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Ja’Tavion Sanders to play for a state title today

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The five-star 2021 athlete could become the 8th Longhorn commit in four seasons to win a Texas state football championship.

Ja’Tavion Sanders will play in today’s Class 5A Division I state championship game.
247Sports — Collin Kennedy

Amidst all the excitement around the hiring of new Texas Longhorns head football coach Steve Sarkisian, the speculation around which assistants will fill out his first staff in Austin, and discussion of which 2021 recruiting targets the new staff may be able to land in the few weeks that remain before the second National Signing Day, it would be easy to miss the fact that one member of UT’s 2021 signing class still has one game left to play.

The University Interscholastic League (UIL) will hold its football state championship games for Class 6A and Class 5A today and Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Normally these games would have taken place the weekend before Christmas, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic the UIL elected to push back the start of the 2020 football season for all 6A and 5A schools by four weeks.

The two 5A state championship games today and the two 6A championship games on Saturday will all be broadcast live on Fox Sports Southwest and the Fox Sports Go app, a fact I mention for the benefit of the 8 people who may be reading this who have a streaming plan that actually carries Fox Sports Southwest these days.

Five-star athlete and Texas Longhorns signee Ja’Tavion Sanders will attempt to become the latest in a long line of future Longhorns to win a state championship when he and his Denton Ryan teammates face off against Cedar Park tonight in the Class 5A Division I state final.

Out of the Longhorns’ current group of 22 signees or commits from the 2021 and 2022 classes, Sanders is the only one who will be playing this weekend. Running back signee Jonathon Brooks played in the 3A Division I championship four weeks ago, but his Hallettsville team lost in overtime. I’ll have a full recap next week that will cover how each of the program’s other commits fared in the 2020 high school football season.

Sanders plays both ways at defensive end and wide receiver for Denton Ryan, and has been a playmaker wherever he’s lined up this season. During his senior season he has caught 15 touchdown passes, run for three more, passed for one, and had a highlight reel interception return for a TD as well.

His heroics have helped the Ryan Raiders reach the 5A Division I state championship game for a second straight season. In 2019 the Raiders steamrolled over every team in their path, winning their first 15 games by an average margin of 41 points and knocking off Class 5A’s top-ranked team Frisco Lone Star in the semifinals to reach the state championship, but they fell short in the final to Alvin Shadow Creek, 28-22.

The 2020 Ryan Raiders haven’t blown out opponents with the same ferocity as their 2019 counterparts did, but they will go into the state championship undefeated at 14-0 and have been the top-ranked team in Class 5A Division I since the season commenced in late September.

They opened the season with an impressive 47-24 win over perennial Class 6A playoff team Arlington Martin, home of Sanders’s fellow 2021 Longhorn signee LB Morice Blackwell. A week later, Ryan beat 6A program Denton Guyer 23-20 in a cross-town battle of Denton ISD powerhouses. (Guyer and Martin would finish the regular season as the 13th and 14th-ranked teams in Class 6A.) Ryan then ran the table on its seven opponents in District 5-5A Division I by an average margin of 35 points, closing the regular season with a 35-21 win over Frisco Lone Star in a re-match from the 2019 state semifinals.

Once in the playoffs, they easily dispatched Dallas Bryan Adams 69-6 in the first round, then won three straight games against schools that won state championships within the previous three seasons. The Raiders beat College Station (the 2017 Class 5A Division II champion) in the area round by a score of 52-21, eliminated 8th-ranked Longview (the 2018 6A Division II state champion) 27-9 in the regional semifinals, then won a New Year’s Day regional championship battle with 2nd-ranked Highland Park (which won three straight 5A Division I titles from 2016-2018) by a score of 17-7.

In last week’s semifinal round Ryan got a tough challenge from a Mansfield Summit team that had caught fire in the postseason after essentially sneaking into the playoffs with a 4-4 regular season record. The Summit Jaguars opened their playoff run by knocking off Abilene Cooper, the champion of District 3-5A Division I, by a 49-28 score. They then survived three straight hard-fought battles with Amarillo Tascosa, Colleyville Heritage, and Red Oak, winning each of those games by three-point margins and reaching the state semifinals for the first time in program history after having previously advanced beyond the second round only once, way back in 2004.

Against Summit, Ryan held a 21-13 lead at halftime, and a TD on the opening drive of the second half extended that lead to 28-13. Later in the 3rd quarter the Raiders were driving and had a chance to make it a three-possession game, but that possession ended with a turnover on downs at the Summit 21-yard line, and one play later senior wide receiver and Auburn signee Hal Presley caught a 79-yard TD pass to cut Ryan’s lead to 28-20. On Summit’s next possession, QB David Hopkins ran for a two-yard TD to bring the Jaguars within one point at 28-27 with 10:09 left in regulation.

But Summit would get no closer than that. After a botched Summit punt gave Ryan the ball at the 12-yard line, a reverse pass from Ja’Tavion Sanders to senior QB Seth Henigan resulted in a TD to put the Raiders’ lead back at eight points at 35-27.

Summit’s ensuing drive ended in a pick-six that put Ryan ahead 42-27 with 6:10 remaining, and another Ryan TD in the final minutes made the score 49-27. Summit got one last TD with just under two minutes left to cut the deficit to 49-35, but added no points after that.

The win improved Ryan’s record to 14-0 and made it five consecutive seasons in which the Raiders have won at least 14 games, and the ninth time in the span of 20 seasons, going back to the first of their back-to-back state championship seasons in 2001-02. I believe Aledo is the only other team in the state that has had as many 14-win seasons within that stretch.

Standing in the way of Ryan winning its third state championship in school history is undefeated and 4th-ranked Cedar Park, which played its first varsity football season in 2000 and is likewise aiming for its third state title.

Cedar Park has been one of the state’s most successful programs for a full decade and is in the conversation for best non-6A program in central Texas over that time. After losing to eventual state champion Lake Travis in the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 by a combined margin of six points, Cedar Park broke through and won its first state title in 2012, beating Lancaster 17-7 in the Class 4A Division II championship.

Two years later, the Timberwolves again advanced to a state title game, facing Ennis in 2014’s 5A Division II championship. Cedar Park led 35-31 with under a minute left and had Ennis backed to their own 32-yard line and facing a 3rd-and-19, but Ennis converted for a first down on a hook-and-lateral that gained 32 yards, then scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 36-yard pass with 21 seconds left in regulation, and went on to win 38-35.

Cedar Park came back strong the following year and capped off an undefeated 16-0 season with a 22-7 win over Frisco Lone Star in the 5A Division II state championship. In the four years that followed the Cedar Park Timberwolves did not advance further than the third round of the playoffs, but in 2020 they have outscored their 14 opponents by an average margin of nearly 34 points, and their last two wins in the present postseason were over 5th-ranked Manvel in the regional finals, and 7th-ranked Corpus Christi Veterans Memorial in the state semifinals.

Denton Ryan has a distinct advantage when it comes to the number of Division I athletes on its roster. Four Raider seniors have already signed with FBS schools, and a few of their underclassmen are already highly sought-after. Cedar Park, by contrast, has no FBS signees at present, and no player from its 2022 or 2023 classes even has a 247Sports recruit profile. But the Timberwolves certainly do not lack good players.

Fresh off of battling Mansfield Summit left tackle and Texas Tech signee Jacoby Jackson, Ja’Tavion Sanders will likely spend many of his defensive snaps against Cedar Park tussling with senior left tackle Luke Williams, a three-year varsity starter who has reported three FBS offers and several others from quality FCS programs but remains unsigned.

Sanders and the Ryan defense will need to get pressure on Cedar Park’s QB Ryder Hernandez, who has completed 70% of his passes this season for 4,240 yards, 58 TDs, and just 2 interceptions on 398 attempts. Hernandez committed to Texas State for baseball in December 2019, but he has since received several football offers from FCS and Division II programs and apparently has yet to sign with anyone. [Correction: Hernandez has signed with Texas State for baseball.]

Hernandez’s most frequent targets are senior receivers Josh Cameron, Gunnar Abseck, and Jack Hestera, each of whom has at least 47 catches, 979 yards, and 14 receiving TDs this season. The effectiveness of Cedar Park’s defense, which has allowed just under 17 points per game, begins up front with its three-man defensive line of nose guard Murray Robinson and defensive ends Hunter Hewitt and Ian Ferguson. According to the team’s MaxPreps page, that trio has been credited with a combined 30 sacks and 86 tackles for loss.

With a win, Denton Ryan would take home its third state championship, and Ja’Tavion Sanders’s presence on the team would ensure the continuation of a streak that goes back to at least 1996; in every high school football season in that span there has been at least one state champion team that had a future Texas Longhorn on its roster.

A win would also make Sanders the third member of the Longhorns’ #trUTh21 class to win a state championship. Tight end signee Gunnar Helm played on Colorado’s back-to-back 5A state champion teams in 2019 and 2020, and linebacker signee Terrence Cooks was a member of Alvin Shadow Creek’s 2019 5A Division I championship squad.

The Denton Ryan-Cedar Park matchup is the only one out of this weekend’s four state championship games that involves two undefeated teams. The other three state finals all present intriguing storylines and will feature many athletes who will be playing football on Saturdays in the coming years.

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The first game of the weekend will be the 5A Division II championship between Aledo and Crosby at 1:00 today. Aledo is in a state championship game for the ninth time in 12 seasons, and the Bearcats have won back-to-back 5A Division II titles. With their championship win in 2019 they seized the state record for most football state crowns with 9, and a win today would guarantee that they keep that record at least another year, while a loss would potentially leave them sharing it with Katy and/or Southlake Carroll, both of which will be playing for their 9th state titles on Saturday in separate 6A championships.

Aledo’s opponent, Crosby (12-3), will be playing in just its second state championship in school history; the Cougars previously lost 20-0 to Albany in the 1960 Class 1A state final. Crosby has had some talented teams in recent memory, and made it as far as the state semifinals in 2014, but it also missed the playoffs as recently as two seasons ago. This is actually only the second season in program history in which Crosby has won more than 11 games.

Aledo was ranked 2nd in Class 5A Division II going into the playoffs, while Crosby was unranked.

Aledo’s last three playoff foes were Wichita Falls Rider, Lovejoy, and Frisco, which went into the postseason ranked 9th, 8th, and 10th, respectively. Aledo is 12-1 and its only regular season loss was to Class 6A Division II state finalist Cedar Hill.

Crosby, meanwhile, was 7-3 in the regular season but has beaten four ranked teams in the playoffs, two of them in overtime games. The Cougars’ wins in rounds two through five came against #5 Texarkana Texas (62-42), #4 Huntsville (32-29 in OT), #3 Fort Bend Marshall (37-28), and #7 Liberty Hill (62-61 in OT).

Aledo’s 2022 four-star safety Bryan Allen, an LSU commit, is the only unsigned player in this game that has a Texas offer.

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At 1:00 on Saturday afternoon, Cedar Hill and Katy will meet in the 6A Division II state championship for the fourth time in nine seasons. Katy bested Cedar Hill in the 2012 state final, but Cedar Hill beat Katy to win state titles in back-to-back years in 2013 and 2014. At the conclusion of the regular season, Texas Football ranked Cedar Hill and Katy 8th and 9th, respectively, among Class 6A teams.

Katy has won eight state championships, most recently in 2015 behind an all-time great defensive unit that allowed just 62 points all season and had only two opponents that managed to score more than 7 points against them.

Katy is 12-1 this season and its only loss was a 24-19 defeat in early November to a Katy Tompkins team quarterbacked by erstwhile Longhorn commit Jalen Milroe, who has signed with Alabama. The Tigers’ only playoff win over a ranked opponent was a 49-24 beating of #21 Alvin Shadow Creek (last year’s 5A Division I state champion) in the second round.

Cedar Hill has three state championships to its name and, like Katy, is 12-1 this season. The Longhorns’ only defeat was a 28-14 district loss to 2nd-ranked Duncanville in November. They have won playoff games over #22 Tomball Memorial and #13 Denton Guyer. In the third round Cedar Hill needed overtime to escape with a 27-24 win over Rockwall-Heath, a team that early in the season scored 52 points against eventual 6A Division I state finalist Southlake Carroll, and which suffered its only other regular season loss to a Rockwall team that gave Carroll its only loss of 2020.

A trio of juniors at Katy have Texas offers: four-star defensive end Malick Sylla, four-star cornerback Bobby Taylor (son of the former longtime NFL defensive back of the same name), and three-star WR Nicholas Anderson (whose older brother Rodney Anderson played running back at Oklahoma).

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And on Saturday night at 7:00 pm will be the game many people are calling the Dodge Bowl, as the 6A Division I state championship will pit Austin Westlake and Southlake Carroll teams that are coached by former Texas Longhorn QB Todd Dodge (Westlake) and his son Riley Dodge (Carroll).

The last time Westlake and Carroll met in a state championship was in 2006, when a Todd Dodge-coached Carroll team beat Westlake (his wife’s alma mater) by a score of 43-29, with Riley playing QB for the Carroll Dragons. That win was the last of three consecutive championships won by the Dragons under Dodge, before he left the high school ranks to start his ill-fated tenure as head coach at North Texas.

Carroll has won eight state titles overall, and is 8-1 in its previous championship game appearances.

Westlake, which won last year’s 6A Division II state title, has reached the state championship in nine previous seasons, and this is only the second time they’ve played for a title in consecutive years. The Chaparrals previously won the 5A Division II championship in 1996 on the arm of a lightly-recruited QB named Drew Brees, who happens to turn 42 today.

Along with Carroll-Westlake having a very rare father vs. son matchup in a state championship, it will also feature dueling Longhorn offers at QB, with five-star recruit and former UT commit turned Ohio State pledge Quinn Ewers leading Carroll, and four-star prospect Cade Klubnik receiving the snaps for Westlake.

Klubnik has passed for over 3,200 yards and thrown for 34 TDs against just 3 INTs while adding another 13 TDs on the ground. His top target is sophomore Jaden Greathouse, who also holds a Texas offer and has caught 64 passes for 1,050 yards and 12 TDs this season.

Westlake is unbeaten at 13-0 and was ranked #3 in Class 6A entering the playoffs. The Chaparrals have outscored opponents 685-72 this season, and their 24-21 semifinal win last week over top-ranked and two-time defending 6A Division I champion Galena Park North Shore was the first time this season in which a foe had played them to within 33 points.

Carroll is 12-1 and was without Ewers for a number of games due to injury, but they were carried by other offensive weapons. Receivers Brady Boyd (a Minnesota signee), Landon Samson, and R.J. Maryland have combined for 155 catches, 2,840 yards, and 43 TDs through the air. Sophomore running back Owen Allen has compiled over 2,200 yards from scrimmage and 27 total TDs.

The Dragons were ranked 19th in Class 6A going into the playoffs but got to the state championship game by scoring playoff wins in consecutive weeks over #14 Arlington Martin (30-26), #23 Euless Trinity (59-35), and #2 Duncanville (34-27).

A win by Westlake would give Todd Dodge a coaching state championship in three different decades, while a win by Carroll would make the Dodges the third family to have a father and son both coach teams to Texas state titles. A Carroll win would also give Riley Dodge state championship rings as both a player and a head coach. I have no idea how elite that fraternity is.