By Kathi Bliss and Rob Ortiz
Closing out what could be the most brutal three-game series in Central Texas football, the Lions crossed the halfway point on the season with a bruising 35-13 loss to Alamo Heights on Friday night. Of the Lions’ last three opponents, Alamo Heights, Dripping Springs and Boerne-Champion, two are ranked in the State’s Top 15 after four weeks of District play, a fact that has not been lost on the Lions, or their coaches.
“We have faced three of the top five teams in our region over the last month,” Head Coach Brian Herman said. “Facing such quality opponents shows us where we stand in the region.”
Indeed, though the Lions have logged three consecutive losses, their spirits are not broken; in fact, they are eager to move forward into what some call the “easy part” of the District season.
Even Friday night’s loss in the highly-anticipated game against Alamo Heights showed strength from the Lions, and promise of good things to come.
Opening the door with tough defense, the Lions forced two turnovers in the first half, proving to the Mules that, despite their preparations all season, the Lions were not planning to hand them an easy win.
In fact, on their first drive, the Mules were only two plays in when a swarm of Lions attacked a receiver inside the Lions’ 20, forcing a fumble that the Lions recovered to save the score. The Lions were able to drive it back to their own 32, before another fumble caused a shift in momentum, allowing the Mules to take a 7-0 lead with 9:06 left in the first quarter.
Their best efforts on their next drive were not enough for a score, and the Lions were forced to take the punt at fourth-and-long. A short return put the Mules back in the driver’s seat, until linebacker JJ Carranza snagged an interception that put the Lions back in control at their own 42-yard line.
Two short gains and two penalties later, running back Stephon Houston sliced through the middle on a 52-yard touchdown rush. Kicker Juan Ocampo followed up with a solid point-after attempt, tying the score at 7 with only 56 seconds left in the quarter.
The Mules returned the ensuing kickoff to the 19, but then took a penalty for holding, which put them deeper into their own territory. The Lion defense, led in part by senior Logan Altier put pressure on the quarterback, but it ultimately wasn’t enough, as the Mules connected on a series of passes that put them deep into the red. One final pass from 10 yards out and a good kick put the Mules ahead 14-7.
Defensive blows continued to fly through the second, as the Mules forced a punt. However, on the return, Alamo Heights fumbled, giving a cadre of Lions the chance to recover and take back control of their destiny.
This began a long, slow drive up the middle, ending with the Lions poised at fourth-and-7 on the Mules’ 13.
Taking a gamble on his kicker, Herman called Ocampo back to the field to split the uprights again, with a 33-yard kick that narrowed the gap to 14-10.
Alamo Heights answered back immediately, putting together another successful drive that burned only a minute off the clock.
The Lion offense was starting to show signs of wear, gaining only 15 yards on their next drive before the Mules forced the punt.
The Lion defense, however, kept the pressure on. Roman Ruiz backed the quarterback into a loss, and Tyresse Purefoy forced an incomplete pass. The line held through a third-down pass attempt to force the punt at fourth-and-long.
The Lions gained yards on their next drive, but ran out of time before the buzzer sounded for the break, leaving Lockhart on the low end of a 21-10 score.
The Mules defense came back to the field ready to do work in the third. They forced a punt on the Lions’ first drive, and were able to score a big return, driving the ball to the Lions’ 29-yard line. However, Ruiz, Diego Mendoza and Logan Schnautz were able to team for a big tackle for a loss of one yard, and Andy Dorado stepped up with a big catch after a tipped attempt at a pass play.
Still, the Lion offense couldn’t put anything together, picking up a few short gains, only to have penalties offset their progress.
“Offensively, against Alamo Heights we had momentum killers [like a penalty or missed assignment] that kept us from answering when we needed to,” Herman said. “Down 21-10 going into the fourth, we were still in striking distance, we just didn’t make it happen.”
A series of strong defensive series on both sides left the third quarter scoreless.
Only seconds into the fourth, the Mules capitalized on the Lions’ growing fatigue, driving in a touchdown from two yards out, with 11:54 on the clock.
The Lions’ offense continued to struggle, and the defense did their best, eventually closing the night by holding the Mules to their lowest score thus far this season.
In the final moments of play, the Lions put together one final long, slow push, ending with Herman calling on Ocampo once again, this time splitting the uprights on a 40-yard kick to close scoring at 35-13.
“We demonstrated that we can play with the ‘big boys,’ the difference being who capitalizes on mistakes and who doesn’t,” Herman said of the last three games. “So far, we have not capitalized on the other teams mistakes.”
The next three games, the last of the regular season, are critical for the Lions, who currently stand at (2-5 [1-3]). A loss in any of the three upcoming games could thwart the Lions’ run at a winning season and a playoff berth.
In their Homecoming matchup on Friday, the Lions will attempt to unseat the Castroville Medina Valley Panthers (4-3 [2-2]), who are currently tied with Kerrville Tivy (2-5 [2-2]) for the coveted fourth-place spot in District 26-5A. The Lions face Kerrville in their final game of the season on Nov. 4, when the fourth-place spot will be ultimately decided.
“I am not sure if the district recognizes us as threat but we believe that we are and plan to make some noise coming down the stretch,” Herman said.
Homecoming activities begin at Lion Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21, with kickoff slated at 7:30 p.m.