By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
WAXAHACHIE — A much-welcomed and well-timed return of the tomahawk chop helped usher in a new season for the Waxahachie Indians. It also provided quite the motivational boost for a gassed Tribe that has officially started the football season with a thrilling overtime season-opening victory Friday at Stuart B. Lumpkins Stadium.
The 28-22 victory did not come easy for first-year head coach Shane Tolleson and the Indians.
Waxahachie had to overcome two first-half turnovers, a frustrating kicking game and over 100 penalty yards — and that was just in the first half. Tolleson and the boys also had to deal with a terrific defense led by 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end Michael Okeyode-Ibukan, who proved every bit worthy of his three stars and Southern Methodist University commitment.
But they did. The Indians dealt with adversity and came out on the other end stronger, closer and, most importantly, winners.
“I just knew we had it in us for four quarters,” said a fired-up Tolleson. “We’ve been running the mess out of these kids, and they didn’t like it, but it was because of stuff like this.”
Tolleson said his message to the Indians at the half was to focus on eliminating the SIWs (self-inflicted wounds).
“We were making it hard on ourselves,” he continued. “I didn’t care about what they were going to run; we just knew that, offensively and defensively, we had to fix us. A hat on a hat and execute the play. And, listen, these kids want to win for this city more than anybody I’ve ever seen. Sometimes you can get too high with the highs, and I felt like we got too high with the highs and quit focusing on the little things.”
Tolleson pointed to a calmer approach, heightened focus on execution and critical stops to the Indians outscoring the Eagles 14-3 in the second half and overtime.
Another key to the Indians’ success was their commitment and success in the running game.
Led by juniors Iverson Young (5-foot-10, 185lbs) and Jayden Becks (5-foot-10, 180lbs), the Tribe outrushed the Eagles 231 yards to 67 — averaging 4.7 yards-per-carry.
Young, the bruiser, led the way with 20 carries for 178 yards and one touchdown. Becks serves as the lightning to Young’s thunder. The speedster rushed 15 times for 74 yards and two scores, which included the season’s first score from 42 yards out in the second quarter.
“We have two really good ones,” Tolleson said. “Coming in with a new system with [offensive coordinator] Mike Dormandy, who is as good as they come, it takes a little time. […] But seeing them out there finally getting a rhythm and running that ball and finding a way to win games…I’m telling you, finding a way to win games versus finding a way to lose them is a big step forward for our program.”
Despite the solid numbers by the offense, the victory ultimately came down to the new-look, hardnosed Indian defense. Their efforts limited Rowlett to 332 total yards — with just 112 yards coming in the second half — and 20 points.
Sophomore outside linebacker Jermy Jackson (6-foot-1, 170lbs) capped the defensive showcase with a sack of Rowlett quarterback Harris Boyd on fourth-and-goal in overtime.
Just outside of the locker room, Jackson recalled the game-sealing sack. He explained that as the defense broke the sideline, his only thought was that it was time for a “big play.”
Jackson recalled lining up outside the Rowlett left tackle and reminding himself to “stay outside and try and get to the quarterback.”
“When I chopped and ripped, I knew I’d beat him,” Jackson said. “When I chopped his hands off of my shoulder pads, I knew I had beat him. I just knew it was going to be a big play. I ran hard and made the tackle.”
According to Jackson, the Indian defense didn’t play up to its potential Friday. And that’s OK.
“We have to stop the penalties and the self-inflicted wounds,” he added. “I think the d-line did a good job of containing the quarterback. We did our job.”
Waxahachie quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. agreed with Jackson, saying, “the defense kept us in the whole game. We made some adjustments at halftime and succeeded.”
Jayden Becks returned the opening kickoff 70 yards inside the Eagles’ red zone, only to have the return negated by a personal foul at the Indians’ 40-yard line. The 15-yard penalty moved the Indians to their own 25-yard line to start the season.
Iverson Young carried the first two handoffs into a third-down-and-two situation. Ibukun-Okeyode then came off the left edge unblocked for a swift sack of Roderick Hartsfield Jr.
The Indian quarterback had no sooner planted his back foot on the three-step drop than Ibukun-Okeyode had wrapped his right arm around Hartsfield’s waist.
One wobbly punt and two plays later, and the Eagles were down to the Waxahachie 14-yard line. It took just two more snaps from scrimmage for the Eagles to find the end zone.
Harris Boyd (22-43, 265yds, 2TD, INT) connected with Corey Kirkling (5-41) on a 14-yard slant across the middle to put Rowlett on the board, 7-0, with 9:19 to play in the first quarter.
After forcing a three-and-out, Waxahachie quickly moved across midfield and inside the Eagles’ 30-yard line — powered by a Young carry down the near sideline.
Unfortunately, the promising drive ended in a turnover when Hartsfield lost the grip of the pigskin as he cocked back to throw.
The Rowlett offense then used eight plays to march deep into Waxahachie territory.
Robert Hannah Jr jumped an Eagle route and sent the Waxahachie fans into a frenzy as he ran 91 yards — untouched — to paydirt.
The celebration then fell quiet as fingers began pointing at a solemn yellow hanky lying limp on the turf.
A frustratingly questionable block-in-the-back penalty called on a Waxahachie defender negated the should’ve-been score. The flag landed 20-plus yards away from the return or game action.
Four snaps later, Waxahachie had a second consecutive drive end in a fumble after crossing midfield.
Rowlett took over at its own 44-yard line and faced third-and-four as the first quarter ended with the Eagles on top, 7-0.
Rowlett eventually attempted — and missed — a 21-yard kick with 10:08 to play.
Young made the most of the defensive stand with a bruising 21-yard run over a pair of Eagles on the ensuing snap.
Three plays later, Becks exploded for a 42-yard touchdown run with 8:50 to play in the second quarter. The ensuing Jesse Garfias extra-point kick was blocked, which would become a theme on the evening. The Indians struggled to execute the snap, hold and kick of field goals throughout Friday’s contest.
Luckily, Waxahachie tight end Joseph Lankford recovered the loose ball and followed the pile into the end zone for an 8-7 Indian lead.
Rowlett added a 24-yard field goal on its ensuing drive and then forced a second Waxahachie fumble on the Tribe’s next possession. This time the turnover came via a botched snap on a punt inside the Waxahachie 5-yard line.
The Eagles capped their free opportunity with a 6-yard Boyd-to-Ernest Thomas (3-86) touchdown with 4:04 to play in the second quarter.
The Eagles’ 17-8 lead would not hold for long, though. In fact, it lasted just two snaps.
Iverson again responded for the Indians, fighting off the turf monster to stumble into the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown.
The Garfias extra-point kick was again blocked and this time returned by the Eagles for two points.
As the oddity of the game continued, Waxahachie kicked off trailing Rowlett, 19-14, with 3:16 remaining in the first half.
Thankfully for the statisticians in the house, the score held as the halftime buzzer sounded.
Waxahachie rushed for 175 yards in the first half behind Young’s 11 carries for 155 yards. Hartsfield finished the half 5-of-7 passing for 46 yards.
Rowlett outgained the Indians 230 yards to 221, while each team picked up 10 first downs.
Waxahachie ended the half with a pair of turnovers and eight penalties for 134 yards to Rowlett’s one miscure and six penalties for just 30 yards.
The second half began with a six-play Rowlett drive that ended in a punt and botched snap recovered by the Indians at the Eagles 23-yard line.
Thanks largely to a third botched snap and hold, Waxahachie squandered the field position by missing a 27-yard field goal.
Rowlett took its second drive of the second half 87 yards in nine plays, capping the sequence with a 27-yard field goal. The kick put the Eagles up by one score, 22-14, with 2:38 to play in the third quarter.
On the ensuing Indian drive, Hartsfield completed his best throw of the night just as the third-quarter clock dipped under two minutes. The quarterback escaped pressure, rolled to his right and floated a beautiful pass to Keith Abney II (3-63, TD) for a 25-yard gain just a few feet inside of the boundary.
“That was a game-changer right there,” Hartsfield said. “The only thing going through my mind was that we had to make something happen. We couldn’t be unsuccessful on that drive. We had to score.”
Waxahachie eventually capped that drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Becks. The score wouldn’t have happened without big Demarcus Becks (6-foot, 290lb) leading the way from the fullback position.
The Indians lined up for the two-point conversion and again had running back Becks follow defensive tackle Becks into the end zone to tie the game at 22-all with 1.6 seconds to play in the third quarter.
After the game, Tolleson explained that the coaching staff preaches to the kids that they have to find a role and excel in it. Sometimes, he continued, that means stepping up in a position that a student-athlete might not have previously thought he could help.
“Whatever our role is, whether small or big, we have to ‘hold the rope,'” Tolleson said. “Everyone wants to touch the ball but giving those kids a role to take ownership…that heavy package is going to be a key for us because we are a spread offense. We have to get into that and make things happen.”
With momentum squarely in the Waxahachie corner, the Indian defense forced the Eagle offense off the field in three plays. A poor snap on the ensuing punt then set the Tribe up inside the Rowlett 15-yard line.
A dink-and-dunk followed by a couple hardnosed runs moved the Tribe to the Rowlett 1-yard line. Unfortunately, that opportunity came with the Indians facing fourth-and-goal with a shotty kicking game.
This time the fourth-down effort came up short, gifting the ball back to the Eagles with the game still tied at 22 and just over eight minutes to play in the game.
Rowlett quickly moved outside of the shadows of its own goal post. The Eagles then found their offense facing fourth-and-three at their own 39-yard line.
The gravity of the play forced each sideline to call a timeout.
The gamesmanship paid off for the Tribe, as the Eagles were flagged for a false start before ever snapping the football.
Rowlett elected to quick kick after backing up the five yards, and the Indians took over at their own 18-yard line with just under six minutes to play in the ball game.
Waxahachie began its drive with a pair of solid runs to move toward midfield. Hartsfield then completed a timely touch pass to Lankford for 12 yards and near the first-down marker.
Hartsfield was then helped off the field with what appeared to be a left-leg cramp with 3:31 remaining. The injury brought in sophomore Beck Sullivan, the younger brother of former Indian quarterback Campbell Sullivan.
Sullivan rushed for a first down to continue the drive. He was then replaced by Hartsfield two plays later.
A Hartsfield pass on fourth down sailed just over the outstretched hands of a pair of Indian receivers and forced the Tribe to punt with 1:33 to play.
And, with that, regulation went away rather quietly, as Rowlett welcomingly ran out the clock to send the game into overtime still tied at 22.
Waxahachie took the football first in overtime and Hartsfield capitalized — quickly. The hobbled signal-caller hit Abney on a shallow post for an easy 25-yard touchdown.
“I’m not going to lie; that was probably the most fun game of my life,” Hartsfield said of the win. “We were facing adversity and we fought for all five quarters. It’s the same adversity that we try to overcome in practice.”
The extra-point attempt was again botched, leaving the Indians ahead 28-22.
The Eagle offense certainly made things interesting over the ensuing half-dozen plays.
Yet the game ultimately came down to a fourth-and-goal from the Indians’ 17-yard line.
Boyd dropped back only to be met by Jackson before he could scan across the field for an open receiver. The quarterback hit the turf, and the Indians celebrated a thrilling 28-22 season-opening victory.
“The keys to victories this week were eliminating turnovers, win the line of scrimmage and special teams,” Tolleson said, “and we failed horribly at number three. We are going to go back to work and, here’s the deal, we are going to put more emphasis on it and look at who could be a better fit for that position and not take a play off. We are going to get it right.
“[…] Overall, I am fired up for these kids and this coaching staff. We have a lot of work to do. We are going to enjoy this for the next 24 hours, but [Arlington] Lamar is a good football team. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Waxahachie will look for its first 2-0 start since 2016 when the Tribe travels a few miles north to face Arlington Lamar.
The Vikings fell to Trinity in their season-opener, 45-27.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. Friday at Cravens Field. KBEC 1390AM/99.1FM will carry the call on-air and online at sports.kbec.com, beginning with the pregame show at 6:30 p.m.
All photos by Kirk Holt/KBEC Sports
• The Indians have done away with the Jon Kitna-era blow-up helmet run-through, opting to use a simple cloth breakaway sign instead. The helmet design on the tunnel displayed the previously used all-white helmet with red, green and black headdress. This season, Waxahachie has opted to use its traditional green helmets with the classic spear and “INDIANS” lettering down the length of the arrow.
• During the National Anthem sung by the Waxahachie High School choir, the line of Indians stretched from the 30-yard line to the opposite 30. Rowlett’s group ended 10 full yards shorter.
Waxahachie boasts 68 players on its active roster this season — up close to two dozen from two seasons prior.
• Ryan Cerezo dons number 93 for Waxahachie. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound sophomore lineman also served as the Indians’ punter Friday night.
• Junior golfer Judd Willet drilled the 20-yard halftime kick to win free Bahama Bucks for a year. He made the kick with a cowboy hat atop his head and flung it Lane Frost-style in celebration.
• Waxahachie senior defensive back Jaylon Burke was ejected from the game with 8:43 to play in the fourth quarter after being flagged twice for targeting. Per UIL rules, Burke will have to sit out the first half of the Indians’ week two game against Arlington Lamar.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith