowns scored was key in the win. Terry also completed four passes for 56 yards and an additional score, a 42-yard pass to Zamar Kirven in a hard-fought first quarter. Mart faces their toughest challenge yet with a dynamic Refugio bunch, but the presence of Terry ensures the Panthers are up to the task. – Blake Wood

The Manvel Defense

Manvel’s defense held one of the best running back duos in the state — BJ Foster and TaMerik Williams — to 3.1 yards per carry. Prentice James/TexasHSFootball

With a stout front seven and ball-hawking secondary, the Manvel defense held Angleton to 253 total yards in a decisive 35-10 victory in the Class 5A Division 1 state semifinal game at NRG Stadium in Houston.  

Angleton came into the match averaging nearly 440 yards per game of total offense, but Manvel’s tenacious push up front and blanket pass coverage held the Wildcats offense in check.  Angleton’s rushing attack featuring BJ Foster and TaMerik Williams could only manage 3.1 yards per carry on the night, down from a season average of 9 yards per tote.  

Manvel looks to continue its stellar play this Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington at 7pm against Highland Park in the Class 5A Division 1 state championship game.  – Prentice James

Darwin Barlow (RB, Newton)

Barlow’s performance helped top Boling High School and offer Mart an opportunity to win its fifth state title. James Ellis/TexasHSFootball

Newton outpaced Boling on their way to its fifth state championship appearance. The Eagles overcame a tough first quarter, and another big Vernon Jackson performance, pulling away in the final three quarters to win 56-28.

At the half, they led 33-21, and when Boling scored early in the third quarter and things looked doubtful, Darwin Barlow happened.

Barlow and the Newton offense scored 23 straight points to pull away — with the feature back adding two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to eliminate any comeback hopes. He finished with 164 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries.

Barlow’s last game of his junior campaign may be the biggest ever — the state championship against reigning state champions, Gunter. With a state title on the line, the electric youngster will need to be ready to show up on the big stage. – Tim Verghese

Garrett Wilson (RB/WR, Lake Travis)

Lake Travis’ Garrett Wilson scored a trio of touchdowns — one of them via the unconventional route. Ozzy Jaime/TexasHSFootball

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the junior — who has 2,109 yards rushing yards this season — still has one year left in his varsity career.

Wilson did his best Kenny “Trill” Hill College Football Week 3 impression against Katy Saturday night, tallying a touchdown receiving, rushing and passing during Lake Travis’ 6A state semifinal victory.

Despite an injury to starting gunslinger Matthew Baldwin, Wilson caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from his replacement, Hudson Card, found Card 32 yards away for a score and added a 2-yard rumble to his game resume. Wilson, a weapon among many in the Cavaliers’ arsenal, finished with 119 yards and led all receivers in catches with eight. – Marcus Matthews-Marion

Daylan Bower (QB, Gunter)

Gunter quarterback Daylan Bower ran for four touchdowns in the state semifinal win over Canadian. Lauren Landes/TexasHSFootball

Even though he’s listed as a quarterback, Gunter quarterback Daylan Bower made his mark on the ground. The senior ran for four rushing touchdowns as the Tigers racked up more than 300 rushing yards in the state semifinal win over Canadian.

The win extended Gunter’s winning streak to 31 games and will face Newton in the Class 3A Division II state semifinals. – Tony Venegas

Jalen Catalon (QB, Mansfield Legacy)
Lezley Norris/TexasHSFootball
Despite the loss, Catalon gave all four quarters of his heart trying to get the Broncos into the state championship.
He made big plays early in the game that gave Legacy a 14-point lead in the first half. On Aledo’s first drive of the game, the attempted field goal fell short and Catalon returned it 9 yards into his own end zone and returned it down to the Aledo 2-yard line, setting up an eventual touchdown.

After Aledo tied the game, he took the ball from his own 14-yard line and broke through the defense for an 86-yard touchdown run. After a heck of a game to end his junior year, his junior year will be one to watch. – Nolan Ruth

Daymond Williams (DT, Cedar Ridge)

Williams (90) tallied five sacks during the last contest of his 2017 campaign. James Ellis/TexasHSFootball

The Cedar Ridge came up short in its first ever State Semifinal appearance to traditional powerhouse Allen 28-7 on Saturday, but defensive end Daymond Williams wasn’t going down without a fight. Williams was is the Eagles backfield all night long and had Allen quarterback Grant Tisdale running for his life.

Williams and sacked Tisdale five times during the game and four of those sacks came in the first half. The Eagles were able to make an adjustment at halftime to keep Williams somewhat at bay, but that allowed fellow Raiders to elude blocks and bring down Tisdale.

Williams was able to get his hands on Tisdale one last time for good measure in the fourth quarter, bringing his total to five solo sacks on the night. – Garrett Ross

Cade Saustad (WR, Highland Park), Conner Allen (RB, Highland Park)

Lauren Landes/TexasHSFootball

A lot of hubbub is made about the arm strength and scrambling ability of Arkansas commit John Stephen Jones, but, in reality, it was his receiver and running back that made the biggest difference.

Saustad and Allen were dangerous through the air and on the ground, testing the edges of Denton Ryan‘s defense and pounding it in the middle of the field. While the former accumulated almost 100 yards and racked on a trio of touchdowns in the first 24 minutes, the later added the finishing touches to spoil the Raiders’ bid for a state championship run.

Saustad, a senior receiver, finished with 104 yards and three touchdowns and brought his season total to 1,374 and 19 respectively. Allen, recently offered by Southern Methodist University, had one of the most poignant performances of his prep career after gaining 110 all-purpose yards (76 rec, 34 rush) and scoring two touchdowns — on his birthday.

While Manvel’s defense is highly touted, Saustad and Allen join a group of offensive weapons that may make Highland Park too difficult to stop. – Marcus Matthews Marion

Daryon Ramirez (RB, Refugio)

Daryon Ramirez eclipsed 200 yards during Refugio’s state semifinal win against San Augustine. Prentice James/TexasHSFootball

Looking to punch its ticket to a third straight state championship final, Refugio’s ground-and-pound attack enabled senior running back Daryon Ramirez to rush for 235 yards and one touchdown en route to a 63-21 victory over San Augustine in the Class 2A Division I state semifinal game at Cy-Fair FCU Stadium in Cypress.  

Refugio will now face Mart 7 p.m. on Wednesday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington at as it looks to repeat as Class 2A Division 1 state champions.   – Prentice James

Cy-Fair’s Defense

Vance Valentine/TexasHSFootball

The Bobcats defense lived up to the hype in their toughest matchup yet. Facing perennial power Austin Westlake, the Cy-Fair defense stepped up and made themselves known.

They held Wisconsin running back commit Nakia Watson to just 51 yards on the night. Watson, one of the most physical backs in the country, was forced to fight for every yard and finished with an average of 3.2 yards per carry with a long of nine. The Bobcats worked to shut him down, then went on to shut down the passing game. Taylor Anderson, who’d thrown for more than 1,000 yards entering the game, was held to just 101 yards and was picked off.

The front seven of the Bobcats, led by linebacker Patrick Atkinson who finished with 11 tackles and two sacks, harassed Anderson. He sacked him three times and pressured him to move outside the pocket, where the secondary clamped down and only allowed him to complete it nine times and picking him off once.

The Bobcats hit hard and left the Chaparrals bruised and beaten, in a clutch situation, as Westlake was poised for a comeback threat, the Bobcats knocked out Tate Young after a 9-yard catch, forcing a fumble that sealed the victory.

As they head on towards Waco Midway and Oklahoma quarterback commit Tanner Mordecai, they’ll have to clamp down on yet another powerful offense once again.  – Tim Verghese

Larry Brooks (DB, Kennedale) and the Wildcat Defense 

Free safety Ector Rivera lands a hit onStephenvillel quarterback Easton Jones during Friday night’s state semifinal at AT&T Stadium. Staci Otts/TexasHSFootball

Everyone focuses on offense –  quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers,  punishing offensive linemen that pave the road, and, of course, touchdowns. While each is important to the final that flashes on the scoreboard, defense can define a season and claim championship firsts.

As it has done all season, Kennedale used its defensive unit to dispatch another high-powered opponent, this time in the form of Graham and quarterback Easton Jones, the state-ranked Yellowjackets’ 5,000-yard passer. Though senior threw for 129 yards above his per game average of 225, he was sacked seven times and flushed out of the pocket and into uncomfortable positions and untimely throws.

Three of those sacks belonged to Jaden Myers and a crucial, momentum-shifting interception was forced by Brooks on a deft leap in front of a Graham receiver. The Wildcats’ championship round opponent, Carthage, may be more focused on Evan Jowers, DJ Kirven, Jaden Knowles, and Kennedale’s triple-option offense, they should be well-aware of a defense that can wreak havoc and shorten fields and drives. – Marcus Matthews Marion

Jase McClellan (RB, Aledo)
McClellan rushed for more than 200 yards during Aledo’s state semifinal rally over Mansfield Legacy. Joseph Nguyen/TexasHSFootball 
Facing the largest deficit the Bearcats had faced all season, McClellan went to work on what was his busiest game this season.
After a mistake-filled first half, the offensive coordinator for Aledo decided to return to what had worked all season. A large dosage of McLellan, who had 31 carries in the ballgame for 207 yards and three touchdowns. His last touchdown came with 1:37 left in the game to give Aledo the 28-21 lead — and turn out to be the decider.
Former Aledo running back Johnathan Gray says that the bruising back is a better running back than he was at that age. McClellan will look to have a huge game and help push Alegoto a state championship. – Nolan Ruth

College Station’s Rushing Attack 

Vance Valentine/TexasHSFootball

College Station has had one of the most electric offenses in the postseason, averaging 50 points per game on their way to the state championship. Quarterback Marquez Perez is a threat with his arm and even more dangerous on the ground.

Paired with speedy running back DaDa Anderson, the twosome strikes fear in the best defensive coordinators.

This week, the competition was undefeated McCallum. Perez and Anderson combined for 257 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, and Perez added 241 yards and two more touchdowns through the air, torching a McCallum defense that hadn’t allowed more than 24 points in the playoffs.

McCallum’s dream season ended at the hands and legs of the College Station offense, which imposed its will early. On the Cougars’ first drive — just 41 seconds into the game — Perez took off, leaving defenders in the dust for a 38-yard touchdown to open up the scoring.

As the duo now looks to Aledo, the speedy backfield will have to muster up a big performance on last time in their high school careers.  – Tim Verghese

Danny Luttmer (WR/CB, Muenster)

Photo courtesy Gainesville Daily Register

Even though he’s just a sophomore, Danny Luttmer came up with three of the biggest plays of the game in the second half of the state semifinal win over Wellington. 

Luttmer intercepted a Skyrocket pass at its own 1-yard line that eventually set up a Hornet score. He also came up with the biggest offensive play of the game, an 81-yard touchdown pass on third and 26. Finally, he made the game-sealing interception with under two minutes left in the game to close the door on Wellington.

The big second half has propelled the Hornets to their first-ever state championship game, where they will face off against Tenaha on Thursday. – Tony Venegas

Kennedale’s Running Game and Richard Barrett’s Brilliant Mind

Kennedale Head Coach Richard Barret has led the Wildcats to 49 wins and seven losses in the last four seasons. Staci Otts/TexasHSFootball

Credit must be given when credit is due.

And while Kirven’s near 400-yard performance and Knowles’ two-touchdown effort were the weapons that dealt Graham a swift blow, the genius behind the game plan lied in the brilliance of Richard Barret.

Whether it was the brash calling offensive plays on 4th and long or mixing in uncanny passes from Evan Jowers — one of which fell into the hands of Jaden Smith for a 22-yard touchdown. Barret affected the game from the sideline, finding holes in the Yellowjacket defense for long runs and longer scores.

Kennedale running back Jaden Knowles streaks down the field for one of his two touchdown runs. Staci Otts/TexasHSFootball

With Jowers, Kirven, Knowles, and a hulking and battle-tested offensive line, Barret’s Wildcats steamrolled their way to 585 total yards and the first state title berth in Kennedale history. Without all three assets of their offense — the pass, run, and coaching — the Wildcats might have been watching the state championship game from their couches rather than preparing for a battle with Associated Press No. 1 Carthage on Friday. – Marcus Matthews-Marion

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