Hoisted high by Houston High students, the school’s English teacher and softball coach began his workout.
Taking the place of what students normally do, Tom Kolodziej got on a black and white student-held board and began doing 34 push-ups with 1:55 left in a memorable playoff game on Friday at Houston.
A push-up for every point scored, Kolodziej celebrated the Mustangs’ 34-19 victory over White Station in the first round of the TSSAA state playoffs, the seniors’ first playoff victory ever.
“Getting to see the kids’ reaction to moving on is the ultimate reward,” said Houston Athletic Director Chad Becker as he watched Kolodzeij’s push-ups.
Moving on is what the Associated Press No. 9 state-ranked Mustangs (10-1) will do. They host No. 10 Whitehaven (8-3) in a second-round game at 7 p.m. this Friday.
Houston Head Coach James Thomas, named the Region 7-6A Coach of the Year in his first season at the helm, laughed hearing about Kolodziej’s celebration.
“I’m glad we got a little work out in tonight,” said Thomas. “This is what it’s all about, the whole school behind the football team.”
The school is doing well.
“The school has the highest ACT in the state. That is huge for us. We are not just sports, we’re academics as well. At some point, football is going to leave you but your education will always be there,” said Thomas.
With a 25.9 average score on the ACT, Houston led the state for the fourth year in a row.
Scholar-athletes were huge in Houston’s ninth-straight win.
Nick Anewalt kicked field goals of 40 and 36 yards, the 40-yarder his second longest of the season (46), made four PATs and punted. Anewalt made 35 on the ACT and has a 4.6 grade-point average.
Ryan Bullock, who made 34 on the ACT and entered his senior year with a 4.0 GPA, made a defensive impact along with middle linebackers Will Gusmus and Landon Schmidt.
“They played their hearts out,” said Thomas.
Kip Frankland, who entered his senior year with a 3.8 GPA and is going to the Naval Academy, played on the offensive and defensive line.
“Kip, a big guy on defense and offense, was absolutely dominating people out there,” said Anewalt.
The Mustangs relished their team win.
Outside linebackers Ben Stegall, who sealed the victory with a 45-yard interception that he returned to the White Station 20-yard line setting up the Mustangs’ final touchdown, and Chris Colebank “were solid all night,” said Thomas.
“The three guys up front, Kip Frankland, Deion Harris and Harrison Wilkes, really did a great job against their run game. I couldn’t say enough about them,” he said.
Thomas said they have been all season, among those and other players, earning post-season recognition.
Frankland was named first team all-region offensive lineman and second team defensive line. Matt Needham was first team and Nathan Harvda second team. Harris was second team all-region defensive line. Gusmus was first team all-region linebacker. Bullock was second team at tight end and Schmidt honorable mention.
It was a statement game that combined playoff-ready plays on offense, defense and special teams.
“I think this shows that we are a real contender. I think people around the state don’t respect what we are doing,” said Anewalt, who was first team all-region kicker and second team punter.
The Mustangs overcame “the big hurdle” of getting out of the first round.
“I told them every one of these is gold, don’t take any one for granted. Each one gets bigger and bigger. For this group to win their first playoff game, like Kip Frankland. He’s been a 4-year starter. To get his first varsity playoff win is very special for him.”
First-team all-region running back and region Offensive Player of the Year, Lincoln Pare keeps rolling. Pare rushed for 204 yards and scored four touchdowns, pushing his season TD total to 29.
“He’s a great player. I think he is one of the better running backs if not the best running back in the area as a junior,” said White Station Head Coach Joe Roconni. “You can’t key on him because they had other weapons. They’ve got some good receivers. The quarterback is a very good player. I think their offensive line is probably their biggest strength.”
White Station quarterback Drew Lyons, named second team All-Region 8-6A, said the Spartans’ plan was to put pressure on Pare.
“We brought the house in the beginning but they made adjustments after the first few drives and he got going and we struggled to stop him after that,” he said.
Pare, who had 31 carries, “is an athlete, probably the best athlete I’ve seen in high school,” said Colebank, a senior.
“What he does with the ball blows my mind. How does he break that tackle? He had a lot of amazing runs that were for 5 and 10 yards because he’s breaking tackle after tackle,” he added.
Pare had a gymnastic-like dive into the end zone on his fourth touchdown.
“That was definitely the sealer for me,” said Pare, who scored on touchdown runs of 1 yard, 9 yards, 7 yards and 10 yards.
“The O-line (Morgan Scott, Havrda, Jaren Alnutt, Frankland, Needham) blocks fantastic. My strength coach Raheem Shabazz got me ready in the offseason. He has prepared me very well. I can pretty much play every single play and still have energy,” Pare said.
Thomas said of Pare, “He is a very special running back. He’s got a good power game. Nobody ever gets a good shot on him and he is quick as a jitterbug. He’s also got that extra gear.”
Wide receiver Grayson Hitt called Pare a workhorse.
“He gets things done. He will work until he can’t anymore,” Hitt said.
In 10 games, Pare has 1, 679 yards rushing. Houston is ninth in Shelby-Metro with a rushing average of 228.7 yards.
Bullock said, “We definitely rely on our run game. Our coaches know we can run the ball and we can also become a threat for the passing game.”
The Mustangs stopped the Spartans, who entered the playoffs with a 3-7 record, the same as last season when they won their first two playoff games before losing in the quarterfinals.
Lyons passed for 235 yards and a touchdown, completing 17 of 30, including fourth down completions that kept White Station’s reputation a dangerous team that is never counted out no matter the record.
Rocconi said, “We felt in it all the way until the end. We came up short on that last drive. We let them know that they are always in it.”
“They know your record during the regular season doesn’t make your team. It doesn’t sum up your season. I would tell them that if we were 10-0. It’s about how you finish,” he added.
Anewalt said, “They (Spartans) are a great team. I don’t think their record is indicative of how well they play. They are very athletic.”
Gusmus, a senior, said, “The defense played phenomenal. I knew the quarterback (Lyons) had an arm so we needed to get to him fast.”
Frankland said, “We did a great job making them work for all their drives and earn their yards. We gave up only one big play.”
That came with 9:46 left in the game when Lyons threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Eli Neal that put the Spartans within 27-19.
Houston senior Andrew Turk, a fullback/linebacker, said there was a different energy pre-game.
“We were focused and came out ready to play. I feel like this showed more that we can play with the big dogs,” he said.
What sparked the Mustangs were interceptions. Gusmus called Jordan Monk’s interception the game’s turning point.
Named an all-region first team defensive back, Monk intercepted Lyons’ pass on the White Station 36 with 7:54 left in the second quarter. A play later Pare ran 10 yards to the Spartans 24 and then ran the final yards on three carries including the 1-yard touchdown that put the Mustangs ahead to stay 10-6 with 6:26 left in the second quarter. Anewalt kicked the extra point.
“I recognized how the quarterback was looking and how their receivers were lined up and when the ball was snapped I realized by the way he came off the ball, what route he was throwing, a post route,” said Monk, also named first-team all-region receiver.
Stegall’s interception came with 2:37 left. That set up two 10-yard runs by Pare, including his touchdown, that gave the Mustangs a 34-19 lead with 1:55 left.
Grayson Hitt, a safety, snagged an interception with 53 seconds left at the Houston 30 to end the game.
“It’s just incredible, our team not quitting even when there’s 30 seconds left. It’s crazy,” said Pare. “Grayson Hitt did a fantastic job coming in at halftime at safety and we were very happy he made that play. On our defense, Will Gusmus, Kip Frankland, Ryan Bullock, they’re insane.”
Bullock said, “I was definitely prepared. All the credit goes to the D-line (Harrison Wilkes, Frankland, Harris). Without them I wouldn’t be where I was getting.”
Stegall said of his interception, “It felt great to make the play for my teammates. We worked on their plays and tendencies throughout the week.”
Thomas called Stegall’s interception huge.
“Talk about a freshman making a play like that in a game like this. It’s pretty awesome that we’ve got him for three years. Monk intercepted a ball on a big third down. He made great plays on defense all night. I’ve been telling him big time players make big time plays in big time games,” he said.
Ben Stegall’s twin brother, corner back Will Stegall, said playing defense with Ben is a “comfort thing.”
“We know what each other is thinking so I know he’s always there for me and I am there for him,” he said.
Said Ben, “It’s special to have him out there with me. We have been playing together since we were five years old so we do have a feel for one another.”
Both were named all-region honorable mention.
The ride against White Station started by overcoming a 6-point deficit.
Paced by the Spartans’ all-region players, they took a 6-0 lead with 27 seconds left in the first quarter when Eli Neal scored on a 1-yard run.
The Spartans are led by first-team offensive lineman Jaylin Rainey, who was also second-team defensive line; first-team all-region linebacker Neal, who is also all-region second team running back; first teamer Robert Artis in the secondary; second team all-region wide receiver Rod Farmer, who is also second team in the secondary; Ray Curry second team offensive line; Reggie Matthews second team offensive line; Travis Lewis second team fullback and linebacker.
Farmer had a game-high 112 receving yards on nine receptions while Neal finished with two catches for 61 yards.
To set up their touchdown, the Spartans got the ball on the Houston 9-yard line. Hitt was in position to field a punt.
“I didn’t expect them to cover that fast. It was a line drive. I thought I was going to be able to get it and return it but at the last second I was going to get out of the way but he (defender) hit me. I guess it hit my shoulder. I wasn’t really that positive if it hit me or not. I didn’t have possession of it. The ref thought I touched it when he hit me but I don’t think so,” said Hitt.
Earlier, the Spartans started with an impressive drive at their 11. Lyons threw a 13-yard pass to Jim Baker that got to the 38. Lyons passed 11 yards to Baker. The Spartans got to the Houston 39 before Ben Stegall, Harris and Bullock combined for an 11-yard sack of Lyons. Max Reid then had a 33-yard punt.
Taking possession at the Houston 9, Neal had runs that went to the 1 before he scored. Reid missed the PAT.
A 51-yard drive by the Mustangs led to Anewalt’s 40-yard field goal with 9:22 left in the second quarter, cutting the lead to 6-3.
Monk’s interception and Pare’s touchdown made it 10-6.
The Mustangs would expand their lead.
First-team all-region quarterback Ethan Burns hit Darby Smith with an 8-yard pass that put Houston on the Spartans 34.
Burns would complete 4 of 12 passes for 44 yards. Pare said that Burns, along with Hitt, who had one catch for 10 yards, and Monk, who finished with 2 receptions for 26 yards, were standouts offensively.
Burns entered the game as one of Shelby-Metro’s top passers, ranking sixth each in total passing yards average (145.8), passing yards (1,458), passing touchdowns (18).
All-region first team receiver, Hitt entered sixth in Shelby-Metro in receiving touchdowns with 9, Monk ninth in yards per catch with 22.2 average. He is a second-team all-region receiver.
Thomas said, “We had some success running off the edge on them. Our guys were able to sustain their blocks really well. Our up-tempo they got a little gassed and our guys were starting to win those matches.”
A 7-yard run by Pare got the Mustangs to the 27 and his 15-yard run got to the 12 before he ran nine yards for the 17-6 lead with 2:57 left in the second. Anewalt kicked the PAT.
White Station pulled within 17-12 on runs by Roshan Williams and Williams’ 19-yard pass to Greg Rubin. Williams, who led rushers with 73 yards on 8 carries, ran 17 yards for a touchdown with 54 seconds left in the first half. A 2-point conversion failed.
Burns’ 13-yard pass to Monk got the Mustangs to the Spartans 40 before the half. Neal then intercepted Burns to stop the drive.
The Mustangs opened the third quarter with a 19-yard kickoff return by Ben Stegall to the Houston 47. Later a 9-yard run by Pare got to the 28 and then a first down at the 25. Hitt then caught a 10-yard pass from Burns to the 15. Pare’s three runs finished the drive with Pare’s 7-yard touchdown. Anewalt made it 24-12 with 9:36 left.
The Spartans tried an onside kick after their second touchdown, trying to be aggressive.
Trailing by two touchdowns, Lyons went to work to narrow the lead. He threw an 11-yard pass to Farmer to the Houston 49. Facing fourth and sixth, the Spartans faked a punt and Farmer ran for a first down but a holding penalty negated the play and the Spartans were forced to kick. Reid made an exceptional 46-yard punt to the Houston 13.
A 9-yard run by Pare, an excellent pass from Burns to Monk that went for 12 yards, a 14-yard run by Pare plus his three more runs put the Mustangs on the White Station 19.
Anewalt, whom Thomas called a “pretty special kid,” then kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 27-12 lead with 11:55 left to play.
“That guy was balling. That guy came in clutch,” said Colebank. “When we need a field goal we know that he is going to get it done.”
Anewalt said of his 36-yarder that got over with inches to spare, “That one was close but at the end of the day if it goes through it doesn’t really matter how close it is.”
After Lyons’ touchdown pass pulled the Spartans within 27-19, Lyons completed a pass to Neal from the White Station 16 to their 23. Facing fourth down and 10 at the 23, Lyons threw a first down, 14-yard pass to Williams with 3:25 left.
Hitt said, “You know we have to play the next play and trust evreybody that is around you and you’ll eventually get a stop.”
From the 37 the Spartans faced another fourth down. Ben Stegall then made his interception. Pare later scored his 29th.
Lyons said, “When we didn’t convert on that fourth down I think that took the wind out of our sails. We went down from there.”
White Station had drive-sustaining third and fourth down conversions.
“We’ve had a lot of practice on third down conversions which menas we have to do better on first and second downs,” said Roconni. “We were behind the sticks pretty much the whole night.”
Roconni said that his team has been “inconsistent” this season.
“That has been a coaching point all year long. I was proud of the fire they played with. We have a few seniors. I’m thinking about those seniors that we are not going to have next year.”
Thomas was concerned about Lyons.
“We knew from watching the film that he is a tough kid. I knew he was going to give it his all,” said Thomas. “He threw the ball really well. He is a great competitor.”
Lyons was in tears after the game.
“It’s hard. We lost together as a team but it’s hard when you lose especially when it comes down to the wire like it did,” he said.
A “really tough schedule” had prepared the Spartans for the playoffs.
“I think that is what made us so dangerous,” said Lyons, pointing to teammates Rod Farmer for “a great game” receiving.
The Spartans have had all-region honorable mention performances from Jaylen Caver (running back), Williams (wide receiver), Kenya Taylor (O-line), Jalen Snead (tight end), Darian Sanchez D-line), Greg Rubin (secondary). Titus Goldson is second team all-region returner.
Lyons will make official visits to schools recuriting him including Rhodes, Grinnell, Centre, Oberlin, Sewanee and Birmingham Southern.
Schmidt said the Mustangs did everything they were supposed to.
“From the film we watched I thought the run was going to be the biggest problem because that is all they did was run,” he said. “I was surprised when they came out with a lot of passes.”
Schmidt praised Harris and Bullock for their play and Frankland.
“Kip is a monster,” he said. “Everywhere he goes he leaves a path of destruction.”
Hitt said the Monk and Ben Stegall and others helped change the game.
“Ryan is one of the best defensive players I’ve seen. Even in bad situations he somehow makes the play and gets people down on short-yardage plays,” he said. “Jordan Monk is fast. He is one of the best defensive backs I’ve seen.”
What makes Monk such a versatile player is being a team player.
“We depend on everybody doing their job. We wouldn’t be the team we are today if we didn’t have good team chemistry,” he said.
We have the same goal and it makes it easier for us to all play as whole instead of individual,” said Monk.
This season has been one to prove the doubters wrong he said.
“Everybody coming together, what we wanted as a team, it become such a surreal moment when you see all the hard work pay off,” Monk said. “Our season didn’t start in August. It started in January with Coach Shabazz (in the weight room).”
Hitt called Anewalt “amazing, an all-state punter and going to play in college.”
Anewalt said that bringing a playoff win to the school and keeping chances alive for a state title were team goals.
“I think if we can step up and fix a couple of things we’ll have a chance to go far. Every week we come in like it could be our last game,” he said.
Anewalt has recognized Gusmus’ effort.
“Will is an absolute beast on the field. I know that nothing scares him. He’s never afraid to back down from a fight and when he’s out there leading the defense he’s going to make big plays,” he said.
“The Stegall brothers are great. They are in a tough spot against really hard competition. I have to commend their mental toughness,” said Anewalt, who entered fifth in Shelby-Metro with a 36.5-yard average.
Will Stegall said, “I don’t see my role as any bigger than anyone else on the team. You want to be on the field. My teammates don’t care if I am a freshman or a senior. They want me to make plays and that is what I am supposed to do.”
Colebank was wearing a Mustang T-shirt with the words “Bring The Juice.” He found the shirt in the locker room, cut off the sleeves to make it a tank top.
“It’s give it your all every play. it’s a catchy phrase. Bring the juice, that’s me. That’s Houston football all day,” said Colebank, who was an honorable mention linebacker. “We had one of the best games of the year. We stopped their run very well overall. We gave up 19 points, we gave up some big plays that should not have been given up on fourth downs but we are getting better every week.”
Among the playmakers for the Mustangs this season have been honorable mention all-region Alnutt (offensive line), Scott (offensive line), Wilkes, R.H. Frankland, wide receiver.
Anewalt said that Thomas has been an example this season.
“He gives 100 percent to everybody on the team. When they see him out there working they want to give it all for him. He’s a great coach to play for and I think it pays off on game day.”
Said Thomas, “The coach of the year is a reflection of the kids. You win by default. You win the region you’re coach of the year. It’s a nice honor but I give all the credit to our kids.”
Monk’s goal and main focus is to make it to state.
“I’m looking to keep the wheel turning,” he said.
Frankland wants Kolodziej to continue the push-ups.
“I hope he does as many push-ups as he can against Whitehaven. Hopefully we will put up enough points on the board that he has to stop,” he said.