By CLINT FOSTER
It’s gut check time for the Community Christian School Warriors.
Sitting at 4-4 after an 84-38 loss to TCAF District 3 favorites, the Azle Christian Fighting Crusaders (6-1-1), CCS’ collective backs are against the wall as the Warriors need to win both of their final two games to break any ties and reach their goal of a playoff berth.
First up is today’s long trip to Sterling City – between Midland and San Angelo – for a neutral-site game against the El Paso Immanuel Christian Warriors at 7 p.m. in Sterling City High School’s Eagle Stadium. Head coach Bryan Horton’s message to his team is clear.
“It’s coach speak to a certain extent, but the playoffs start now,” he said. “We have to win this game or we’re not playing for much next week.”
Against Azle Christian, CCS was brought back to ground level after flying high from a three-game winning streak, losing by more than 45 points for only the second time this season. The Warriors knew Azle would score points, but the death knell in the loss was the Crusaders’ ability to stuff the CCS running game that they have relied so heavily on this year.
Lead-blocker Sammy Brazeal came into the game banged up and, try as he might, freshman phenom Levi Knowles could not get into a rhythm carrying the ball, rushing 10 times for just 35 yards – his first sub-100-yard rushing game in four weeks and third this season.
Horton said blocking issues were the prime culprit, forcing Knowles to stretch plays outside and fight for every yard. The Warriors found themselves down 34-0 before they were able to reach the endzone for the first time.
“We really didn’t run the ball like we wanted to,” Horton said plainly. “Obviously Azle’s a good team, they were ready for it. They geared up to stop it and we didn’t respond real well to that. I felt like there were some things that happened against Azle that were uncharacteristic of us. Blocking issues (are) not who we are.”
Horton did not fault Knowles for the Warriors rushing woes. He said Azle’s ability to pursue well combined with mixed blocks were a challenging hurdle for any back to overcome, especially a freshman still transitioning from 11-man to six-man football.
“As good as Levi is and as much as he’s done this year, he’s still a freshman,” Horton said. “He doesn’t make a lot of freshman mistakes, but, at the same time, he’s also learning the game. Keep in mind the kids he was going up against in Azle were all seniors and juniors. If we block for him a little better, he has the same type of game he normally has.”
While Knowles struggled, CCS switched from their normal tight set to a spread formation and senior leader Isaiah Brazeal flourished. He was clearly the Warriors’ player of the game after that point, rushing 15 times for 240 yards and five touchdowns and completing 8-of-15 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown. He was involved in every CCS scoring play. But, unfortunately, it was too little too late.
“Isaiah played real well,” Horton said. “That was pretty encouraging, when you can do some things like that against Azle in the spread. I kind of kicked myself a little bit for not going to it sooner, but I was as surprised as anybody else was. We’ll take that information. I’m happy from the standpoint that we’ve got two different promising types of formations that we can run now.”
It’s undoubtedly good information going into the two most important games of CCS’ season. The Warriors will need “all of their bullets,” as TCU head coach Gary Patterson says, when they go to battle against the blue and gold warriors of El Paso Immanuel.
Immanuel, like so many teams on the CCS schedule, is an established spread team. Horton said they are not the “offensive juggernauts” that Azle are, but they do like to widen the field and keep defenses off-balance with lots of pre-snap motions.
The Warriors of purple and black have a track record of struggling defensively against similar fast, spread teams, but so long as CCS can establish themselves offensively, it will be a fight to the end.
Horton said Immanuel will look to capitalize with playmakers like Danny Rico and especially Joshua Arriaga, whom Horton called a “stud” with good size, quickness and talent. Defensively, Horton simply said Immanuel likes to hit. But that won’t make CCS shy away from its smashmouth style of football. The purple and black say “bring it on.”
“As good as we played in the spread (last week), we’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Horton said. “I love the spread game, but where our strengths lie is in the running game. If we play like we did against Azle, we’re going to have a tough time.”
Factoring into this game is also the long trip out west. Sterling City may be closer to Mineral Wells than El Paso, but it’s still a good three-and-a-half-hour drive. But the Warriors do have experience with long bus rides, having played a game last year against Borden County in Aspermont – north of Sweetwater on U.S. Highway 380. They are also 3-1 in road games this season, which certainly can’t hurt.
“As far as the travel’s concerned, we’re planning on getting there around 4:35, giving the kids time to stretch their legs and after that it’s just back into a normal routine,” Horton said. “Other than missing an hour of school, which I don’t think any of them are fighting too hard, I don’t know that it’s going to be an issue for us. The drive home is going to be worse than the drive there.”
Hopefully, that ride home will be after a win, making it more bearable. And simply put, the CCS cannot afford to do anything but win this game if they want to achieve the goals they set back in August.
“You lose this game against Immanuel, it doesn’t matter if you win against Willow Park Trinity, you have to 45 them,” Horton said of the state of the district standings and tie-breakers. “We’re just not a team that’s set up to 45 anybody. This a game you have to win. You win this game, then you go beat Willow Park Trinity and you’re in the playoffs.”
Perhaps easier said than done. But, as the old saying goes: “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”