Clint Harper had a little trouble finding non-district opponents after he coached Marshall to an 11-2 record in 2015.

It had become customary over the previous several years that the Mavericks would have a few games against opponents in smaller classifications, but it had been a while -- since 2005 to be exact -- that Marshall had won at least 10 games in a season.

So, Harper did something a little different. In addition to Marshall's normal rivalry game against Longview, he added another Class 6A team to the schedule in Tyler Lee and brought back Monroe (La.) Ouachita, a team the Mavericks hadn't played in several seasons but had played 11 consecutive years before.

"When you go 11-2, teams that are rebuilding, are smaller or go 5-5 aren't really looking forward to playing 5A teams," Harper said. "It was tough putting our schedule together, and I knew the one I put together was going to be real tough."

The result? Losses with scores of 34-7, 56-7 and 34-14 -- quite unusual for a team that just went 11-2 the year before.

But it's better to lose early than late, and losing against teams like those three was solid preparation for District 16-5A.

"I had a feeling at how it could play out when you start up against two good 6A teams. I knew it was going to be tough while breaking in almost everyone on offense, and it was going to be tough playing great defenses," Harper said. "We had growing pains early on but we got some kids who figured out how to play Friday night football."

The Mavericks have won four of five since their loss to Ouachita, including three straight in district. Marshall dropped its first district game against No. 7 Texas High, 36-18, but has followed with wins over Sulphur Springs (56-13), Mount Pleasant (48-21) and Greenville (42-14), coming out on top by almost 33 points per game.

"From where we were against Tyler Lee to now is night and day, especially offensively. Defensively we're better at getting lined up, being where we're supposed to be and tackling," Harper said. "Progress is coming along and I'm real happy with where we've come from since the beginning. Against Texas High we jumped up on them 18-0 and then Quan Hampton made two of the biggest plays in district so far that totally switched the momentum."

It was Marshall's first win of the season, a 40-0 victory over Corsicana on Sept. 16, that set the tone for where the Mavericks are now, Harper said. Running back Cam Haller ran for three touchdowns and Marshall's defense forced five turnovers, including the first of six defensive touchdowns over the last five games.

"We needed that win big time," Harper said. "It showed that if we do what we're coached to do, we can be successful. It just reassured them that we could still win games here at Marshall. It gave us a shot of confidence that we really needed."

Offensively it's been the Haller show as usual. The senior running back is among the leaders in East Texas with 1,153 yards and 14 touchdowns through eight games, averaging almost 10 yards per carry. His play on the field, coupled with his leadership on and off the turf, has been crucial to Marshall's success on offense, Harper said.

Harper said Haller and Keylon Kincade -- who he coached at Troup before he went to SMU, the Dallas Cowboys and is now the head coach at Winona -- are the two most competitive athletes he's ever coached.

"We were outside playing volleyball after a baseball banquet one time and Cam and I were spiking and diving for balls. He wants to win at everything he does, just like I do. We have that same personality," Harper said. "That's not the way every kid is built, but Cam is. When you get to coach an athlete who's been blessed with the abilities that Cam has been blessed with, it's special."

Defensively, the Mavs have been flexing their muscles as of late. They're giving up less than 17 points per game over their last five, and Marshall's defense has scored six touchdowns over their four wins, including three against Mount Pleasant.

"At one point we went five quarters without giving up a touchdown, so defensively we've been able to do some good things," Harper said. "We've been able to force a lot of turnovers and take advantage of those opportunities."

Marshall is in a unique situation in that the Mavericks only have two games left, and then their off week is during the final week of the regular season. A win over Hallsville on Friday night would lock up a playoff spot, and that off week would be a much-needed break before the postseason.

"We've got to stay hungry. Everybody's still fighting for those playoff spots and you've got to get to that magic number of four to get you in," Harper said. "Hallsville is a rivalry game so you can throw records out the window. For a lot of these kids this is like the Super Bowl. We're going to have to play extremely hard. Pine Tree next week we're playing the most improved team in East Texas. We just have to find a way to get a win so we can keep playing."