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Bearcats' road to District Championship

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register

The high school football season, just like everything else in life in 2020, has been a season of "new normals" and adapting to life around the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ballinger Bearcats adapted and overcame obstacles all along the way, including key players being injured while other players were put under quarantine during the season.

Ballinger quarterback, Carter Arrott, runs the ball on a jet sweep play. Ballinger rushed the ball effectively all night in their 25-13 win over the Bangs Dragons.

Ballinger started the 2020 football season ranked #13 in the state. Now, they've moved into the top 10 with their best season since 1995, when they went 12-2. Ballinger currently sits at 11-1 with a perfect 5-0 district record. The Bearcats first-round playoff game against Odessa's Compass Academy was forfeited by Compass because of COVID-19 issues. This means that the Bearcats play the Spearman Lynx. Like Ballinger, Spearman only had one loss during the regular season, a forfeit to Canadian due to COVID-19 when the entire Spearman coaching staff was quarantined for two weeks.

Frame 4 - The gang's all here! McDuffee was sole reason Wolves 5'10", 200 lbs running back Jake Connell didn't break out a long run. The "never say quit" Herculean effort and dogged determination of McDuffee  kept the Wolves from gaining any momentum.

The Bearcats' season started off on the road against their rival, Jim Ned. Last season Jim Ned went 7-3 overall and 2-3 in district. The match-up against Ballinger was a first-week showdown that set the stage for the rest of the season. Ballinger was reeling from the loss of star Brayden Bowman in their scrimmage against Anson. Bowman went down with a catastrophic season-ending knee injury. The injury didn't prevent Bowman from patrolling the sidelines on crutches as he's continued to motivate and encourage players during their games. He's carried a play card in his back pocket and has a been good resource for players when they come off of the field.

A Bangs defender attempts to bring down Ballinger's Garrett Dixon.

The Jim Ned game was everything that people thought it would be. The game centered around the defenses of both teams. Early on, Ballinger suffered another setback when returning starting quarterback Tyler Vaughn went down with a shoulder injury. Junior Carter Arrott stepped in for the injured Vaughn and ultimately led the game-clinching scoring drive. Prior to his injury, Vaughn was 7/14 for 105 yards passing and had rushed 11 times for 21 yards. Standout starter Garrett Dixon carried the lion's share of the rushing attack. Dixon rushed 21 times for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns. Arrott only attempted one pass in the game, but he rushed 3 times for 47 yards.

Jim Ned had a 14-13 lead going into halftime. Neither team would score in the 3rd quarter in a game that had become one of determination and resolve. With 3:42 remaining in the 4th quarter, Arrott took the ball into the end zone from 19 yards out, giving the Bearcats a 20-14 lead.

Jim Ned received the kickoff with just over 3 minutes to go, but were unable to move the ball passed midfield against the Bearcats' defense. Runners were stopped at the line of scrimmage while the quarterback was pressured on every pass attempt.

The Ballinger Bearcats' Garrett Dixon rushes the ball with a cadre' of blockers clearing the way. This week the unbeaten Bearcats will travel to Llano to take on the 4-0 Yellowjackets.

The next game was closer than anyone anticipated, as Ballinger defeated Breckenridge by only 2 touchdowns. The Buckaroos, who had just two wins on the season, played with resolve against the Bearcats. In the end, Ballinger came away with a 13-0 win, as well as a few areas in which to improve their game.

On September 11, the Bearcats hosted the Colorado City Wolves. The outcome of this game was never in doubt as Ballinger cruised to a 34-2 win. The sole points for the Wolves came on a safety with less than a minute to go in the game. Ballinger’s Aiden Busenlehner lined up in the backfield for a direct snap inside the Bearcats’ own 5-yard line. The snap sailed over Busenlehner’s head for a safety. Other than that, the game was played almost flawlessly by the Bearcats.

Ballinger then hosted their third home game in a row when the Clyde Bulldogs rolled into Bearcats stadium. At the time, Clyde was 1-2 on the season and coming off of a 52-14 thumping of Riesel. The Bulldogs played a strong game but eventually fell 21-14. It was another game that was closer than many expected it to be.

The Bearcats next game was a loss on the road against Llano. The Yellowjackets would ultimately end up going unbeaten during the season. The game was expected to be a tough match up for both teams. Ballinger ended up on the short end, losing the game, 34-0. It was a surprising blow to the Bearcats who were steadily improving and becoming more potent as the season wore on. This game saw the Bearcats only hit 275 yards of total offense. Ballinger had 7 penalties for 75 yards and threw 2 interceptions in the loss. The Yellowjackets' impressive air assault picked up 229 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The following week the Bearcats were scheduled to play their rival, the Brady Bulldogs. The game wasn't meant to be as Brady forfeited due to COVID-19 issues. That didn't mean that Ballinger head coach Chuck Lipsey was going to take a week off. He found a game against the Panhandle's Sunray Bobcats to keep his team sharp and rebound from their loss to Llano. A strong offensive output by the Bearcats sealed a 46-12 win for Ballinger.

Following the Sunray game, the Bearcats hosted the struggling Grape Creek Eagles. Ballinger had the edge in all three facets of the game: Offense, defense and special teams. The Bearcats' defense did what they were expected to do by holding Grape Creek scoreless. The game was filled with penalties on both teams. The Eagles had 9 penalties for 90 yards while Ballinger had 9 penalties for 85 yards. Ballinger's defense held Grape Creek to just 4 first downs. The Bearcats threw for 116 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Ballinger ground game didn't have a 100-yard rusher. The Bearcats' leading rusher was senior stalwart running back Garrett Dixon who rushed 8 times for 82 yards and 2 touchdowns. Arrott ran the ball 10 times for 56 yards and one touchdown.

The most surprising aspect of the game was the Ballinger defense only getting a single sack. Many expected the Bearcats to get double-digit sacks. Markus Castleberry was the only Bearcat to get to the quarterback. The defense did put pressure on the Eagles which resulted in Ballinger pulling in 2 interceptions, 1 each for Tyler Vaughn and Weston Rollwitz. Balliner's Nakia Villarreal had 15 sacks, 5 of which were tackles for loss. Aidan Busnlehner and Adam Win tied for 2nd in tackles with 10 each. Grape Creek would eventually finish their season 2-8 overall and 1-4 in district.

Next up on the Bearcats' schedule was a road game again Moore High School in Ingram. The Warriors were puzzling for many since they had started off the season 5-0, but had not won a district game. Coach Lipsey and his crew weren't puzzled at all as they put together the pieces to seal a victory. Ballinger took a 27-0 lead in the 1st quarter and never looked back. After the 1st quarter the Bearcats put up a touchdown in each of the remaining quarters to take a 47-6 win.

Once again, the Bearcats dominated in every aspect of the game. The offense made 25 first downs during the game as Arrott and Vaughn both took snaps at quarterback. The duo was a combined 8/15 for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns. Dixon rushed the ball 17 times for 73 yards and 3 touchdowns. Beau Perkins ran the ball 9 times for 80 yards. Overall, the offense rushed fro 228 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per carry.

On the defensive side of the ball, Winn had 2 sacks while Villarreal brought the quarterback down once. Overall, Villarreal led the team in tackles with 15. Of those 15 tackles, 5 of them were tackles for loss and 9 were solo. Winn and senior Matthew Foster each had 10 tackles. Four of Winn's tackles were for loss. Ballinger's Gavin Martinez hauled in one interception. Rollwitz, Vaughn and Blake Collom each had a pass defensed. Vaughn and Foster each recovered a fumble.

The Bearcats' next game would be the one that everyone had marked on their calendar. The undefeated Bangs Dragons would come into Ballinger in a district showdown. The winner was expected to become the district champion since both Ballinger and Bangs were expected to win their final games the following week.

Ballinger never trailed in the game, eventually winning 25-13. The Bearcats had 26 first downs. Both teams were marred by penalties. Ballinger had 7 penalties for 55 yards, while the Dragons had 8 penalties for 60 yards.

Ballinger held a 7-0 lead after the first quarter. In the second quarter the Bearcats added another TD but missed the PAT. Bangs put up 13 points of their own as the teams went into the locker rooms 13-13. Bangs' 13-points would be the only points that they scored in the entire game. The Ballinger defense stepped up in the second half and held the Dragons scoreless, dominating the line of scrimmage.

Arrott was 81/16 for 105 yards and 1 touchdown, while the Dragons' quarterback, senior Ethan Cortez was 14/21 for 154 yards and 1 touchdown. The Dragons picked up 195 yards in rushing, with standout Ethan Sanchez rushing 12 times for 162 yards. Dixon led the Bearcats with 21 carries for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rollwitz scored a rushing touchdown and brought in 4 passes for 56 yards while Vaughn caught 3 balls for 41 yards and 1 touchdown.

On the defensive side, Rollwitz and Busenlehner led the team in tackles with 10 each. Winn added in 8 tackles, with 2 tackles for loss. Garrett Dixon contributed 4 tackles with 2 of them going for loss. Villarreal and Winn had 3 quarterback hurries with Arrott adding another one to make it 7 hurries overall. Castleberry was the only player to get a sack in the game.

The win was a matter of sheer determination for the Bearcats. The importance of the game on their season was in the mind of each player and coach. Dixon's 21 rushes for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns were the key to the Bearcats' victory. Dixon ran hard the entire game. Arrott helped with the ground game workload by rushing 15 times for 75 yards. Dixon and Arrott offered a change of pace in the rushing game. Dixon is bigger and a more powerful rusher than Arrott. Arrott is quicker and able to make effective end runs. Perkins added in 7 rushes for 25 yards. The offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, creating plus-yardage plays for the running game. Ultimately, it would be the only regular season loss for the Dragons. Ballinger went 5-0 in district play to take the championship.

The Bearcats would finish their season with a 42-0 win on the road against the Sonora Broncos. Ballinger put 16 points on the board in the 1st quarter and, once again, never looked back. They added 20 points in the second quarter and a single touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Ballinger's offense picked up 24 first downs in the game. Penalties once again bit the Bearcats as they racked up 10 penalties for 80 yards.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game was the passing attack. Arrott was a efficient, going 14/19 for 277 yards and 1 touchdown. Rollwitz was the leading receiver with 7 catches for 175 yards. Vaughn was 2nd with 4 catches for 76 yards and 1 touchdown.

The success of the air attack meant that the Ballinger ground game was able to back away from double digit carries for Dixon. Overall Dixon had 9 carries for 77 yards and 1 touchdown. Arrott carried 7 times for 28 yards and a touchdown. Perkins rushed 5 times for 39 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The defense kept the Broncos in check. The defenders combined for 12 tackles for loss. Castleberry, who led the team with 11 tackles, 3 of which were tackles for loss. Villarreal also had 3 tackles for loss, followed by Winn (2), Dixon (2), Foster (1) and Daniel Medina (1). Villarreal forced a fumble that was recovered by Busenlehner. The Bearcats only punted twice in the game.

While Vaughn went out in the first game with a shoulder injury, he came back and played well in whatever capacity was asked of him. With Arrott holding the reins at quarterback when Vaughn came back from the shoulder injury, Vaughn continued to contribute in every aspect of the game. He has played receiver, linebacker, punter, defensive back, punt returner and running back, and he has played them effectively. He has also played a few snaps at quarterback during the games, while the lion's share of quarterbacking duties went to Arrott. On the defensive side of the ball, Vaughn has 6 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and over 40 tackles on the season. He only missed one game with the injury.

The Bearcats were to play Odessa's Compass Academy in the first round of the playoffs. Compass, like Brady, fell victim to the COVID pandemic and forfeited their game, giving Ballinger the win.

Friday, November 20th, Ballinger will take on Spearman at Floydada's, Wester Field. Spearman is 11-1 on the season, scoring an average of 40.3 points on the season. The defense has been intimidating, only allowing just over 13 points per game.

Runnels County Register