Heading Into Regional Final, Tenaha’s Work Isn’t Finished Yet
Reaching the fourth round of the playoffs isn't anything new in Tenaha. It's now happened seven years in a row.
All that means is the work isn't done, even for this year's team that's been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll all season and has outscored its first three playoff opponents 160-14.
"The kids are obviously excited to be here, but really around here it's business as usual," Tenaha coach Craig Horn said on Tuesday. "This wasn't our goal at the beginning of the season and it's not our goal now. We expected to be here."
A state championship trophy hasn't made the trip to Tenaha since 2011 and the Tigers have made it at least this far every year since, but all that means is there's unfinished business.
That chip has been on the Tigers' shoulders all season in 2017. Tenaha, now 13-0 after last week's 35-14 win over Iola in the regional semifinals, has won every game except for one by double digits this season. The win against Iola was Tenaha's third over the Bulldogs in four years in the third round.
"We've got guys who are in the round for the third or fourth time, and a lot of them have seen Iola all three times," Horn said. "They knew Iola would be the best defensive team we had seen all year and it wasn't even close. We try to be up front with them about our advantages, and take advantage of our strengths. It keeps it more business-like than playing off just emotion. Emotion will leave you as soon as the game starts. You might regain some of it later after some big plays, but you're not going to win games based on just 48 minutes of emotion. You need that business-like approach."
The win over Iola marked just the second time in 13 games that Tenaha allowed double-digit points from an opposing offense, with the first coming in Week 1's 23-22 win over Joaquin. The Tigers followed the opening game with 11 consecutive wins while allowing nine or fewer points, including five shutouts. Iola was the first team to score on Tenaha in the playoffs.
"I would say that knowing our opponent is probably the kids really focus on that gives us an edge on defense," Horn said. "Our kids play fast and aggressive. Our scheme is pretty simple, it's built around effort and gap integrity. We don't try to trick people and we don't stunt or blitz very much. We play fundamental, sound defense and play as fast as we can."
The biggest difference on this year's team compared to last year's squad that lost in the fourth round to Bremond, Horn said, is massive improvement on the offensive line. That's relieved pressure on quarterback C.J. Horn and has meant exponential improvement in the Tigers' running game.
Onterio Thompson led Tenaha in rushing as a junior with 898 yards in 2016, compared to an East Texas-best 2,024 yards in 2017, to go along with 26 touchdowns and a stellar 13.6 yards-per-carry average. Tenaha has already bested last year's team rushing total by more than 1,100 yards.
"Our offensive line is easily the best we've had since I've gotten here. They play fast and do a great job of making their checks," Horn said. "We've got more time and we can run the football a lot more effectively. When you run effectively as we have you don't have the passing numbers, and we've been extremely efficient when we've had to throw the football."
Horn is in the final season of his son's high school football career. C.J. Horn is behind his passing total from 2016, but the vast improvement in the running game has improved his efficiency -- and his numbers are still impressive. He has completed nearly 79 percent of his passes for 2,573 yards, 35 touchdowns and only three interceptions through 13 games.
"C.J. has always been accurate but this year he's been even better. Our offensive line has helped him because we've been able to run the ball and that gets us a much more clear read in the passing game," Horn said. "Last year we had to throw the football to win games, and C.J. had to run around until someone got open. Now people have to engineer their defenses to stop the run, which only helps us in the passing game."
Tenaha will meet a familiar face in district rival Timpson at 7 p.m. Thursday in Carthage with a berth in the Class 2A Division II state semifinals on the line. Tenaha won the district finale, 40-6, in Week 11 of the regular season, as well as the three meetings prior.
Horn said his message remains the same: it's business as usual on Thursday night.
"We tell our kids that every play is important. We've just got to take it no matter the down or distance, not take plays off and not make mental errors," Horn said. "We talk about first downs equal touchdowns. We just need to keep the chains moving, wear the defense out and eventually we'll light up the scoreboard."