By TONY EIERDAM
Despite it being the District 6-3A opener today for the Mineral Wells Rams and the Castleberry Lions the importance of the contest in relation to a playoff berth is not lost on any of the coaches, players or fans of the two teams.
The Rams will host the Lions at 7:30 p.m. today at Ram Stadium. In other 6-3A games, Kennedale will travel to Springtown and Lake Worth will host Diamond Hill.
Beginning this year in Class 3A, the top four teams from each district qualify for the state playoffs. Mathematically, it will take at least two wins to qualify for the playoffs, meaning today’s Rams/Lions game is critical for both squads concerning a playoff berth.
“It’s the first district game, and you always want to win the district opener which we were able to do last year,” Rams head coach Chuck Lawrence said. “With four teams going to the playoffs (beginning this year) every district game has added importance.
“If you win enough you will be in, and you can win just two games and get in depending on what everybody else does. If there are three teams tied for third and fourth place a tiebreaker can still put you out.
“But the bottom line is it is a big game for us and Castleberry. It is also one we need to win, especially being at home.”
The Rams and the Lions have had two weeks to prepare for the key contest as both enjoyed open dates last week. The good news for the Rams will be getting safety/running back Kolby Parks and cornerback/receiver Grant Peters back on the field. The Rams, who have had 5-6 starters out in every game this year, now have three back as cornerback/receiver Colby Kissinger played two weeks ago in the Burkburnett game.
“We will get Parks and Peters back for Friday’s game,” Lawrence said. “We got Kissinger back two weeks ago so we are getting there as far as getting injured players back on the field. We have half of the guys back that we were missing, and we need to play a good game.”
Last year, Rams quarterback Caleb Acosta had one of his best games against the Lions, completing 10 of 18 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. With a rushing attack averaging more than six yards a carry that has featured receivers Kelly Williams and DaShawn Hicks as running backs – and the emergence of sophomore Tristan Seargeant (7.1 yards per carry over last three games) – Castleberry will have to respect the run which will open the field up for Acosta.
“We expect them to play a 3-3 stack defense and they will switch to a 4-2 every once in awhile,” Lawrence said. “There are things that we see that we can take advantage of, but our offensive line and running backs need to play well, and our receivers are going to have to block well and catch the ball. Caleb has to have a good game, and he will if the other parts of the offense play well in front of him.”
The Lions have not thrown many passes this season, averaging 3-4 a game, and rely mainly on the rushing attack comprised of running backs Alex Scallion and Cody Shelton, quarterback Dakota Wright and slot back Christian Cardona.
Scallion is the workhorse with a team-high 73 carries for 284 yards (3.89 yards per carry average), but Cardona, from the slot, leads the team with 444 yards on just 41 carries for a whopping 10.76 yards per carry average. Wright is the Lions’ third leading rusher with 215 yards.
“They will run a two tight end, ‘nasty’ slot (slot receiver) which looks like a Wing T,” Lawrence explained. “It is a little different version of the Wing T with the ‘nasty’ slot receiver.
“Cardona plays that for Castleberry and does a good job. He will come in motion, and it is similar to what Burkburnett was doing with its slot backs.
“Out of this offense they will runs traps, power sweep, buck sweep, and when they lull you to sleep with all of those runs they throw a play-action pass to try and burn you.”
Lawrence said special teams could play a large role, especially the coverage teams.
“I also feel special teams will be huge,” he said. “Cardona returns punts and kickoffs and is a threat to break the big return. We will have to do our best to keep the ball away from him.”
Non-district games are used to prepare teams for the games that count, district play. Lawrence feels Burkburnett’s offense gave the Rams a good look on how Castleberry runs its offense.
“Burkburnett and its run-style offense helped us to prepare for Castleberry,” Lawrence said. “Burkburnett’s mid line is similar to what we will see from Castleberry with a fullback trap and similar things, and our defensive line will have to hold up on the line of scrimmage like they did against Burkburnett.
“This is a good game to follow Burkburnett, but like us, Castleberry has had two weeks to prepare for this game. Who knows what kind of wrinkles Castleberry has installed.
“The two weeks off has helped us not only in preparation but also because we got Parks and Peters back. We also held out some guys last week who were dinged a little bit.
“When you play five consecutive weeks plus three weeks of two-a-days, that is a long time so we needed a break. Last week we took advantage of the time by getting some minor injuries healed up so we will be fresh and ready to go (today).”
For such a big game, the Rams are happy to have this one in the friendly confines of their own stadium.
“We like playing at home in front of our fans, and we have three of our next four games at home,” Lawrence said. “That is big. We need people to come out and support these guys because they have worked hard and are getting better.”