When realignment sent Denton Ryan back down to Class 5A two years ago, what the Raiders have been doing was expected. And while it can be hard to live up to such lofty benchmarks, Ryan certainly seems up to the task.
A year ago Ryan went 14-1, blitzing its way through the regular season on the way to the 5A Division I Region I title and then lost in the state semifinals — by a touchdown — to eventual champion Highland Park.
In 2016, the Raiders seem to be on a similar path. They are ranked as the No. 3 team in the state according to the Associated Press poll and have yet to lose in the regular season. The offense still looks explosive while the defense routinely shuts people down.
Ryan will be the toughest opponent the Yellow Jackets have and probably will face this season. The meeting at Munson Stadium will be for sole possession of first place and the winner is guaranteed at least a share of the District 5-5A title.
The Raiders have faced every district opponent except for Denison and Rider. Ryan beat Denton (42-13), Braswell (47-14), Sherman (53-19) and Wichita Falls (41-13). The comparisons are obvious — Ryan has scored at least six touchdowns against everyone and the defense allowed no more than two touchdowns (One of Sherman’s TDs was on defense)
Outside of the season-opener, a 57-40 victory against Lancaster, no one has scored more than 22 on Ryan. Outside of a 28-21 victory against Frisco Lone Star, which is ranked in the top 10, no one has held Ryan under 41 points.
Last week against Wichita Falls, Ryan clinched its playoff berth. Spencer Sanders was 13-of-15 for 230 yards and five touchdowns to go with 117 yards and a touchdown on just four carries. Gabe Douglas had four catches for 48 yards and two touchdowns and Jamarion Robertson added a pair of catches for 77 yards and a score.
Sanders is the focal point. He has committed to Oklahoma State and the three-star prospect is ranked as the 18th best dual-threat QB in the nation and the 60th best player in the state by Rivals. He shared the district MVP honors last season.
In 2017, Sanders has completed 131-of-184 passes for 2,125 yards and 29 touchdowns against three interceptions. The back-up is the coach’s son, Ian Henigan, and the junior is 3-of-9 for 31 yards and a touchdown.
The reliance on Sanders is also seen in the rushing department. He leads the team in touchdowns (seven) and is second with 67 carries for 551 yards.
Sophomore Emani Bailey had 551 yards and five touchdowns on 95 carries. Senior Jose Gaona Jr. is next at 42 carries for 138 yards and two scores. Sophomore Tra Smith is the only other Raider with double-digit carries, more than 50 yards and found the end zone at 17 carries for 113 yards and three TDs.
At receiver, Douglas is the main target. He is a three-star prospect who has committed to Texas Tech and is ranked as the 96th best receiver in the country and the 84th best player in the state. Douglas has 51 catches for 813 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Robertson is next with 573 yards and four touchdowns on 24 catches but senior Chritauskie Dove is not far behind. He is a three-star wideout on Rivals and has 26 catches for 464 yards and six touchdowns. A freshman has worked his way into the mix and Billy Bowman Jr. has 22 catches for 264 yards and four TDs. No one else has more than six catches or 50 yards.
On the offensive line, seniors Carson Shelton and Michael Nielsen were second-team all-district and are the holdovers from 2016.
Defensively the Raiders had to replace the other co-MVP of the district, linebacker Tyreke Davis who is at North Texas, district defensive MVP Earnest Brown, who is at Northwestern, and first-team all-district lineman Dayton LeBlanc, who moved to Kentucky for his senior year. Plus six other starters who were first-team all-district as seniors.
Leading tackler is senior linebacker Kosi Eldridge with 87 tackles, including seven for a loss. Safety T.J. Walker is next with 65 and Smith, also a DB, has 47. Nine Ryan players have made at lead 35 stops.
Five of them have at least seven tackles for loss. Jacquez Flemings has three and a half sacks. Eldridge, Del’shun Neal and J.C. Coleman all have three apiece.
Seniors Carson Kennedy and Tamar Butts each have a pair of interceptions. Also in the secondary is another senior Jordan Rucker, who is a three-star prospect according to Rivals and the cousin of former Yellow Jacket all-state defensive end Taivian Rucker.
Luis Cantu is the kicker and has made 42-of-49 extra point attempts while making all three field goal tries. Riley Nuzzo handles punting and is averaging 38.8 yards on 13 attempts.