As the fourth quarter came to a close Friday, the Henderson Lions began celebrating their 35-14 win over the Sealy Tigers motioning to the crowd who traveled to Lufkin to get louder and jumping in joy. A starkly different scene was happening across the field on the Sealy’s sideline as the seniors hugged each other with tears in their eyes knowing their Sealy football career was at an end.
For Head Coach Shane Mobley, while their careers may not have ended with the state title they were hoping for, the legacy they’ve established for themselves is something to be proud of.
“You feel for the seniors but it’s phenomenal what they did to buy into this because they could’ve made a decision that they didn’t want to do this but they stuck with it,” Mobley said. “They were so unselfish and it’s going to be really easy to refer back to them in a few years. I can ask them ‘how good was Justin Eckhardt?’ and tell them to aspire to be greater than that. That’s the type of bar they’ve set for these younger guys.”
Sealy had the chance to strike first in their second playoff game after receiving the opening kickoff but a third-down interception gave Henderson the ball at the Tigers 26-yard line just two minutes into the game.
The Lions would score the first touchdown of the night just two plays later when their running back took it in from the 10-yard line to put the Lions up 7-0.
Henderson caused the Tigers offense to stall again on the next drive displaying their ability to shut down junior running back Ivan Bolden who the Tigers have depended heavily on throughout the season.
Sealy’s defense forced the Lions into a third-and-five situation after the punt but a run to the inside went for 10 yards to keep Henderson’s possession alive. The Tigers forced another third down but a 37-yard run put them in Sealy territory and the Lions scored on the ground again two plays later to go up 14-0.
“We really hurt ourselves offensively and defensively early on and you just can’t make mistakes like that,” Mobley said. “The kids never gave up, though, and that’s the kind of fight we need.”
Both teams went three-and-out on the ensuing drives with Sealy getting the ball in their own territory at the end of the first quarter. Bolden finished the quarter by finally breaking off a big run to put Sealy at midfield to start the second.
A catch by Clay Roberts started the second quarter and brought Sealy to Henderson’s 23-yard line which was followed by a 20-yard run by Bolden to spot the ball inside the five-yard line.
Quarterback Garret Zaskoda delivered a screen pass to senior receiver Justin Eckhardt which was stuffed and Bolden was similarly stopped on the next play. The Tigers next two plays were unsuccessful as they went four-and-out to give Henderson the ball with nine minutes left in the half.
The Lions looked like they were going to score again after a quarterback keeper took the offense past their own five-yard line and more room to work with. Henderson would take the ball into Sealy territory a few plays later on a pass that went for 20 yards after the receiver broke a tackle.
The Tigers lived up to the “bend but don’t break” mentality the defense has been living by for the season after forcing the Lions in a fourth down situation at Sealy’s 22-yard line. Sealy sacked the quarterback to force a turnover on downs and give the Tigers the ball with four and a half minutes left in the half.
Zaskoda delivered strikes to Eckhardt and Clay Roberts to put the offense at Henderson’s 35-yard line with two minutes remaining in the quarter. After another Roberts catch converted a third down and a facemask penalty put the Tigers at the 10-yard line, Bolden scored the Tigers first touchdown of the game on a play action pass from Zaskoda.
“That’s the great thing about Garret is he has this year as a foundation to build on and the way he bounced back from a tough game last week is a good note to keep going on starting next year,” Mobley said.
The Lions took the kickoff up 14-7 with under a minute left in the half and made use of the remaining time. Henderson managed to drive up to Sealy’s 12-yard line largely thanks to a quarterback scramble from Sealy’s 44-yard line. Henderson scored with eight seconds left in the half on a fade pass to make the score 21-7 at halftime.
The Tigers defense came out strong in the second half and forced a three-and-out to open the third quarter after sacking the quarterback on a third-and-short play at midfield.
Eckhardt took in a catch on the sideline and ran it all the way to Henderson’s 48-yard line on the first play of Sealy’s first drive of the half. The offense found itself at fourth and seven on Henderson’s 33-yard line but converted it on a pass from Zaskoda to Eckhardt to the one-yard line.
Bolden ran it in on the next play to make it a one-score game at 21-14 with 7:15 left in the third quarter.
Sealy forced another three-and-out and drove to the Lions 44-yard line to end the third quarter. The fourth quarter didn’t start well for the Tigers as Henderson strip-sacked Zaskoda and recovered the fumble at Sealy’s 14-yard line. The Lions scored on third and 13 a few plays later to go up 28-14 with ten minutes left in the game.
Sealy quickly found themselves in a fourth-and-short situation on the next drive but converted on a pass to senior receiver Jared Kainer. The Tigers then drove into Henderson territory but after Tyrek McNeese was dropped for a loss and Zaskoda threw an incomplete pass, the offense was facing a fourth and seven with five and a half minutes left in the game.
The pass attempt on fourth down was incomplete and Henderson broke off a 73-yard run to Sealy’s five-yard line on the next play after taking the ball back. The Lions would score on the next play to go up 35-14 with 2:37 left in the game effectively ending it.
Sealy went four-and-out on the next drive and Henderson would run the clock out to seal the victory. While many of the players were feeling the heartbreak of the present, Mobley saw a promising road for the future.
“This was a building block for the younger ones and this is the first time for us to be here and gives us something to look back and reflect on,” Mobley said. “We’ve got to keep building the program and prepare for battles like this one every Friday night. We’ve got a really talented group of young players coming up too so we just have to make sure we’re prepared.”
Mobley said one of the many takeaways from this season that will help the team’s productivity next season is the camaraderie that has grown among the coaching staff. He said the brotherhood they feel among each other will help them better the team.
Sealy finished the season with a 6-5 record with a 3-2 record at home and 2-2 on the road. Zaskoda led the district with 2,912 passing yards, 800 more than the second-place passer. Eckhardt and McNeese were first and second respectively in receiving yards in the district with Eckhardt going over 1,000 yards at 1,125 and McNeese finishing just shy at 984.