ROSENBERG—Yes and no, Hightower coach Cornelius Anthony said.
Yes, the first-year head coach is somewhat surprised at his team's 5-1 record more than halfway through the season, including 4-0 in a highly-competitive 10-5A, Division district, following Friday's 34-7 rout of Richmond Foster at Traylor Stadium.
And, then again, no. Anthony is not surprised.
"Yes, with us graduating 38 seniors last year and then having a talented group of sophomores, I honestly thought this would be a rebuilding year for us," Anthony said. "But I hold myself and my staff to extremely high standards, so, then again, this is not surprising, because these kids are buying into the culture.
"One of the things we're trying to fix and get them to do is pay attention to detail. They're doing that."
Anthony told his players Friday's win was a "great statement" over a talented, well-coached Foster (4-3, 3-2) team that had won three games in a row.
And what was that statement?
"I felt like our guys said if we just execute, play sound football, eliminate mistakes and definitely eliminate self-inflicted penalties, then we are a pretty tough team to beat," Anthony said. "I was overall pleased with our performance."
The Hurricanes rode sophomore running back Jeremy Payne to a fourth consecutive win, and he responded with a breakthrough game. The 5-foot-10, 165-pounder had 189 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
"He's a super sophomore," Anthony said. "That's what I like to call him, like Dick Vitale (says). He's only 15 years old. He's proven the more comfortable he gets, the slower the game comes to him.
"He's seeing he can play on this level. The future is very bright for Jeremy Payne."
On the first play from scrimmage on the second @HightowerFB drive, sophomore RB @jeremypayne_ goes 46 yards with a nifty juke for a score. #txhsfb @HHS_Canes @FBISDAthletics pic.twitter.com/ulo9kkJXbV— Dennis Silva II (@densilva02) October 9, 2021
The number of yards and carries were season-bests for Payne, who came in averaging almost 10 carries and 75 yards per game.
"Always follow my blocks," Payne said of his recipe for success. "Stay patient in the backfield and let the blocks execute. I used to always run past my blocks and get tackled. Now it's find the hole, follow the blocks, get through it. They can't stop us up the middle."
Indeed, Hightower rushed for a season-high 342 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries. When Payne wasn't running around or through the Falcons, sophomore quarterback Kendron Penson Jr. was making plays of his own, completing nine of 17 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns, one apiece to Caleb Douglas and Kaleb Johnson.
Payne and Penson are two of eight sophomores who start for Hightower. That the Hurricanes are winning while building has not necessarily been expected.
"The more experience they get, the slower the game comes," Anthony said. "And the better they get, the better execution the team gets from their performance. Game by game is crucial for their development, and I couldn't be happier."
Defensively, the Hurricanes had two takeaways. Senior defensive back Jaylin Mendez and linebacker Braylen Kizzee, another sophomore, had interceptions.
Hightower is plus-six in turnover differential this season, with 11 takeaways to five giveaways.
"The defense, man, we were on fire tonight," Mendez said. "We had communication. We all worked as one. When we play together, you see what happens. If our D-line doesn't edge rush, if our linebackers don't come through, then I wouldn't be able to make the pick. It's a team effort."
The defense was another example of players finally heeding instructions of coaches.
"It's one of the things we've been preaching all year long—when they run the ball and the guard or tackle pulls to kick guys out, our guys knife underneath," Anthony said. "They finally did what we asked them to do. When these kids do what they're coached to do, they shine like superstars."
The Hurricanes limited the Falcons to 89 yards on 20 carries, and just 151 yards of total offense.
>> STRONG FIRST IMPRESSION: Anthony, the former Terry head coach, Texas A&M standout and a product of Fort Bend ISD's Elkins High School, has quickly implemented a standard his players are embracing. "He came in ready to work," Mendez said. "He's big on class and character, and that's what we're going to live by and stand by."
>> ENGLAND STANDS OUT: Junior running back Eli England was a bright spot for Foster. He ran for 64 yards on 13 carries as the most productive player for the Falcons' offense.
>> TROUBLESOME TRIO: Foster is in midst of a tough three-game stretch that coach Shaun McDowell believes will essentially determine its postseason prospects. Foster had Hightower at home this week, and then plays at Manvel and at Angleton. Manvel (3-1 10-5A, DI) beat Angleton (3-2), 49-10, on Friday.