With only two returning starters to the 2016 Houston High School football team, second-year coach Eric Sloan isn’t certain what to expect in Friday’s season opener.
“It’ll either be really scary or just fine,” Sloan said. “I think it will be one extreme or the other.”
Fresh off the program’s most successful season in nearly a decade, the Tigers open a new campaign at home against Ash Grove. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Tiger Stadium.
Sloan said season openers are always emotional. For his young team, he expects the emotions to be multiplied.
“In our case, we’ll have a lot of guys with jitters,” he said. “Hopefully we use that in a positive way and don’t just pee down both legs and watch bad things happen.”
Sloan got a glimpse at his team last Friday night in a three-team jamboree with Mountain Grove and Strafford. The Tigers got 12 offensive and defensive snaps with Mountain Grove but their session with Strafford was cut short by lightning.
Houston gave up a touchdown to Trystan Short –– one of the region’s fastest players –– on Mountain Grove’s first play and a couple other scores.
Sloan said he thought his team wasn’t prepared for the speed of the game. He is focused on fixing it this week in practice.
“We have to get off the ball,” Sloan said. “As young as we are with experience, our scout team is obviously that much younger. So practice seems to be a slower tempo. We’ve been harping getting off the ball and going fast, just like we saw from Mountain Grove. There’s a big difference between a scout team and an all-state sprinter.”
The Tigers’ offense failed to score against Mountain Grove and had trouble containing the Panther’s defensive line. But Sloan said he saw positives.
Houston’s biggest gain was a pass from new quarterback Paydon Dixon to fullback Michael Clayton, who bowled over reining all-state selection Bobby Otwell of Mountain Grove for a first-down gain.
“Offensively, we did some things that may not have stuck out to the naked eye,” Sloan said. “ I felt better after watching the tape.”
HHS hosts an Ash Grove team that also made positive strides for the program in 2015. After going 2-8 the previous year, the Pirates had a 5-5 mark and just missed a district-opening victory by three points.
Ash Grove lost its top offensive player –– quarterback Jackson Bagley –– but returns four offensive linemen. Three are three-year starters.
The offense will now be under the direction of junior Chase White, who Sloan said looks like a threat on film.
“Their quarterback is an athlete, so we’ll have to contain him,” Sloan said.
Ash Grove returns seven starters on the defensive side of the ball from a unit that allowed just over 18 points per game –– the fewest in the Mid-Lakes Conference.
One advantage Sloan is happy to have for his young team is opening at home.
“With as many guys playing varsity for the first time,” he said, “keeping everyone here around moms, dads, aunts and uncles, that definitely helps.”
Beginning with the pregame show at 6:45 p.m., watch the Houston Tigers’ season opener against Ash Grove streamed online at www.houstonherald.com/live
WEATHER: Friday, humid with periods of clouds and sun; an afternoon shower or thunderstorm in spots. High 79F. Friday night, overcast and humid; occasional rain and a thunderstorm late.
ABOUT THE OPPONENT: Eight returning Ash Grove players received postseason recognition last year: Paul Chavez (WR/DB) and Josh Pipkin (TE/LB) were second team all-conference and junior Spencer Eagleburger was second team all-district as a kick returner. Five others were named honorable mention. …The Pirates are a run-heavy team, especially with the option. Second-year coach Ryan Long said new quarterback Chase White has impressed him. “He’s like a coach on the field,” Long told the Ozarks Sports Zone. “I’m going to have the luxury of him making more checks at the line of scrimmage. He’ll see stuff and come talk to me about it.”
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: HHS head coach Eric Sloan stills remembers how loud Tiger Stadium got last season when his team pulled off a last-second victory against St. James. He is hopeful the fans will be just as loud in Friday’s season opener. “It gave you goose bumps last year with the cowbells being loud and people going crazy,” he said. “I hope we can put a product on the field that will give people something to get excited about.”
TIGER TIDBITS: Houston senior Lucas Kelley (shoulder) missed the jamboree but is expected to play in the season opener. …It’s been more than a decade since Houston won a season opener at home. The 2004 Tigers –– under coach Wes Beachler –– beat Strafford 30-14. …Houston and Ash Grove last played in 2011. Ash Grove won that matchup 44-6. They also won the 2010 game 28-14.