Standing on the sidelines on New Years Day, with his team surrounding him on a knee, the Crosby Cougar fans draped in red in front of him in the stands waving their signs and ringing their bells, Jerry Prieto had a loud and clear message to his team.
"We're not done, we're on a mission."
That mission is one now shared by just 16 teams in the State of Texas now as the Class 5A and 6A playoffs reach the State Semifinals this week.
For the Greater Houston area, the hopes of bringing home a state championship lies with Crosby, Katy and North Shore.
So, who can punch their ticket to AT&T Stadium next week?
Crosby vs Liberty Hill
5A Division II State Semifinal – Friday – 7:30 p.m. – Merrill Green Stadium (Bryan, Texas)
Crosby is on a roll. That is the only way to describe this team after the Cougars have beaten three-straight previously undefeated opponents to get here. The most recent was No. 3 Fort Bend Marshall, which had played for a state title in each of the last two seasons. Crosby is in the State Semifinals for just the third time in program history – the last coming in 2014 when it ran into Cedar Park at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin.
Crosby with a win would return to the state championship game for the first time in 60 years, the last trip coming as a 3A program in 1960. The Cougars faced Albany in that title bout.
"I think it would mean a lot to the community," Prieto said. "They really rally behind us. The atmosphere at the game last week was awesome and the week before and even when we played at SFA. It's been fun to be a part of. I think it would be special if we're fortunate to do it. I don't think there would be too many people hanging out in Crosby next week if we are able to do it."
But first they have to get through the Wing-T, ground-chewing offense of Liberty Hill. The Panthers last week didn't complete a single pass and still won the game 56-53. Instead of airing it out, Liberty Hill, led by Blake Simpson's 312 yards and five-touchdown performance, racked up an incredible 717 yards of offense on the ground. Trey Seward chipped in 194 yards on 13 carries and Eric De La Cruz had 189 yards on 14 carries.
"It's a really difficult offense to prepare for because you can't really simulate the speed and precision that they play at," Prieto said. "And just how hard their kids play. That's one thing that I took away is their kids play extremely hard and extremely fast."
Crosby's offense isn't one to mess with either.
The combination and rotation of Deniquez Dunn and Reggie Branch in the backfield have given opposing defenses problems this season.
Both can throw the ball efficiently and at a moment's notice either of them can take off and be gone for a 62-yard touchdown run. In last week's win over Fort Bend Marshall, Dunn passed for 133 yards and a score and rushed for another 31 yards and a score. For Branch, he rushed for 200 yards and three scores and had six grabs for 71 yards and a score.
The duo is dynamic but as good as they are, the defensive unit has also been equally impressive.
"They've been saving us a lot," Prieto said. "Against Huntsville our defense only gave up three scores and last week we had multiple stops inside the 10. Our defense has played well all year outside of a couple of games. Our defensive line has really stepped up and that has allowed our linebackers to run around and make plays and our defensive backs have been competing for the ball.
"They are going to have to step up real big this week and play really sound technique-oriented defense this week."
VYPE Prediction: Crosby 35, Liberty Hill 28
Crosby has knocked off three-straight big-time opponents and fueled by a solid senior group will be able to win this one and advance to the 5A Division II State Championship game for the first time in 60 years.
Katy vs Buda Hays
6A Division II State Semifinal – Saturday – 2 p.m. – McLane Stadium (Waco, Texas)
The Katy Tigers are doing their thing but this season hasn't been easy for this group.
Despite a change at quarterback, loss of players for the season due to injury (Fernando Garza – TE committed to Texas A&M and defensive end Malick Sylla) and avoiding a COVID-19 outbreak, Katy is in the State Semifinals for the first time since 2017. Now, can the Tigers get to the big game for the first time since 2015?
Jalen and Seth Davis have been the gears that have churned this Katy offensive machine all year long.
Last week in a 51-14 win over Clear Falls, Seth rushed for 170 yards and two scores, while brother Jalen had 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The duo has combined for more than 2,000 yards of offense on the ground and each of them have surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Pair that combo with the continued development of Caleb Koger at quarterback, the offense has looked good.
In the win against Shadow Creek, Koger really showed how far he has come this season going 8 of 15 for 193 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. For the year, Koger has passed for 1,141 yards and 16 touchdowns with two picks.
Defensively, they have also been sound giving up just 45 points over three playoff games thus far.
Standing in the way of Katy to reach the title game is Buda Hays, which is in the State Semifinals for the first time since 1996. That year, Buda Hays reached the 5A Division I State Championship game where they fell to Grapevine.
Durand Hill is the signal-caller for the Rebels and is a dual-threat option. Hill has passed for 1,516 yards and 20 touchdowns with three interceptions. Hill rushed for 959 yards and 14 scores. Bryant Lewis has been the lead receiver with 784 yards.
Defensively, Buda Hays is senior heavy.
Jake Lopez, Zachary Hobert and Tyson Hatnot each have surpassed the 100-tackle mark for the season. Lopez leads the group with 123 tackles, while Hobert has 110 and Hatnot with 107. Hatot also leads the team with five sacks and has three interceptions. Aiden Hunt also has five sacks and 22 quarterback hurries this year. Chris Bruce has three interceptions as well.
This game will be a test of strength versus strength.
VYPE Prediction: Katy 35, Buda Hays 14
Katy's run game will eventually break through, the play of Koger will be big in this game and how he has played recently looks good for the Tigers. This will be a test for the offense because they will have to get going early against a stout defense.
Austin Westlake vs North Shore
6A Division I State Semifinal – Saturday – 2 pm – Legacy Stadium (Katy, Texas)
Many people argue that Southlake Carroll vs Duncanville is the marquis game in the state this week with the two DFW powers locking horns.
But venture down to Houston and you have a pair of undefeated defending state champions about to battle for 48 minutes.
Austin Westlake versus North Shore is THE GAME of the week!
First let's start with the Chaparrals.
Todd Dodge has Westlake rolling again coming off a 6A Division II State Championship a year ago and are 12-0 this season with aspirations of getting to the title game of the largest division and classification the UIL has to offer.
Offensively, Cade Klubnik has passed for 3,099 yards and 32 touchdowns, Zane Minors has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and sophomore Jaden Greathouse has 1,025 receiving yards.
Defense is where the Chaps will get tested but they have some big-time pieces. Upfront Nick Morris and Hayden Bray have combined for 24 sacks, Morris leads the duo with 13 of those. Tackle-wise, Morris is second on the team with 75, just two behind Brady Lamme.
But here comes North Shore. The back-to-back defending Class 6A Division I Champions.
Dematrius Davis has 57 total touchdowns this season, 36 of those coming through the air and has accounted for more than 4,200 of the Mustangs' yards. Davis is a gamechanger and has been for the last three years. What he has this year that he didn't last was a healthy Shadrach Banks. The Texas A&M-signee showed off his speed last week on a 91-yard touchdown reception. He is strong and is hard to bring down. On top of that offensive coordinator, Willie Gaston is using him all over the field. Banks has 1,265 yards receiving with 14 scores.
Then add in a Charles King and David Amador II and this offense just gets more and more dangerous.
Defensively they have been sound as well with the defensive line not giving up a whole bunch, including holding Tompkins QB Jalen Milroe to -11 yards rushing and just 50 yards passing on Christmas Eve. The combination of Denver Harris and Ta'von Griffin has been solid in the secondary.
But what will happen when these titans clash on Saturday?
VYPE Prediction: North Shore 42, Westlake 28
I think early on it is an absolute slugfest trading score-for-score. But then late, North Shore pulls away for the victory and punches their ticket to a third-straight state title game.