STRAFFORD –– Eric Sloan said he didn’t set a goal for victories in his first season guiding the Houston High School football program.
“We wanted the kids to compete and fight,” Sloan said.
The Tigers did.
Although the 2015 campaign ended Friday night with a 46-20 loss to Strafford in the opening round of Class 2 District 3, HHS had plenty of positives as the season came to an end.
The biggest, Sloan said, was his players’ commitment to him and the program. Led by a group of 16 seniors, the Tigers went 4-6 to eclipse the win totals of the previous five years combined.
Sloan credited the senior class with leading the way as the community rallied behind the catchphrase #restoretheroar.
“We didn’t have to sell this thing. They bought in from day one,” he said. “As a new coach, sometimes you don’t win the kids. We had their attention and they bought in.
“They are such a special group. They’re the backbone of where the program is and the direction we’re going. It kills me to say goodbye to them.”
The postseason started strong for the fifth-seeded Tigers. On Strafford’s third offensive play, senior Matt Knarr picked off a pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.
Despite giving up an 86-yard score on the ensuing kickoff, the Tigers were still in great shape when freshman Paydon Dixon connected with Whitley Welch to make it 14-12 early in the second quarter.
But many of the same problems that haunted Houston during the regular season were issues in the postseason.
The offense became stagnant and committed four turnovers. And the defense couldn’t slow a spread offense –– led by 205 passing yards by Chanler Collins and 196 rushing yards from Jacob Eden.
“We’re a broken record,” Sloan said. “We continued to beat ourselves.”
HHS got a glimpse into its future as Dixon was thrust into the lineup for senior Nathan Poynter, who sat out due to a violation of team rules. Dixon completed 8 of 17 passes for one score and a pair of interceptions.
“I thought he did a great job for us,” Sloan said. “He proved he wouldn’t back down. I think he’s going to be a really good one.”
Strafford outgained the Tigers 417-223 to advance to the district semifinals. The No. 4 Indians (5-5) face top-seeded Liberty, which beat Pleasant Hope 82-12, on Friday. The other district semifinal has No. 3 Diamond traveling to second-seeded Fair Grove.
The HHS offense was led by junior Chance Hunter, who had 17 carries for 102 yards. With a 37-yard touchdown scamper with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left in the game, Hunter surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the season.
“He played with a bullseye on him all year,” Sloan said. “To hit that 1,000-yard mark, that’s pretty remarkable. He had a great season.”
The 2015 season was hardly over before Sloan was focused on building on this year’s momentum. He said the offseason –– beginning with weights and conditioning in January –– will be critical to the program.
Houston’s last winning record was a 6-5 mark under coach Chris Edwards in 2008. That season was also the last time the Tigers won a district game.
“We don’t have time to rebuild. We’ve got to reload and pick up next year right where we left off,” Sloan said. “We’ve got to have a great offseason, especially graduating as many guys as we do.”
HOU –– Knarr 46 interception return (LKelley kick), 9:19.
STR –– Eden 86 kickoff return (kick failed), 9:06.
STR –– Novakovich 41 pass from Collins (run failed), 3:41.
HOU –– WWelch 20 pass from Dixon (LKelley kick), 11:22.
STR –– Eden 1 run (kick failed), 9:04.
STR –– Collins 2 run (Eden pass from Collins), 0:49.
STR –– White 16 pass from Collins (Morton kick), 9:41.
STR –– Eden 20 run (Morton kick), 3:54.
HOU –– Hunter 37 run (kick failed), 2:44.
STR –– Eden 25 run (kick failed), 1:43.
RUSHING – Houston, Hunter 17-102, Knarr 3-34, Logan 5-13, ASchock 1-8, EKelley 2-2, Dixon 12-(minus 21). Strafford, Eden 32-196, Novakovich 1-12, Collins 9-4.
PASSING – Houston, Dixon 8-17-2 85. Strafford, Collins 10-16-1 205, White 0-2-0 0.
RECEIVING – Houston, EKelley 3-34, WWelch 1-20, Knarr 2-19, ASchock 1-10, Logan 1-2. Strafford, Novakovich 2-83, White 2-56, Galindo 2-26, Eden 3-22, Stoll 1-18.