A young Hightower squad, of whom little was expected entering this season, stands just a game from its first trip to state since 2011. But standing in the way is a regional juggernaut, one which handed the Hurricanes one of their two losses in a 55-7 blowout earlier this season.
The Hurricanes (11-2) are set to clash with the Katy Paetow Panthers (12-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Rice Stadium in a Class 5A Division I state quarterfinal. The Panthers throttled the Hurricanes in their Oct. 21 matchup at Rhodes Stadium, leaving Hightower with a bit of a score to settle.
Paetow is led by an electric rushing attack and a hungry defense.
But the balanced Hurricanes have a few possible weapons of their own, on both sides of the ball. The team will need to up its play, however, if they are to improve on their performance from earlier this season.
If they do, it could be a high-flying matchup with interesting dynamics, so let's dig into how the teams match up.
Hightower Hurricanes (11-2)
On the offensive side of the ball, the Hurricanes are no slouch as they come in averaging more than 33 points per contest – but it’s imperative that they’re able to establish the run. Running back Jeremy Payne (1,362 yards) has run for 662 yards and six touchdowns in these playoffs, but was held to a season-low 26 yards on eight carries the last time these two teams matched up on Oct. 21. It won’t be easy to do against a Panthers’ defense allowing less than 75 rushing yards per contest this season, but look for the Hurricanes to get the sophomore involved early and often.
Quarterback K.J. Penson is coming off his best game of the postseason against Manvel, when he completed 12 of 18 passes for 203 yards and three scores. And given that the Panthers are one of the better run defenses the Hurricanes have faced all season, Hightower might need a similar performance to keep them at bay Friday. Penson threw for 230 yards and a score in the Oct. 21 matchup. But in order for him to do that and find star receivers Kaleb Johnson and Caleb Douglas (combined 86 catches and 1,680 yards), his offensive line must improve from earlier this season – Paetow racked up 10 sacks in the prior matchup.
Defensively, the Hurricanes are going to need more than they got in October. Junior defensive end Treylon Beloney will need to cause havoc like he has much of the season, coming into play with a team-leading 6.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss, while linebacker Julian Payne (81 tackles, 15 TFL) has recorded 36 tackles and seven TFL through three playoff games. Sophomore Robert Staten is another one to watch here, as he enters the weekend with five sacks and 14 TFL.
Paetow Panthers (12-1)
With the exception of a 33-28 loss to Manvel in their second-to-last regular season game, the Panthers’ offense has run roughshod over just about every opponent in its path – and they executed that formula to perfection in the earlier matchup on Oct. 21. Paetow’s potent rushing attack (262.4 yards/game) ran for 283 yards in this season’s first matchup – and that was without the second of its two-headed running back monster Jacob Brown (1,046 yards, 19 touchdowns), who they will likely have back for this second clash.
Quarterback C.J. Dumas, however, is no slouch. If the Hurricanes focus on the run, Dumas showed that he can be a threat as well – he threw for a season-high 228 yards and four touchdowns in the Panthers’ victory on Oct. 21, and could be in for another similar game if the Hurricanes focus too much on the ground game.
And for all the headlines that their offense might get, the Panthers’ defense has been just as fearsome this season and is a unit that has thrived on big plays this season. Entering play Friday, Paetow’s 19 interceptions leads all of Class 5A Division I according to MaxPreps, with the team gathering in at least one pick in every game this season. They are led by senior safety Kentrell Webb – whose eight interceptions tied for second in 5A Division I – and have forced multiple turnovers in each of three playoff games so far.
Helping that along is a strong disrupting presence in the backfield, as the Panthers’ 53 total sacks – including 10 on Oct. 21 – was second in Class 5A Division I. Daymion Sanford leads the pack with 13 sacks, but they have five players with at least seven QB takedowns this season.