With a touchdown on a beastly catch-and-run by junior running back Maleki Morgan, the Houston High School football team had reduced a 14-point deficit to only 2 points in the third quarter of a South Central Association conference game against Mountain Grove last Friday afternoon in Tiger Stadium.

But the visiting Panthers immediately regained the momentum when senior Deveyn Martin returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for a score and Mountain Grove went on to win, 27-12.

“We had climbed back into the thing,” said HHS head coach Eric Sloan, “and we had new life with everybody feeling good. Then we blow a coverage and all the momentum just shifted.”

The Panthers got an early jump in the contest with a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter.

The first came on a 1-yard run by sophomore quarterback Aden Estep that capped off a drive that took close to 6 minutes, and the second came when Estep and 6-4 junior wide receiver Brayden Haughey hooked up on a 42-yard pass play with 3:35 left in the period. Haughey booted extra points after both scoring plays and Mountain Grove led 14-0 going into the second quarter.

Houston’s defense lines up for a play.

With the Panthers moving the ball again late in the first half, junior defensive back Jordan Arthur intercepted a pass to give the Tigers’ possession at their own 10-yard line with under 4 minutes showing on the clock.

Moments later, senior quarterback Wyatt Hughes tossed a short pass to Arthur (at wide receiver) and he won a long footrace with Mountain Grove defensive back Cooper Hoerning, escaping Hoerning’s grasp inside the 10 before entering the end zone on the 79-yard scoring play. After a missed point-after kick, the Panthers were ahead 14-6 and the score stayed that way until halftime.

The two teams then exchanged possessions a couple of times in the third quarter before Houston pulled closer on Morgan’s big play. Prior to the play, senior linebacker Brady Brookshire recovered a fumble to give the Tigers the ball at their own 38-yard line with 3:15 remining in the quarter.

Then at the 2:12 mark, Hughes hit Morgan with a short pass over the middle and the burly 5-11, 220-pounder proceeded to shove away and shed would-be tacklers time and again during a jaunt of about 40 yards toward the end zone. A pass on the subsequent 2-point conversion attempt fell incomplete, but Houston was down by only 2 at 14-12.

But on the following kickoff, Martin took the ball all the way and the Tigers never recovered.

HHS senior linebacker Brady Brookshire recovers a fumble during the third quarter.

Mountain Grove added an insurance TD in the fourth quarter on a 4-yard run by Estep with 8:23 to go.

The Panthers’ defense limited Houston’s normally effective running game to only 19 yards on 24 carries.  

“They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football almost the whole time,” Sloan said. “The just manhandled us. And we never got out and blocked a linebacker, but they blocked our linebackers all day long.

“I think that made a big difference.”

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ passing game picked up some of the slack, as Hughes completed 11-of-16 passes for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns, with Arthur catching 6 passes for 114 yards and a TD.

“We got to playing catch and found some openings,” Sloan said, “but we missed on two or three where we were definitely behind the coverage.”

After Morgan’s big play, the Tigers were revitalized and encouraged about their chances.

“He absolutely was not going to go down,” Sloan said. “That was a great effort.”

Then came the kickoff return.

“That couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Sloan said.

This week, the Tigers (4-4, 3-3 SCA) wrap up the regular season by traveling to Mountain View to take on Liberty (5-3, 5-1 SCA). The contest has major postseason implications, as the two teams will face each other again in the first round of next week’s Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 District 4 tournament, with this week’s winner hosting.

The Houston Elementary School student body cheers for the Houston High School football team as players leave the field at halftime during last Friday afternoon’s game against Mountain Grove. The contest was the second half of a home-and-home series of afternoon games between the two schools in which all students were in attendance.

Sloan said one of the keys will be containing the Eagles’ quarterback, top defense player and team leader, 6-1, 210-pound Carter Pruett (a four-year starter).

“He runs it and throws it, and is their punter and kicker,” Sloan said. “I’m sure he hauls the water, too; he does everything. He’s a very special player, and they’re going to chuck it all over the place and let him run it.

“We’ll need to stop him on offense and block him on defense.”

Another key for the Tigers will be playing a clean game.

“We need to put it all together and play one of our best games,” Sloan said. “We need to block, not turn the ball over and stop them from doing what they want to do on offense.

“I would love to see what that looks like.”

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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