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No. 10 Ballinger ready for challenge of No. 5 Spearman after navigating 2020

Amy McDaniel
San Angelo Standard-Times
Ballinger coaches call to their players through their face coverings during Friday's game against Jim Ned in Tuscola August 28, 2020. Final score was 20-14, Ballinger.

The Ballinger High School football team and its coaches feel they've already run a gauntlet just to survive the 2020 season and get a chance to play this week in the second round of the Class 3A Division II state playoffs.

"I think that's right and we've kind of preached that all year long," said head coach Chuck Lipsey, as the No. 10-ranked Bearcats (10-1) prepared to meet the No. 5 Spearman Lynx (10-1) in an area-round playoff game at 7 p.m. Friday in Floydada. 

TOP 5 PLAYOFF GAMES: Ballinger, Sterling City, Water Valley, Christoval and Wall 

The way COVID-19 halted spring athletics and has affected fall athletics to the point of district and playoff games being forfeited has made each week of the season more precious than the last for the Bearcats, who are in the midst of their best season in 13 years.

Each week has felt like a playoff game.

"We’re never guaranteed another week," said senior Tyler Vaughn, who as the starting quarterback was injured in the first game of the season and missed the next game before finally getting back into the lineup as safety on defense and H-back on offense.

"We play every game like it's our last because we never know when it will be. You just can't put it into words, because it's never happened like this before."

Bearcat running back Garrett Dixon tries leaping over Jim Ned defensive back Caden Martin while getting tackled by defensive back Dub Harwell during Friday's game inTuscola August 28, 2020. Final score was 20-14, Ballinger.

With a huge group of seniors who helped Ballinger win a district championship for the first time since 2008, the Bearcats have approached the Spearman game with the exact same sense of urgency they've felt since March. That's when spring sports were first postponed, then canceled, with the activities stopped all the way up until a later-than-usual start to organized summer workouts in July.

"It was really just making me sick to my stomach thinking we were not going to get to play at all, and so we're thankful we're here," Lipsey said. "We've been blessed. We're on our 12th week now, and it's a pretty neat deal to see how these kids have worked and are successful."

Senior lineman Adam Winn said it's been hard to watch opponents get shut down and neighboring schools end their seasons, but not because of a loss on the field.

"It was really scary. We were all kind of like, 'That'd be just our luck. COVID is going to ruin our best year, and we aren't going to get to finish out the season,'" Winn said.

Vaughn added, "It’s really breathtaking that we were able to get it done. I mean, I didn’t have any doubts, but it's just crazy to actually do it."

Vaughn said the players had weekly meetings where they worried what was coming down next. Winn gave credit to the coaching staff for keeping the team healthy.

Llano's Cade Ligon battles with Ballinger's Adam Winn during their football game Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Llano.

"Coach Lipsey is a real stickler about it," Winn said. "He's really doing everything right. He wants to play and wants us to play, and we respect him for that."

The cloud of cancelations and forfeitures that darkened the season has made it even more special for the community of Ballinger, the coach said.

"Any year you win a district championship, the community is going to be excited, but especially this year," Lipsey said. "It's pulled everybody together. It's taken our minds off everything else."

The insecurity has also made it that much easier to focus.

"Some teams are content, they're happy, and 'whatever happens from here on out happens. We've done what we wanted to do.' But (our team is) not like that," Lipsey said. "They want to win and they're busting their tail, and they're going to do their very best to try to win that ball game Friday night."

Ballinger is also playing its best ball and mostly healthy for the first time since before the season kicked off.

"I think we've played good all year long except that one game (a 34-0 loss to Llano). And when we got healthy, we really started clicking on all cylinders, stepped it up against Bangs and finished it off against Sonora," Lipsey said.

Ballinger receiver Weston Rollwitz stiff-arms a Bangs defender Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, at Bearcat Stadium in Ballinger.

Ballinger took down undefeated Bangs 25-13 and then kept the energy going through a 42-0 road win over Sonora to nail down the district title.

The Bearcats face a team that is outscoring its opponents 53-17, although the Lynx never actually faced district foe Canadian, the No. 1 team in the state, on the field, due to a forfeit.

Ballinger's defense is allowing only 9.5 points per game, so it will be strength vs. strength.

Perhaps the best way the Bearcats can slow down Spearman's explosive offense is by simply keeping it off the field. With its strong offensive line, Ballinger is built to move the ball on long drives, led by running back Garrett Dixon.

Spearman's defense gave up 34 points last week, including four rushing TDs, against Lubbock Roosevelt.

Ballinger junior Carter Arrott has filled in admirably at quarterback since taking over for Vaughn in the season opener.

He has shown the ability to make plays with his feet — as evidenced by his game-winning 19-yard TD scramble in the season opener against Jim Ned (a team that hasn't lost since) — and he has a playmaking receiver in Weston Rollwitz.

Winn and the rest of the line on both sides of the ball will be counted on to try and establish dominance early in the game.

The D-line and linebackers will need to pressure Spearman quarterback Jack Wilkerson, who can pass to a number of speedy receivers or run the ball.

Vaughn and the defensive secondary must keep receivers Brenen Thompson and Brayden Klafka in front of them.

The winner of Friday's game advances to the regional semifinals, where they will face either Childress or Crane.

Ballinger hasn't advanced past this round since 2002, when the Bearcats defeated Kennedale 20-17 for the area title. They lost in the regional semifinals to Midland Greenwood 42-20.

Lipsey said the Bearcats are looking forward to Friday and thinking only about football.

"We just take it week to week and see what happens. The way everything (COVID-19) is hopping right now, I'm really worried about it," Lipsey said. "But right now, we're playing Spearman on Friday and staying focused. You can't really worry about that other thing."

Ballinger quarterback Tyler Vaughn scrambles during Thursday's scrimmage against Anson at Tiger Stadium in Anson on Aug. 20, 2020. The Tigers open the season at Winters while the Bearcats travel to Jim Ned next week.

Amy McDaniel is a multimedia sports journalist. Send news tips to amy.mcdaniel@gosanangelo.com. Consider supporting West Texas journalism with a subscription to GoSanAngelo.com.