Houston entered its regular-season finale with a chance to host a district game. Possibly even rise to the third seed in the district. Instead, the worst case scenario played out.
Despite the team’s strongest showing in a decade at Liberty, the Tigers’ 29-18 defeat Friday dropped HHS to the sixth seed in Class 2 District 1. Instead of hosting a postseason game for the first time since 2005, the Tigers will instead hit the road Friday. Houston travels to No. 3 Strafford.
Friday: Houston (3-6) at Strafford (7-2)
Strafford actually finished second in the district but due to the head-to-head rule, fell one position to Mountain Grove in the final standings. Strafford had 41.32 points compared to 34.69 for the Panthers and a better record. But a 56-14 loss to Mountain Grove in the second week of the season was the deciding factor.
Houston (3-6, 3-4 South Central Association) and Strafford (7-2) last played in 2015. That matchup was also the opening round of districts –– a 46-20 win for the Indians.
“Do you want to play somebody twice or travel to Springfield? I don’t know,” Houston coach Eric Sloan said. “I like the way we’re playing right now. We’re playing good football at the right time of the year.”
The Tigers, who last defeated Liberty in 2005, had the Eagles on the ropes Friday.
Houston scored on its first play from scrimmage –– a 50-yard run by Paydon Dixon –– and had a 12-7 advantage until the final minute of the half. It was still a one-score game in the fourth quarter after sophomore quarterback Dakota Burchett raced 55 yards for a score.
“That’s the best we’ve played as a head coach coming to Liberty,” Sloan said. “It’s such a tough place to play.”
Senior Gavin Alston had five carries for 73 yards –– highlighted by a 70-yard scamper to set up a first-quarter score –– to lead the Tigers. Dixon added 14 carries for 62 yards and Burchett had 56 on six attempts.
Liberty (4-5, 4-3 SCA) out-gained the Tigers 404-251 with a balanced attack. The Eagles had 170 rushing yards and 234 through the air from sophomore Jaris Acklin, who was 20-of-31 passing with three touchdowns.
The Eagles leaned heavily on senior Koel Orchard. The returning all-state selection carried the ball 31 times for 170 yards and a score. He also had a 17-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.
“Orchard is a special talent,” Sloan said. “He’s a typical Mountain View athlete. They always have that one kid that is a phenomenal athlete.”
Houston took the lead just 14 seconds into the game as Dixon broke loose from a pile and ran 50 yards down the Liberty sideline for a score. The conversion attempt was no good –– one of three times the Tigers failed.
Liberty pulled ahead 7-6 on Orchard’s touchdown reception from Acklin on the next series.
Two plays after HHS fell behind, Alston took a jet sweep 70 yards to the Eagles’ 1-yard line. Dixon leapt into the end zone on the next play for a 12-7 Houston lead.
The Tigers’ defense twice kept Liberty from scoring inside the red zone in the first half. But a third trip ended in points as Acklin connected with Ethan Smith on a fourth-down play with 29 seconds left in the half.
The Eagles extended their lead to 22-12 on Acklin’s third touchdown pass to begin the third quarter.
Houston pulled within striking distance with 11 minutes, 2 seconds remaining when Burchett raced 55 yards for a score.
The Tigers forced a punt on the ensuing Liberty drive but were pinned deep in their own territory. They also punted and the Eagles turned a short field into a game-clinching Orchard touchdown with 3:43 left.
“I think we’re close,” Sloan said. “You can see at times that things are clicking. Things that we do in practice are showing up on the field. Some really nice things are happening.”