By Bill Sorrell – Photo by Kevin Lewter
Wide receivers just want to have fun. Lined up for a second-quarter play, Houston wide receiver Grayson Hitt began doing the “Cupid Shuffle.”
To the left, to the left, to the right, to the right, Hitt went, then left kick, right kick then ran it by himself, down the field, down the field, scoring on a 16-yard pass reception from quarterback Ethan Burns.
Do your dance, do your dance. Now you see what we’re talking about, where we’re known for slinging it out. Better watch how close we coming. So get ready for the brand new style. Here we go.
“I’m trying to have some fun,” said Hitt after the Mustangs took a 25-0 lead, before dancing their way to a 44-6 victory over Knowledge Is Power Program (K.I.P.P.) Collegiate School on Friday at Houston.
Their eighth straight victory was the first time in school history the Mustangs have been 8-0.
“That is a pretty awesome feeling, great,” said Houston head coach James Thomas. Houston had gone 7-0 the second year of former head coach Will Hudgens.
Already Region 7-6A champions, Houston will host Cordova (3-5, 0-2) at 7 p.m. this Friday to try to remain undefeated in the region (4-0).
“It feels amazing. This is the first undefeated team I have been on as long as I have played football,” said Houston noseguard Deion Harris.
“It was a lot of fun,” said junior quarterback Gray Nischwitz, who started the second half along with freshmen and sophomores after Houston led 38-0 and Thomas and K.I.P.P. head coach Terrance Ayers agreed to 8-minute third and fourth quarters.
“We have two more league (Region 7-2A) games left (Memphis Academy of Health Sciences and Douglass) and everything was to leave here safe tonight and not get anybody hurt,” said Ayers.
Thomas said, “These games are always fun in a way but not for coaches because you never want to get somebody hurt in this kind of game.”
Houston starters were on the sidelines for the second half without pads.
“Refreshing,” said Harris and “pretty fun to take off the second half and take the load off of us and let us see what our future is going to look like after we all graduate,” said Harris, a senior. “It was relaxing and gives us an extra breath before we go into next week.”
Mustang fun was seeing sophomore twins Ben Stegall and Will Stegall score back-to-back touchdowns, the first time they have both scored in the same varsity game.
Ben Stegall turned a high snap from center into Houston’s first touchdown then Will Stegall stripped the ball from a KIPP receiver and raced 22 yards for a 13-0 lead.
“The (KIPP) kid caught the ball and Will stripped it right from him. He kept in bounds and took it the other way. It was a phenomenal athletic play,” said Thomas. “The play before before we had the high snap and Ben grabbed it and takes in for a score. When you have two kids like that they are making plays all over the field offense and defense, their roles are going to become more as we head toward the playoffs. Those two kids are warriors on the field, no doubt about it,” said Thomas.
Fun for the Stegall twins was playing football with each other.
“It was a great feeling,” said Ben of Will scoring. “I loved being with him when he scored and it was a great feeling we did well as a team and got the win.”
Fun was Lincoln Pare rushing for 144 yards, add another rushing touchdown (now 18) and get closer to the 2,000-yard season mark with 1,659 yards. Abe Felix holds the school record with 2,601 yards in 2001 which ranks 15th in the state in single-season rushing yardage. He was Mr. Football Back of the Year in 2002.
“Lincoln is amazing,” said Harris. “It takes the load off everybody else. We are so blessed.”
Fun was Hitt catching a 48-yard touchdown pass from Burns with 49 seconds left in the first quarter and then a 35-yard TD catch from Burns on the last play of the first half.
“This just in,” laughed Thomas. “I think Grayson is going to be a ready good wide receiver for us. He made play after play. He made tremendous catches in the end zone, the one slant he took right up the middle and showed off his speed, that is one thing people don’t realize, he is so long and lengthy when he gets it going he is football fast. When he gets the ball in the his hands he turns it into another gear. He gets faster. He has 4.5 speed but when he gets the ball he might be 4.4.
“The funny thing is he had three touchdowns tonight and he is still complaining ‘I need to get the ball more.’ He is so unselfish. You look at the plays where Lincoln does well or anybody else does well, he his blocking his tail off and he is making the right plays. You can’t ask any more out of a guy on the perimeter.
“They always say you can tell a great team when you have great blocking on the perimeter. That is what we preach, that is what Coach Shawn Able works on every day in practice. To see this translate on the field is very gratifying.”
Burns had his own fun with 4-of-4 passing for 119 yards.
“I played pretty good. I didn’t get that many opportunities. We wanted to get the guys that don’t get in there as much,” said Burns.
Houston’s “oh’ line and defense were in on the mix with blocks, quarterback pressures and sacks.
“I give it to the offensive line. To be their size those guys move,” said KIPP linebacker/running back Derrell Gooden.
Houston’s defense held the Phoenix (2-6) to 105 yards total offense, 54 rushing, 49 passing.
“The top kid that has stepped up for us is Luke Needham. He is a freshman left guard. We had a couple of guards go down and get hurt and he definitely has been huge for us,” said Pare.
Burns echoed Pare’s statement about Needham and added, “Ian Bullock (a freshman fullback/middle linebacker) is building huge, right behind his brother (Ryan Bullock) from last year.”
Nischwitz has also been impressed with Bullock. “He has been playing great and been giving a lot of teams a lot of trouble.”’
Junior center Daniel Laramie “has stepped in a role that we needed. He struggled a little bit as a sophomore and JV player but he put so much work in with coach (Raheem) Shabazz over the summer he was going to his place (Shabazz Fitness) twice a day. He snaps probably 50 to 100 balls a practice to make sure he is working on his craft because the snap is so important in the shotgun offense,” said Thomas.
While the Mustangs will work on PAT execution during practice (Houston failed on five including two-point conversions), placekicker Carson Richards “has done a phenomenal job” said Thomas.
“If you asked me if he would be leading the area in kicking scoring I’d say we must be scoring a lot of points. When he misses extra points it is not always his fault. It’s about a snap, hold, kick and everybody has to block too.”
Nischwitz was part of Houston’s 304 yards total offense. He completed 1 of 3 passes for 15 yards and rushed for 14 yards on 2 carries. Houston finished with 134 yards passing, 170 rushing yards.
Nischwitz, who missed last season with a torn ACL, threw two passes in a 45-0 victory over Bolton Sept. 6.
“I feel like I did better tonight,” said Nischwitz, who was “stoked” when he learned the second team would play second half.
“I was excited. I’ve been waiting to go in and show the work I have been putting in so I was really pleased. I’d love to get back there and do it again. I’m going to keep working. I want to end my career with as many plays as I can and make as many memories as I can even if it doesn’t take me to college. I would like to be happy about my last season (2020).”
Thomas said, “Gray is our heir apparent for next year. He has a heck of n arm. He has worked really hard. He is taking care of our long snapping and our field goal snapping. He played a big role for the team right now. When he gets his chance he is going to be a good one.”
Said Pare of Nischwitz, “He can really sling it. He’s really a secret nobody knows about.”
Houston freshman running back Will Grant (5-11, 180) ran well in the second half.
Sophomore offensive/defensive lineman J.W. Kulp made tackle after tackle in the second half.
“He is the MVP of the second team now,” said Harris.
Burns said of Kulp, “He is always there in practice doing good, pushing the guys on varsity to always give it their best. He showed how practice is working out for him.”
Playing well for KIPP was Seth White, a wide receiver/defensive back, who caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Antonio Jenkins with 50 seconds left in the third quarter to give the Phoenix their first touchdown, 38-6. Jenkins carried the ball 7 times for 63 yards during the drive before the touchdown pass.
Thomas called it a great play. “We had a pretty good position on him. He went up high-pointed the ball and broke a tackle and made it into the end zone. They were running the ball hard, blocking hard.
“They have got some good kids over there. It’s always tough when they play a game like this. They feel like they are over-matched. They played with heart.”
KIPP defensive end/tight end Anthony Owens “was flying around on defense” said Burns.
Nischwitz said, “I don’t think they quit at all. I thought they gave everything they had from the kickoff to the last play. I thought it was pretty impressive.”
Resilient is a word Ayers, quarterback at Lane from 2012-2015, has used this season to describe his team.
“They are not going to quit. Things got tough in the first half but they rallied second half and it was different. We saw a better effort. They came out with a better attitude to finish the game. Young guys were making plays, returners, a couple of seniors, stepped up to help. The thing is every game to take something from it and learn and try to build on it going forward.”
In his first season as KIPP coach, Ayers, 26, praised White, linebacker Scotty Roddy, quarterback Josh McMorris, Gooden and “overall team effort. I’m really proud of those guys. They didn’t drop their heads. We knew we were coming into a tough game, tough environment. They played it all out.”
At Lane, Ayers learned to bounce back from slow starts and “keep pushing forward. That is the biggest thing to help me. I appreciate Lane College and my days there as a player because it has prepared me for this moment.”
It was McMorris’ first game back since separating his left shoulder Sept. 19 in a 26-18 win over Hamilton.
“I felt good in my throwing game,” said McMorris, who has thrown for 3 touchdowns and run for 6 this season. He faced some “good” Houston linebackers with “good” blitz.
McMorris was pleased with the way Jenkins stepped in for him in the second half. He called Jenkins and White playmakers. “I’m grateful for them.
I would describe this game as a showcase. We are going to show up and show out. We are going to be our playmakers. We had a lot of playmakers pull us through. We were looking for a lot of young guys to step up and continue to get them in the game for the experience they are going to need for future games.”
“I believe they are going to be some top prospects next year,” said defensive back/wide receiver Cameron Williams of Jenkins, a sophomore, and White, a junior.
Roddy and Derrick Issac, defensive tackle/offensive guard, also contributed for the Phoenix.
McMorris said the Mustangs played fundamental football and came out ready to play.
From Pare’s 72-yard opening kickoff return to his 15-yard run to the KIPP 3 the play after that set up the Ben Stegall TD to Nischwitz’s ending touchdown, the Mustangs were ready.
Richards kicked the PAT after Ben Stegall’s touchdown with10:47 left.
A sack by Carter Gibson preceded the strip and score by Will Stegall. A backfield tackle by Harris of Roddy forced a punt from Jenkins.
A 17-yard run by Pare set up Burns’ 48-yard TD pass to Hitt with 49 seconds left in the first and a 19-0 lead.
A sack by Gibson, an interception of McMorris by Cade Young, which Nischwitz called “really good,” put Houston on the KIPP 46. Pare ran 20 yards, Burns hit Ben Stegall with a first-down pass to the 12 and after a holding penalty, Burns threw the 16-yard touchdown to Hitt with 7:46 left in the second and a 25-0 lead.
Following a Jenkins punt, the Mustangs were on their 31. Pare later ran a 37-yard touchdown for a 31-0 lead.
On the next series, Hitt ran a punt return to the KIPP 35 and Burns struck for his third touchdown pass to Hitt before halftime. Richards made it 38-0 with his PAT. Pare said it was the game’s turning point.
The play, a 5-wide up-split to Hitt and go route, the touchdown provided a lot of energy said Nischwitz. “Grayson is so athletic and so good it’s almost a screen pass. It’s nothing.”
From the sidelines, Ben Stegall, who kids with Will about who is faster and the next saying who is stronger, was glad to cheer his team on second half.
“Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I love being able to play with him on my side.”
Senior offensive/defensive lineman and a captain Nathan Havrda said, “It’s nice to give young guys some reps and build on some depth.”
Nischwitz had first-down passes in the third and fourth quarter. Freshman Alex Desarzant, a freshman who was moved up for the game, had a 40-yard kickoff return after KIPP scored to spark the Mustangs’ final touchdown. Grant ran to the KIPP 46, Nischwitz passed to Tahj Shabazz for a first down and after rushes by Grant and Nischwitz and a first down at the KIPP 11, Nischwitz scored from the 11 with 1:11 left in the game
“The second team and freshmen came in building depth and character. We played pretty well. The second teamers really wanted to play. I tell them in practice it’s all about effort. You want to go hard like you do in a game. It all was according to the game plan,” said Harris, whose intense play is “a feeling that hits me when I get on the field, something comes over me.”
His father Demetrius Harris, who played defensive end at Kirby, has encouraged him to be better than he was.
“My dad motivates me and given me guidance over the years,” said Harris, who is being recruited by Cumberland (TN) University, Wheaton (IL) College and Defiance (OH) College. He plans to visit Defiance soon.
Calling the game a depth-builder, Pare said, “We have to take every game seriously. We want to get the win. We don’t care about what each gets stats wise. It’s about the program. Our coaches’ motto is get better every week so we have to get better no matter who we play,”
Continuing to play under control this season and improving on “staying cool” during games, Burns said, “Every game is important. No matter what, every rep, every snap, you should be 100 percent because you never know when it’s going to be your last. We expected to go undefeated and we have lived up to those expectations so far.”
To stay that way Thomas plans to work on improving extra point execution.
“They are so important in close ball games. The operation wasn’t great tonight. We will get it cleaned up in practice and spend more time than usual. There are a lot of variables in it. We have been pretty solid on it all year. Tonight I don’t feel like we were solid. It definitely got my attention.”
He has paid attention to team chemistry which he is pleased with and overall play. “When you are 8-0 there are not many problems,” he said.
Ayers has put in a spread offense and 4-2-5 defense for a team that is young with young coaches.
“They’re eager to learn,” he said of his 25 players and eighth year of the program. They did learn against Houston.
“I would describe this game as a learning experience,” said Williams. Gooden said, “We can help the younger guys get better.”
McMorris said, “When the scoreboard is not going your way, they can get down on themselves. We had a lot to depend on. Some didn’t show up but I’m grateful for the ones who did. We are going to work with those who did so they can produce on the field.”
Said Gooden, “Regardless of the scoreboard, you have to come out and give it your all.”
Williams said, “Never give up. It’s football and anything can happen.” His inspiration is his family and desire to play in college.
McMorris said, “My inspiration is to just perform. I do love this game,. I love my family and my teammates.”
Houston is the best team the Phoenix have played said McMorris.
“They play fundamental football. They read the plays. They showed up.”
Williams said, “They are a program. It was a team effort, it wasn’t just one dude. No. 4 (Pare) wasn’t just the top guy. No. 1 (Hitt) caught some passes.”
Pare had the Phoenix attention.
“Everybody in the city knows about him. He is a tough runner, a tough guy to tackle,” said Ayers.
Williams described Pare as a “beast” and “an outstanding player. I can’t wait to see him go farther in his career.”
Gooden called him “fast and physical.”
McMorris said, “He is a competitor. He wasn’t going to let his his guard down and came out swinging. He played a good game and showed us what we need to work on in the future.”
Said Ayers, “Houston is a first-class program. I am looking forward to them making a run in the playoffs, hopefully, toward the state championship game.”
Ben Stegall said, “We have a goal in mind and that’s what we are aiming for.”
“This gets us one step closer,” said Pare. “I think we can get better on everything. I think we are still climbing. I don’t think we have peaked yet.”
While Harris said of the victory, “I learned we have some good things ahead of us. We have a bright future as a team. We are going to be good for a long time” the Mustangs must “keep the intensity up in practice and stay focused on our main goal, to win a state championship.”
That would give Hitt the chance to do the “Cupid Shuffle” in Cookeville.