STORY BY: TIM SCHNETTLER
SHENANDOAH — The talk all week was about the tradition of the La Marque Cougars and how they were battle-tested after dropping down from Class 4A to Class 3A.
The Navasota Rattlers showed the Cougars that the past didn’t matter as they downed the Cougars, 31-20, in a Class 3A Division II Regional contest at Woodforest Bank Stadium.
The victory kept the Rattlers record spotless at 13-0 and moved them in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. The Rattlers will face West Orange Stark, which defeated Lorena. The time, site and date for that game will be determined.
La Marque, which had run off nine straight wins since a loss in the third week of the season, saw it season end at 11-2.
With the size and speed of La Marque, the Rattlers figured they were going to face their toughest challenge of the playoffs, and they were right.
The game was extremely physical and chippy, with the teams having to be separated more than once. It also featured two ejections, both on the La Marque side.
“We knew a game like this with the talent La Marque has was going to be the caliber game of a state championship game,” Navasota head coach Lee Fedora said. “Our kids don’t lay down, they don’t put their head down, and they just come back and fight.”
The Rattler defense, which came in allowing just 6.1 points per game on the season did give up the most points it had yielded all season, but when it needed a big play, it managed to find one.
First they turned away the Cougars in the first half after the Cougars had first-and-goal from the 6.
Then, with La Marque threatening to cut the Navasota lead to 3 late in the game, Dustin Savensky popped Ladarrian Ellis-Jones in the backfield, forcing a fumble that Xavier Creeks recovered at the Navasota 6, allowing the Rattlers to run out the clock and secure the victory.
“We won that game because we got some big turnovers,” Fedora said.
The Rattler offense wasn’t as sharp as it had been all season, only accumulating 285 yards, but that total came against a defense that was allowing only 183.4 yards and 9.7 points per game.
The Rattler defense, meanwhile, held the Cougars to just 279 yards, and for the most part, kept the Cougar offense, which was averaging 377.1 yards per game, in check.
Both teams got their first scores on the night following special teams miscues. First Xavier Creeks muffed a punt that La Marque recovered at the Navasota 44-yard line.
The drive included a conversion on a fourth-and-6 that moved the ball to the Navasota 1-yard line. From there quarterback Demun Mercer called his own number and went in for the score.
The extra point try by Jimmy Loa, however, was blocked by Jordan Wells leaving the score at 6-0 at the 8:14 mark of the first quarter.
The Rattlers countered when they took advantage of a high snap that got through the hands of La Marque punter Mike Parker. Wells was able to fall on it at the La Marque 17.
The Rattlers needed just two plays to cash in when Kadarius Baker found Demarcus Lee all alone in the corner of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown. Michael Martinez’s extra point made it 7-6 with 3:03 left in the first quarter.
La Marque threatened to reclaim the lead after getting a first-and-goal from the Navasota 6. They worked the ball to the 1 and on third-and-goal Mercer was stuffed. La Marque lined up for a field goal, but after taking a timeout decided to go for it on fourth-and-1.
The Cougars were flagged for a false start and instead of a fourth-and-goal from the ½ yard line they had to snap from the 5. They tried to run a sweep to the left side, but Solomon McGinty read it from the start and dropped Ladarrian Ellis-Jones for a loss of 4.
After taking over the Rattlers set out on a 13-play 91-yard drive that ate more than 6 minutes off the clock. Baker was 9-for-9 on the drive for including a 23-yard scoring pass to Austin Collins that made it 14-6.
After forcing La Marque to punt, the Rattlers took over at their own 25-yard line with 1:01 on the clock and no timeouts.
Baker ran the hurry up to perfection, and after hitting McGinty at the La Marque 31 for a first down, clocked the ball with 2 seconds left, setting up a chance for Martinez to try a 48-yard field goal.
Martinez, who came into the game 10-for-10 on the season, had plenty of leg to push the Rattler lead to 11 heading into the half.
Navasota got another big special-teams play early in the third quarter after forcing a punt from the La Marque end zone. The snap was high once again and when the La Marque punter tried to scramble with it he was hit by Jordan Birdwell.
The ball came loose and after a scramble, Jaylyin Minor fell on it in the end zone for a Navasota touchdown that made it 24-6.
La Marque cut into the lead again when the speedy Mercer raced to the end zone from 32-yards out, but the Rattlers answered following a great kick return by Collins that gave the Rattlers the ball at the La Marque 44.
Baker was able to score from the 2 on the seventh play of the drive stretching the lead back to 18.
La Marque had one more score, this one a 1-yard run by Ellis-Jones to provide the final margin.