An up-and-down season for the Houston High School football team ended with an up-and-down game last Friday night in Tiger stadium.

In a first round contest in the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 District 3 playoffs, the fourth-seeded Tigers fell to the No. 5 East Newton Patriots, 21-20. The loss came despite Houston leading 20-0 late in the first half and the outcome wasn’t decided until less than 30 seconds remained in the game.

“It’s terrible,” said HHS head coach Eric Sloan. “We were right there and it just slipped away.”

Things started well for the Tigers in the first quarter.

After both teams had possessions that resulted in punts, Houston had the ball on the East Newton 37-yard line following a short kick on a fourth-and-19 play from the 21.

A few plays later, Tiger senior quarterback Dakota Burchett threw a lateral pass to sophomore tight end Korbyn Tune, who tossed a forward pass to junior wide receiver Ty Franklin. East Newton sophomore defensive back Justice Bowman was called for pass interference on the play, and Houston had a first down at the 10-yard line.

Senior running back Chance Mitchell took over from there, and bashed for yardage on three consecutive plays. With the Tigers’ offense lined up in a wildcat formation, Mitchell scored on the third play from inside the 1-yard line. After senior Tristan Leier added a 2-point conversion with a run around the left side, Houston was on top 8-0 at the 5:33 mark of the quarter.

East Newton threatened before the end of the period, as senior linebacker Sam Stewart grabbed an interception at his shoe tops on a ball that had been tipped three times before it got to him and the Patriots had the ball at the Houston 33-yard line with 1:29 left. But on the first play of the second quarter, senior defensive back Connor Wilson intercepted a pass and Houston took over at the 15.

The Tigers added to their lead later in the period on a drive featuring a stout ground game anchored by several runs by Leier and Mitchell. With about 8 minutes left in the first half, Mitchell dragged several defenders with him on the way to a 27-yard gain to the East Newton 10-yard line. Moments later, he smashed his way through a crowd to score from 6 yards out. 

After a failed 2-point pass play, Houston led 14-0.

On the ensuing possession by East Newton, senior punter Colton Leech slipped and fell on an attempted fake punt play and the Tigers took over at the Patriots’ 40-yard line.

A short time later, Leier displayed his lightning-fast speed and outran a group of defenders for a 22-yard touchdown run around the left side. A failed 2-point run left Houston with a 20-0 advantage with 3:46 to go in the quarter.

But before the half was over, the Patriots (2-8) got on the board when senior running back Wyatt Moore got free around the left side and raced 65 yards for a touchdown. After a point-after kick by senior Jackson Schriever, the Tigers’ lead was cut to 20-7 with 2:02 to go before the break.

After the two squads traded possessions in the third quarter, Houston began a drive early in the fourth period and had the ball at midfield after Wilson made a juggling catch for a 15-yard gain. But after two athletic first-down runs by Burchett, disaster struck and East Newton benefited big-time from a key turnover.

As Mitchell ran around the right side, he was hit and lost control of the ball at the Patriots’ 25-yard line, and it bounced up right into the hands of senior linebacker Hunter Liveoak, who returned it all the way to the Houston 18.

Moments later, senior running back Ryan Millett ran virtually untouched up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown. After Schriever kicked another extra point, Houston’s lead was reduced to 20-14 with 6:46 to go in the game.

East Newton gained possession again with about 3 minutes to go in the game, and used a series of pass plays to secure the comeback victory. 

After senior quarterback Jeremiah Stewart twice connected with senior tight end Austin Brewster, the Patriots had the ball at the Tiger 4-yard line with 34 seconds left. Stewart then hit Liveoak for a touchdown, and the score was tied at 20-all.

When Schriever made good on what was likely the biggest extra point kick of his career, East Newton led for the first time at 21-20 with only 29 seconds left.

On the game’s final possession, Sloan and the Tigers (4-6) utilized their timeouts and got what they could out of the remaining seconds, and moved the ball inside East Newton territory on a 20-yard pass from Burchett to Wilson. 

But time expired before Houston could score.

“They definitely got a turnover at the right time,” Sloan said. “If they just recover it, I don’t think they would have gone the distance on us. But to scoop and almost score – that’s tough.”

The game was the Tigers’ first district playoff home game since 2005.

“I thought we played absolutely to our potential in the first half,” Sloan said. “They scored right before halftime and that was big. Up until then, we had held them to about zero for rushing. They couldn’t move the ball on us.”

The turnover that helped doom Houston’s season was out of character, Sloan said.

“Offensively, we had played pretty mistake-free for the most part this year,” he said. “We had taken care of the football pretty well, but at that moment we didn’t. We were one first down from kneeing out the clock. If we gain 10 yards we win, but we fumbled.”

Mitchell ran for more than 100 yards for the fifth time in the season, gaining 118 yards on 26 carries. Many of his runs came with Houston’s offense lined up in a wildcat formation, with him taking the snap.

“We had worked on that all season and just never got in a situation where we thought it was the right opportunity,” Sloan said. “But we had good success with it; Chance has good vision and was able to capitalize on some things.”

At linebacker, Mitchell also led the Tigers in tackles, with 8 (including 2 for losses).

East Newton advances to play the district’s top-seeded Ava Bears (10-0) who bludgeoned Mountain Grove (0-10) 60-20 last Friday night.

Prior to the season, Houston was considered a favorite to win the South Central Association conference crown and be a force to reckon with in the district tournament. But player relocation and injuries changed the course of the campaign.

“When you talk about football teaching life,” Sloan said, “you don’t have to look any farther than this season to see the heartaches and adversity and the hard work coming full circle with things starting to work. But then you make some mistakes and it costs you.

“It’s hard not to play the ‘what if’ game; if you had all the guys for the whole season who you had penciled in in July, what if?”

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