CARTHAGE — There’s a water bottle in the middle of the field at Bulldog Stadium that serves a purpose.
It’s not just some piece of trash that’s blown in. It’s there by design to it help the Carthage Bulldogs special teams unit work on timing in the kicking game. When the ball passes by the water bottle, the kicker better be moving toward the kick.
“We put a water bottle or a pen out there just so they have their spot to get moving,” Carthage head coach Scott Surratt said. “It’s about timing, accuracy and every little detail.”
Minor details go a long way in Carthage, which is set for its eighth state championship appearance overall and seventh under Surratt, who is in his 13th season at the helm of the Bulldogs.
It’s those details along with a blend of consistency and buying in that have the Bulldogs back once again in the state finals. Around here, the backup plan has a backup plan.
“You always have to have a plan A, B, C and D, in my opinion,” Surratt, who is 163-28 overall in Carthage, said. “Plan A, B or C might not be working.
“We have a lot of things we can turn to, play-wise, in our offense and it’s same thing on defense and in special teams. We have a lot of different things lined up if the plan does not work.”
This senior class of 32 players were 6 or 7 years old when Carthage won its first state title in 2008. They’ve grown up watching the wins — a lot of them — and have the program ingrained in them.
Center Connor Davis has seen them all as he served as ball boy when he was 6 years old.
“I was 6 when we won our first title and when Coach Surratt got here, I was fortunate enough to be a ball boy so I’ve been a part, in some way, of every single state championship. It’s special to me with this being my senior year to have a chance to do something that I’ve grown up watching.”
Quinton Owens wasn’t running around below the stands on Friday night when he was growing up. He was in the stands, watching and waiting.
“I remember when I was a child, dreaming and wishing for this moment,” the standout defensive lineman said. “It’s a blessing that we’re here now.”
Added DJ Hicks: “All of the players, the excitement, I just remember thinking about the day that we were going to be the ones playing in front of the whole town.”
Teams change from year to year. In Carthage, however, some things never do.
“I think it’s the coaches that we’ve had on staff for a number of years, great men and coaches, as well as the talented players we’ve had come through that have bought into what we do,” Surratt said. “They buy into every aspect. They buy into our schemes, our philosophies.
“Teams change every year but one thing about these kids over the years is that they play unbelievably hard and have a belief in themselves that they’re going to get the job done.”
With championships comes confidence, which, like a random water bottle in the middle of the field, is a small detail in a greater plan.
“There is a lot of confidence, not cockiness, when we’re preparing for a game,” Davis said. “Coach Surratt, he understands his players, he knows what his players can do and he’s not going to ask us to do something if we can’t do it.
“We stay positive and we’re confident in the plan.”
Here’s a look at the Class 4A, Division I state championship game:
Carthage (15-0) vs. Waco La Vega (14-1)
Time: 11 a.m., today
Stadium: AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Carthage: Scott Surratt (13th season, 163-28; 56-6 in playoffs)
La Vega: Don Hyde (2nd season, 28-3; 11-0 in playoffs)
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Carthage: Athens, 49-14; Lumberton, 55-17; Crandall, 52-21; Midlothian Heritage, 24-7; Lampasas, 49-42
La Vega: Lake Worth, 72-0; Celina 35-13; Melissa, 45-42; Argyle, 44-20; Springtown, 27-14
Carthage: 6-6 (2008, W; 2009, W; 2010, W; 2013, W; 2016, W; 2017, W)
La Vega: 3-2 (2008, L; 2015, W; 2018, W)
WHEN CARTHAGE HAS THE BALL
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Carthage: OL Ty’Kiest Crawford … OL Tee Kellum … OL Cade Johnson … OL Connor Davis … OL Karston Williams … WR Kelvontay Dixon (66 catches, 1,103 yards, 17 TDs; 29 carries, 202 yards, 2 TDs) … QB Kai Horton (238-395-6, 3,510 yards, 46 TDs) … RB Mason Courtney (200 carries, 1,435 yards, 15 TDs; 38 catches, 461 yards, 5 TDs) … WR Kel Williams (48 catches, 828 yards, 10 TDs) … WR Craig McNew (30 catches, 531 yards, 7 TDs) … RB Jaden Thomas (63 carries, 463 yards, 6 TDs) … WR Montrell Smith (27 catches, 260 yards, 4 TDs)
La Vega: LB DeMarrquese Hayes (109 tackles, 3 TFL, sack) … LB Tray Johnson (171 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 FF) … LB Jordan Rogers (135 tackles, 14 TFL, 3 sacks, 5 INTs, 6 PBU) … DL DeTraveon Thompson (100 tackles, 19 TFL, 15 sacks, 3 FF) … DL RaeShawn Roberts (84 tackles, 11 TFL, 7 sacks) … DL Vernon Walker (98 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks) … CB Marcus Willis (4 INTs)
Apply this to the entire game: A war in the trenches. Carthage comes in averaging 253.3 passing yards and 174.2 rushing yards per game but in this one, the Bulldogs need to establish the ground game. La Vega brings a stout, physical and fast front seven in a defense that has 78 tackles for loss and 35 sacks. Carthage’s offensive line needs to win some battles up front in order to get the ground game going and soften up the secondary to enable Horton and a number of weapons, led by Dixon, to get to work. The Bulldogs have sputtered at times offensively with three empty redzone possessions in the quarterfinals and three turnovers-on-downs inside the 40-yard line a week ago. They did respond with touchdowns on four of its five second-half possessions. Balance is the key and to do that, the ground game has to go.
He said it
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball. We’ve got to be physical and run the ball. That will create some chances with our receivers to open some things up. It’s key that we run the ball,” — Surratt
WHEN LA VEGA HAS THE BALL
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Carthage: DL Quinton Owens (96 tackles, 13 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 FF, 3 PBU, INT) … DL DJ Hicks (78 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 sacks) … DL Kylon Lister (92 tackles, 10 TFL) … LB Rayvon Ingram (113 tackles, 13 TFL, 5 sacks) … Jai Brazier (95 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks) … LB Mason Bobo (82 tackles, 4 TFL, 6 PBU, 2 INTs) … S Cole Whitlock (88 tackles, 3 PBU) … DB Ja’von King (10 PBU, 3 INT) … DB Miles Halton (5 INTs) … JR Tuiel (55 tackles, 4 TFL) … Kip Lewis (5 TFL) … S Austin Morgan (58 tackles, 6 PBU) … DB De’Aundre Bowman (9 PBU, 3 INTs)
La Vega: RB Elisha Cummings (151 carries, 1,381 yards, 22 TDs) … RB Jar’Quae Walton (172 carries, 1,379 yards, 28 TDs) … QB Landry Kinne (118-197-3, 1,898 yards, 21 TDs; 78 carries, 394 yards, 3 TDs) … WR Malachi Wright (46 catches, 846 yards, 8 TDs) … WR DeMicco Chambliss (15 catches, 285 yards, 3 TDs)
Again, it’s a battle up front. Carthage’s defense has been stingy throughout the season, holding opponents to 12.6 points and 193.2 yards per game, including 94.4 rushing yards per game, good for a 3.4 yard-per-carry clip. The Pirates, meanwhile, average 43.9 points per game and 394.9 yards — 266.4 on the ground and 128.5 through the air. Both sides of the ball feature speed but the Bulldog defensive line can’t get pushed around to let the Pirates one-two punch of Cummings and Walton run wild.
He said it
“They’re probably 75 percent run so we’ve got to do two things: limit their run game and then limit their deep throws. When they throw it, it’s either deep or they’ll work underneath. Either way, we’ve got to tackle well in space and defend sideline-to-sideline,” — Surratt
DID YOU KNOW
Carthage and La Vega have accounted for the last four Class 4A, Division I state titles with La Vega winning in 2015 and 2018 and the Bulldogs going back-to-back in 2016 and 2017 … La Vega’s last postseason loss was a 46-39 loss to Carthage in 2017. The Pirates handed Carthage a 39-3 thumping in 2015. Both games were in the state semifinals … There are 10 programs in Texas high school football with at least seven championships. Carthage can join Richland Springs, Katy, Southlake Carroll, Celina, Aledo, Abilene, Plano, Brownwood and Mart with a win.
Big, fast and physical. This goes for both of these teams in the third meeting between the two in what is easily a tossup. This one will come down to the miscues, which will be even more costly on the biggest stage.