By Bill Sorrell
Steps away from the office of Houston coaches, Lincoln Pare tucked one of his most prized possessions under his left arm and celebrated another milestone.
Houston’s senior running back, Pare was given a game ball for the first time, the one he carried on Friday to a record-breaking career.
It was a November to remember for Pare and Houston’s football team.
Rushing for 129 yards in a colossal 27-6 mastery of perennial state powerhouse Whitehaven in the TSSAA state quarterfinals at Houston, Pare set Houston’s season and career rushing records.
During the Mustangs’ 13th straight victory, Pare rushed for 129 yards for a season total 2,651 yards and career total of 5,505, breaking Abe Felix’s 18-year single-season mark of 2,601 and career total of 5,461. Felix, who died at age 30 in 2015, won Mr. Football in 2002.
One of three finalists, Pare will try to become Houston’s second Mr. Football on Dec. 2 at Nissan Stadium.
Houston (13-0) will be in Brentwood on Friday to play Ravenwood (12-1) in the state semifinals at 7 p.m., the Mustangs’ first appearance since 1991.
Avenging a 25-13 loss to Brentwood on Sept. 20, the Raptors toppled the Bruins 27-6 in the quarterfinals.
It was the Mustangs’ first win over Whitehaven since 2004 and avenged a 31-27 second-round loss in 2018.
“It means everything,” said Pare of his records. “I couldn’t have done it without the guys I have played with in the past and this year. I want to thank all the guys I have ever played with to push me to get to this point.”
Houston head coach James Thomas felt “complete elation” after the game.
“For our kids, our program, our staff it’s super special. To play here and graduate from here and come back and have these kids respond the way they have to me, our staff, I can’t express in words what it means and what it feels like. I am so proud of everybody in our program. There is nothing like being a player in the state semifinals but the second best time is to be a coach in the state semifinals.”
Houston’s last trip was in 2001 where the Mustangs lost to Hendersonville. They also lost to Henderson in the 1998 semifinals when Thomas was a senior.
Houston quarterback Ethan Burns said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my entire life.”
Before the game, Houston offensive coordinator Ronnie Thompson said that defense would set the tone.
It did along with an offense led by Burns, who passed for 324 yards and threw touchdown passes to Grayson Hitt and Darby Smith.
“We knew we were going to have make plays through the air. Ethan Burns showed up and made some great throws and our receivers made some great catches. We have trusted him all year to make those plays and that is why when people look at him, yes Lincoln is special, but we can also throw the ball when we need to,” said Thomas.
“When we came into this game people made it look like we could only run the ball but we definitely proved we could throw it. I thought Ronnie Thompson did a great job job mixing it up, keeping them on their toes, making them defend the whole field. We went from wishbone to double-digit tight to five-wide so they saw a lot of formations.
“They had to play a lot of defense. Maybe they were not used to playing. We took advantage of the things they were giving to us and late Lincoln put the game away. We just played the No. 1 defense and won 27-6. It’s going to prove a point.”
Thomas called defensive coordinator Robert Armbruster “our mad genius upstairs. He dials it up. He spends countless hours breaking down film, finding tendencies. He has gotten these kids to play hard. There are a lot of young kids on defense. They have been getting better and better. We leaned on them getting some short field and we took advantage of it.
“We got after their quarterback in the second half. Hank Pearson was devastating. He came off the edge. Ben Stegall had a couple of fumble recoveries. R. H. Frankland had a sack from behind and he jumped on it. We had some great plays in the secondary by Will Stegall. Darby Smith made a big play on defense with an interception and he made a big play on offense. He got us going in the first half.”
Burns threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Grayson Hitt that he caught one-handed with 11:02 left in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead.
“It was exciting. The blood was flowing,” said Hitt, who caught 5 passes for 79 yards. “I went up for the ball. It was kind of awkward. I bobbled it and came up with it. All of our receivers and Lincoln, almost all the skill players did good. The line did really well blocking for Ethan and Lincoln. The linebackers are really tough and play hard. The defense stopped Whitehaven and our passing game came up big. I am feeling amazing. This is awesome.”
The Tigers (10-2) tied the game with 9:23 left in the first after going 67 yards. Sophomore Derrius Boddie, Jr., scored from 2 yards. Will Stegall blocked Ba Abdoul’s extra point.
Smith intercepted Whitehaven quarterback Keyshawn Harris at the Houston 36 at the beginning of the second quarter. It was Smith’s sixth INT this season.
“It really got our defense going. Following that our defense never allowed another point and held ground, causing multiple fumbles to set up scores,” said Smith.
Burns’ 30-yard pass to Frankland got Houston to the Tigers 11 but the drive stalled on an incomplete pass.
Later in the quarter, Houston’s Christian Crew had a jarring tackle of fullback Hayden Martin and Josh Mathis tackled Harris.
With 37 seconds left in the second quarter, Burns threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to Smith and Carson Richards’ PAT gave the Mustangs a lead they would never lose13-6.
“The touchdown before half was a thing of beauty. I still don’t know how Ethan fit the ball perfectly between two very well coached linebackers (Bryson Eason, Martavius French) who are going to Tennessee,” said Smith. “That gave us a lot of momentum going into the half.”
Ben Stegall sacked Harris before halftime.
The turning point of the game came in the third quarter. A 30-yard run by Cameron Sneed put the Tigers on the Houston 16. At the 6-yard line, Houston’s defense stopped the Tigers on fourth and one and began a 94-yard drive that Burns led, passing for 77 yards including a first pass to Pearson at the Whitehaven 15.
Pare ran 10 yards for a 19-6 lead with 2:03 left. Richards made it 20-6.
“Ethan led us downfield. It was all him. He called the plays. He told us what to do and got us in the end zone,” said Pare.
Burns said, “We see ourselves as a third quarter team. We always come out strong every third quarter and put up at least two touchdowns. “
It was momentum boost for the Mustangs.
“Momentum is a thing that matters in this game with this age group. We had an opportunity to score and get the game where it needed to be and didn’t take advantage of it,” said Rodney Saulsberry, who in his 16th year as the Tigers head coach. “We can’t keep giving the offense the ball that many times and expect them not to score. We have been doing a very good job all year being efficient not turning the ball over and giving other teams short fields. It’s tough to win turning the ball over four times.”
Frankland’s interception of Harris at the Whitehaven 49 with 1:53 left set up a field goal attempt by Richards that failed because of a bobbled hold.
Frankland caused a fumble in the fourth quarter that Pearson recovered at the Tigers 11 but Houston failed on fourth down. However nine seconds later Mathis recovered the Tigers’ possession at the 4 with 6:59 left.
Pare ran 16 yards for his 37th touchdown of the season and Richards’ PAT provided a 27-6 lead.
“We weren’t going to step off the gas because we remember we had them down 10 last year then they came back and beat us. We knew that we had to focus on playing 48 minutes. Our kids stayed composed and got the job done,” said Thomas.
Pearson and Ben Stegall, who had a team-high 11 tackles, got his second sack of Harris, in the fourth quarter. Houston was on the Whitehaven 16 and went into the victory formation.
“We hit them in the mouth and never quit,” said Pare, “Even when we made mistakes we kept our composure and did what Coach Thomas told us to do.”
Whitehaven’s 5-2 defense, which Saulsberry calls old school, is Shelby-Metro’s leader, giving up 38 points all season with seven shutouts. It was the best Pare has played against.
“I tell you one thing it’s 1 (Eason), 2 (French), 3 (Tamarion McDonald). They are probably the best athletes I’ve ever played against,” said Pare. All three are committed to Tennessee.
Pare will meet Eason again. He also is a 6A Mr. Football candidate, Whitehaven’s third (2012, 2016).
“I love that guy,” Pare said of Eason. “He plays with class. He is not dirty. He is a really nice kid. It’s fun to play against the best competition you could play against and I love it.”
Thomas said that he has never been on the field with two Mr. Football candidates pitted against each other.
“They are obviously two deserving players. Hopefully on Dec. 2 we will see Lincoln win the thing,” said Thomas.
Said Pare, “It would be a dream come true. It shows my hard work is paying off.” He went to Virginia Tech on Saturday on a recruiting visit.
“I’m having the best time of my life.”
Thomas said, “Those three Tennessee commits (Eason, French, MacDonald) are pretty special. If you don’t respect their speed, size (each are 6-2 or taller and weigh from 225 to 245) and tenacity, you see them live they are huge sideline to sideline. Eason is a smart player. He is like a quarterback on defense.”
As a heartbroken Eason saw the clock wound down from 6 minutes, he said that he is going to remember 27-6 in the off-season to use for motivation as he prepares for Tennessee.
“The whole time I was on the field, I had hope and motivation that we were going to come out with the outcome on our side. But it didn’t turn out that way,” said Eason, who called the Mustangs “great guys, great athletes” who played with “great sportsmanship.”
French said, “They had some good coaching, used a balance offense with Lincoln, their running backs, receivers playing a bigger role tonight. Getting this far with my brothers (meant most).
“We have been playing with each other since ninth grade. We wanted to go to the next round. I start a new chapter in my life. Faith was our word. Faith in our team. Faith in God. I always feel faith in God every day. Win or lose, I still am going to thank God for letting me play this sport. I pray that my teammates don’t get hurt and make sure to get better every day. There is still a lot of football to be played. I can’t win every game.”
While disappointed, McDonald said that he gave it his all. The Tigers fed off their coaches who have treated them as sons along with preparing them for college.
“What excites me about Tennessee is playing for my state and being able to play football for great coaches and a great school,” he said, adding
Houston’s execution provided the difference.
Pearson said, “It was one of the biggest wins in school history. The fumble recovery, two to three sacks. It came together. All credit to the all guys around me, especially Deion (Harris). H
e takes so much pressure off me. He is the best defensive lineman in the sate. Christian Crew played a great game, all the linebackers. We only gave up six points, you can’t ask for more.”
Burns said, “I feel amazing. I am so happy for our team but we’ve got two more. Our defense played amazing. Ever since the Southwind game (50-45 win) people have been talking down on our defense. All three of these playoffs we have given up 38 points which is great.”
Harris said, “Houston defended us well because we were missing assignments. We put ourselves in bad situations. I am impressed with the team and how everybody stepped up” including new receivers Terrell Holt, Jaylon Monger, Emiko Blakes.
“The difference was we couldn’t put the ball in the end zone. The loss really hurts because the hard work we put in didn’t pay off the way we wanted it to.”
Thomas saw his offensive line pay off.
“They did a fantastic job of protecting. They are bring five good players every down. They kept them off Ethan and gave him time to find the open man. That is huge.”
Houston’s left tackle is Nathan Havrda, left guard Luke Needham, center Daniel Laramie, right guard Jaylin Lee, right tackle Morgan Scott, sixth lineman Pearson.
“He made a big catch at tight end at the goal line to get us in the end zone,” said Thomas of Pearson.
Statistically, Ben Stegall rushed for 12 yards with receivers Frankland getting 59, Carson Goold 89, Smith 55, Pearson 23, Will Stegall 16, Ben Stegall 3.
Crew had 6 tackles, Frankland 6 and a sack, Mathis 5 and a sack, 1 fumble recovery, Person 3 tackles, 1 fumble recovery.
Pare had 40 yards in kickoff returns, Stegall 22. Burns had one punt of 40 yards, Hitt one punt return for ll.
Leading the Tigers’ multiple offense with a traditional I formation was Harris with 81 yards passing, Boddie 76 yards rushing along with Sneed’s 72. Blakes had 41 yards receiving, MacDonald 22, Monger 17. MacDonald’s four punts totaled 147 yards.
Saulsberry told his team after the game the loss was “supposed to hurt. If you don’t care, it wouldn’t hurt. Seniors you can’t shut down, life is beginning. We made too many mistakes. We didn’t get the job done. What are we going to do after this? Be a man and step up.”
Thomas told his team afterwards if they are going to get out of Memphis they are going to have to beat a team like Whitehaven.
“They have a great program. Our kids wouldn’t want it any other way. They want the hard road,” he said.
Houston assistant coach Shawn Abel said, “I like giant killers.”
Pare had a message for Ravenwood and beyond.
“Don’t doubt Houston. We are here to win a state championship. Stop doubting us. We just proved you wrong.”