By Bill Sorrell
Next to winning the region championship, the sweetest thing on Will Gusmus’s mind Friday was his favorite candy.
Moments after a 40-6 victory over Collierville clinched the first region championship in the school’s 29-year history, Gusmus was excited about Snickers.
A senior linebacker, Gusmus buys all the Snickers on the candy cart that comes to class every day.
“Today (Friday) they had no Snickers. So, I got kind of mad. Coach (James) Thomas’s wife (Haley) promised that if we won tonight she will buy me a pack of Snickers. I am going to get my Snickers on Monday. Whenever I get my Snickers it’s a whole different world,” said Gusmus. “(Without it) I’m not the same person at all.”
Houston linebacker Landon Schmidt said, “He loves Snickers. I would be afraid to be around him when he doesn’t get a Snickers because I don’t want to see what he turns into.”
Calling it a “sweet victory,” Gusmus said, “They are our crosstown rivals. We lost to them last year so when the game was over it felt amazing that we won especially since it was my senior year.”
“Special” is how James Thomas described the region title in his first season as head coach at his alma mater.
“I’m glad I can share it with these guys. I knew this was a special group going in and all I can say, it’s special,” he said. “Every Thursday night they go to somebody different’s house to have dinner. When you have a group that bonds, eats together and shares those times together, it really shows on the football field.”
Gusmus said, “I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to work with. We have a core group who have put in a lot of work.”
Calling it the most important game of the season, junior running back Lincoln Pare said the Mustangs (8-1) accomplished a goal by going 4-0 in Region 7-6A. They will host a playoff game on Nov. 2.
Pare, fifth in Shelby-Metro rushing with an average of 164.3 yards in eight games, rushed for 159 yards on 29 carries, including a 42-yard run that gave Houston its final touchdown and his 18th of the season.
Houston quarterback Ethan Burns had his best game of the season. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns, caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Grayson Hitt, the first time this season Hitt has thrown a touchdown pass and Burns’ first TD catch of the season. Burns scored the Mustangs’ first touchdown on a 1-yard run.
It was the most yards that Burns, a junior, has thrown this season and 113 above his average.
“Ethan was on fire tonight, pinpoint accuracy, making the big plays all night,” said Thomas.
Pare said, “Ethan was the primary cause of winning the game. He took advantage of everything he had. He threw great balls and executed everything perfectly.”
Jordan Monk had six receptions for 108 yards, Hitt four catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns, R.H. Frankland three for 40 yards and a touchdown. Monk averaged 18 yards per catch and Hitt 23.75 yards.
Senior linebacker Chris Colebank said the victory “feels really good but at the same time we have six games left.”
Thomas said, “You could tell by the way they played tonight and the way they’ve played all year, they are looking for bigger and better things.”
With their strength in the defensive line, the Dragons’ primary focus was stopping the running game said Collierville Head Coach Mike O’Neill.
“We attempted to slow the game down. We didn’t anticipate their quarterback playing so well. If they are going to beat us they are going to beat us throwing the football. Kudos to them,” said O’Neill. “They figured out we were going to concentrate on stopping the run. Their alternate game plan was to hit us through the air and they were able to do that.”
The Dragons (4-5, 1-2 in region) play at Arlington (5-4, 1-2) at 7 p.m. this Friday. The winner is assured of a playoff berth.
“We’ll have a shot in the playoffs. If we stay consistent, I think we’ll be fine. We threw the ball all right. We ran the ball pretty good,” said Collierville quarterback Mitch Austin.
Houston, which has won seven straight, plays at St. George’s (4-5) at 7 p.m. Friday.
Collierville wide receiver/defensive back Jordan Henderson said, “We wanted to take Lincoln out of their game plan and force them to throw and we did but we were not able to stop the pass.”
Colebank said, “I heard the plan was that Collierville was going to load the box and try to stop our run. That is the only thing they thought we could do. We definitely proved them wrong. We’ve got Jordan Monk, Grayson Hitt who were all over the place, Darby Smith.”
Thomas said, “They were beating us a little bit up front at first. They were stacking the box so we decided to let our guys outside join the party. They answered the call.”
The Mustangs’ defense, which held the Dragons to 22 rushing yards, allowed 160 yards total offense. Austin completed 13 of 26 passes for 138 yards. Houston had 395 yards total offense with 252 passing, 143 rushing.
“The whole defense did a fantastic job,” said Thomas. “Kip Frankland (lineman) had a heck of game, Deion Harris (linebacker) had a heck of a game. Those three middle linebackers Landon Schmidt, Ryan Bullock, Will Gusmus, Chris Colebank and Will Stegall and Ben Stegall outside (linebackers), Jordon Monk at corner, did a great job.”
Gusmus said, “It was an amazing effort on both sides of the ball. Deion had a huge impact. I believe this was his best game he has ever played.”
The Mustangs were not surprised by what the Dragons did.
“We get these play sheets from our defensive coordinator, Coach (Robert) Armbruster and he lays out everything. Nothing surprised us tonight,” said Harris, a junior. “We got one more (regular season game). We are not done.”
Said Colebank, “The whole team stood out. Deion Harris is a beast. That man came out of nowhere this season.”
Pare said, “Will Gusmus did phenomenal. Ryan Bullock did phenomenal. Grayson Hitt and Jordan Monk showed out especially on their touchdowns. That was just amazing.”
Schmidt said, “Will Gusmus was flying all over the field making tackles left and right. He was doing a great job.”
Harris had a game-high 7 tackles, all solos, with 11 yards for loss and a 6-yard sack. Bullock made 5 tackles (4 solos) for 8 yards loss and a sack while Gusmus had 5 tackles with 8 yards for loss. Kip Frankland had 2 tackles for 15 yards loss and a 12-yard sack. Monk and Schmidt had 3 tackles each and Monk two pass break-ups.
Colebank said, “I was not expecting us to blow them out that bad. It’s always a close game. That is what makes Collierville and Houston such a great rivalry.”
Pare knew the hype of the “Trashy v. Classy” contest.
“We treat it as a huge game. It’s a rivalry game. It’s a tossup. We didn’t take them lightly,” he said.
O’Neill said, “They were definitely motivated. The home team has won the game the last four years. There is a lot of emotion in the game. It’s important to get off to a good start. We fell in a hole and couldn’t get out of it. We have one of the toughest schedules (in Shelby-Metro). Germantown has an incredible defense. Central has a good defense. Add Houston to that mix.”
The Dragons started their second drive on their 1 yard-line after a 52-yard punt by Nick Anewalt. A 10-yard pass from Burns to Hitt had put the Mustangs on the Collierville 46.
A 19-yard run by Peyton Murphy got to the 20 but Sam Cardenas later punted from the 29.
A 37-yard pass play from Burns to Hitt got Houston to the Collierville 27. Pare then ran 18 yards and later ran to the 2 before Burns scored with 3:02 left in the first quarter. C.J. Barnes blocked Anewalt’s extra point.
A 49-yard pass from Burns to Monk set up the Mustangs’ second touchdown. The play put Houston on the Collierville 17. After Barnes and Jared Dawson tackled Pare at the 18, Burns threw an 18-yard pass to Hitt for a 12-0 lead with 10:05 left in the second quarter. The PAT failed.
Justin Stonework, who would finish with a team-high 92 receiving yards on 10 receptions, caught a 14-yard pass from Austin to get to their 28 before Cardenas punted. He would average 36.4 yards on seven punts, including a 53-yard punt.
A 25-yard run by Pare put Houston on the Dragons’ 48. Putting spin moves on tacklers after catching a 20-yard pass from Burns, Monk ran to the 26. R.H. Frankland caught a 19-yard pass then a 7-yard touchdown pass from Burns. After Anewalt kicked the extra point it was 19-0 with 3:26 left in the half.
“When we put up that third touchdown, we knew it was over,” said Gusmus.
It would take the Dragons 26 seconds to score. Stonework returned the kickoff 59 yards to the Houston 38. On the next play, Austin threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Kayvon Anderson, pulling within 19-6. He bulled his way to the end zone.
“That was a great run after he caught it. He drug a couple of people in there. Mitch threw a good ball,” said O’Neill.
Said Austin, “We got a lot of energy going. I guess it was not enough the half was almost over.”
Henderson said, “Kayvon’s touchdown did rejuvenate some life into our sideline because of how he scored, making people miss and carrying guys into the end zone, with the hustle and fight he showed on that play.”
He said Houston being on top 19-6 was the turning point.
“That is what I think started the tide,” he said.
Kip Frankland blocked Caleb Myers’ PAT.
The Mustangs were not finished with their first-half scoring.
A 30-yard touchdown pass to Hitt and Anewalt’s PAT gave Houston a 26-6 lead with 2 minutes left in the second quarter.
Pare had returned the kickoff 31 yards. Burns then hit Monk with a 19-yard pass and on the next play 11 yards. Burns then threw the touchdown pass to Hitt.
A 14-yard pass from Austin to Stonework got the Dragons to the Mustangs 40 early in the third quarter before Cardenas punted.
A 10-yard pass from Burns to Monk, a 25-yard run by Pare, a 14-yard pass from Burns to R.H. Frankland set up Hitt’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Burns. Anewalt made it 33-6 with 36 seconds left in the third. Houston’s drive took 6:07 off the clock.
Anewalt had a 53-yard punt in the fourth quarter. He would average 45.33 on three punts.
Austin had pass completions of 13 yards and 25-yards to Stonework before Houston scored its final touchdown.
After his 8-yard run, Pare ran 42 yards for the touchdown that increased the lead to 39-6 with 4:50 left. Anewalt kicked it to 40-6.
“Lincoln is the kind of guy who is wired to be patient and when things aren’t there, he’ll get the tough yards for you,” said Thomas.
With 138.6 yard average passing eighth in Shelby-Metro in eight games and sixth in total passing yards with 1,109, Burns said “almost everything has clicked for us this season.”
“Coach (Raheem) Shabazz (strength coach) has helped us become the best team in the region,” he said.
Burns praised Harris, Gusmus and Bullock for standing out on defense and Hitt and Monk on offense. Hitt is 10th in Shelby-Metro with a 20.7-yards-per-catch average. Going into the game he was eighth in receiving touchdowns (6) and fifth in passing touchdowns (14).
Henderson said the Dragons have clicked with top play makers Stonework, Anderson, Ben Olsen and Austin.
“They have been beasts. Defensively, the play makers were Cade Cupp (defensive back) as always, C.J. Barnes (defensive end) and Jared Dawson (defensive tackle). They keep dominating up front.”
Dawson and Heilman (linebacker) each had 6 tackles with both having four solos. Barnes had 4 tackles including a 6-yard sack, 9 yards for loss. Dawson had 9 yards for loss. Austin Elam had 5 solo tackles. Henderson added 3, Cupp 3, Sean Johnson 3. Having one each were Jordan Wright, Jaylon Gonzales, Christian Flynn, Cole Shiver, Harrison Lester, Julien Cotton, Anu Dokun. Elam had 3 pass breakups, Henderson, Michael Phillips and Cupp 1 each.
“Stonework caught 10. I wish we could have gotten the ball to more. We couldn’t protect Mitch well. Kayvon made a good play in the passing game. C.J. Barnes had a good night. Eric Heilman played pretty solid overall,” said O’Neill.
For Houston, Will Stegall and Ben Stegall each had 2 tackles. Colebank, Pare, Ben McCurry, Ricardo Rocha, Jaylin Moman 1 each. Monk had 2 pass breakups, Jaylin Lee 1.
Anderson had 38 receiving yards for the Dragons. Murphy had 46 rushing yards. Myers averaged 55.5 kickoff yards.
Myers averaged 48.43 on seven kickoffs.
One of 17 seniors recognized on Senior Night, Schmidt said he is excited to be a part of a championship season his senior year.
“It’s pretty big. We’ve been working hard four years now. It’s good to see it pay off,” he said.
Colebank is getting some looks from colleges, including Harding University.
Last season, he was one of the offensive leaders while also playing defensive back. This year he has played mostly defense.
“Defense has found a special place in my heart,” he said.
The season turned around after a loss at Germantown on Aug. 24.
“We got laid down. I’m not going to lie. Our whole team would agree we just broke down,” said Colebank.
“Right now I am enjoying what God has blessed me with. It couldn’t be any better. It’s real easy to have good faith when everything is going good versus when we lost to Germantown, I was struggling,” he said.
A big win for the Mustangs was 21-13 over Cordova on Sept. 28.
“We always put an emphasis on region games. We circled every one of those,” said Thomas.
Citing Burns, Monk, Hitt and Pare as top play makers against Collierville, Gusmus said the drive toward the region championship began on Jan. 3 when the team started offseason workouts.
“I could tell that the group we had in the weight room actually cared this season and I knew that we were going to do something special,” he said.
Gusmus has been offered a scholarship by Delta State. Central Arkansas, Mississippi College, Cumberland are also recruiting him.
The Dragons will regroup. Henderson said that tackling will have to improve against the Tigers, who have a “dangerous” running back in Kenneth Walker.
“We will have to improve this week on defense and offensively we have to keep building on the foundation,” he said.
Said O’Neill, “We have things to work on, to be able to move people around in the box, blocking people. That will be our focus this week.”
While praising Stonework, Austin said it was a “rough night with nothing going our way.”
“We will bounce back,” he said. “I still need to go out and work harder. I want to be No. 1 (in Shelby-Metro passing).”
Austin is fifth in passing yards per game (152.7 average in seven games having missed a game to injury), 10th in passing yards (916), seventh in completion percentage (58.5).
Several Houston players were on the state championship Germantown Mustangs rugby team this spring.
“Winning the state championship for rugby was quite an experience because it was the first one of our program,” said Schmidt.
“No matter what happens, whether we win or lose or make a bad play, I always give thanks to God because everything happens for a reason,” he said.
His favorite Bible verse is Hebrews 11:6, “Without faith it’s impossible to please God and anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that God exists and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him. That is my life verse.”
By Bill Sorrell