Taylor High School administrators, students, faculty and supporters celebrated the school’s 40th anniversary on Nov. 26.
Four days later, the Mustangs’ football program celebrated history.
With its 35-14 win over Humble in the Class 6A-Division II regional semifinals on Nov. 30 at NRG Stadium, Taylor is not only the last Katy ISD team standing this 2019 football season, but is also in the regional finals for the first time.
As it was, the Mustangs were making just their third trip ever to the regional semis, and first since 2008. They made the most of it.
Taylor (8-5) made history by scoring early and often against an overwhelmed Humble team. The Mustangs’ storybook campaign continues into the 6A-Division II regional final against Cypress Creek at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at NRG Stadium.
“It’s unreal. Crazy. So crazy,” senior receiver Tanner Isola said. “It’s something nobody thought we could do, and we did it. It’s like euphoria. This is awesome. I don’t even know how else to explain it.
“We never thought we’d be in this position and we’re here, and we’re going to keep going with it, too.”
Humble entered against Taylor with a 10-2 record. On paper, it seemed like a mismatch going up against a Mustangs team that needed help on the final week of the regular season to secure its playoff spot.
But it was Taylor that kept its season alive.
The Mustangs outgained the Wildcats 315-279 in total yards, forced three turnovers and produced a second-half shutout.
Junior quarterback J. Jensen III completed 14 of 18 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns, two to senior running back/receiver Gavin Belue and another to senior receiver Griffin Dougherty.
Running backs CJ Tolbert and Casey Shorter combined for 140 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries.
The Mustangs manufactured a balanced offense: 163 passing yards and 152 rushing yards.
“When we’re balanced like that, we work well,” Belue said. “When the passing and rushing yards are the same, we’re tough to beat.”
Taylor scored on its opening drive of the game on Tolbert’s 2-yard run. Sophomore defensive back Hollis Robinson picked off Humble quarterback Dexter Wyble, and that set up a Belue four-yard score from Jensen for a 14-0 Mustangs advantage.
Not even two minutes later, with Humble threatening deep in Taylor territory, junior defensive back Trevor Woods snagged a Wyble pass and returned it 92 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 Taylor lead.
TREVOR WOODS! 92-yard interception return for a score. I would say an incredible play, but just another day at the office for @Trevorw_43. 21-0 Taylor leads, 7:28, 2Q. #txhsfb @TaylorMustangFB @taylor_mustangs @dctf pic.twitter.com/zFkPUUfjg2— Dennis Silva II (@densilva2) December 1, 2019
“It all starts with defense with us,” said senior defensive back Braden Hay, who broke up a handful of passes. “Offense really feeds off the way we play, and big plays are always our mindset. If we make one, we know the offense has our backs and we trust them to go down and punch it in and get us a quick score.”
It was deserving for a workmanlike, confident team that was excited, but not too excited, to play at NRG Stadium for the first time.
“This is a loose group, and they’ve gotten better at getting focused,” coach Chad Simmons said. “I watched to see if they were any tighter or different, and they weren’t. They realized pretty quick that the dimensions of the field are the same: 120 yards, 53 yards wide. They handled it well. Obviously.”
So how did a team that finished the regular season 5-5 get four rounds deep into the playoffs? Well, Simmons said adversity dealt from a hellacious schedule helped. The Mustangs’ five losses are to Atascocita (12-1 and headed to the 6A-D1 regional finals), Dickinson (10-2 area finalist), Mayde Creek (9-3 area finalist), Tompkins (11-2 regional semifinalist) and Katy (12-1 regional semifinalist).
“We’ve had a pretty tough schedule,” Simmons said. “We’ve won close games, we’ve lost close games. We’ve won games big, we’ve lost games big. We’ve learned from all of it, and now we’re peaking at the right time.”
Junior offensive lineman Hayden Conner said there is more of a belief within the team, something that wasn’t there earlier this season.
“Now we’re a lot more confident than we have been,” Conner said. “The offense is playing good ball and the defense is getting turnovers. We go into every game now thinking, ‘Hey, we’re the dudes.’ That’s the biggest difference right now.”
And, perhaps most significantly, Hay said focus and commitment is stronger.
“It’s definitely discipline,” Hay said. “It’s a big turning point for us. Sometimes during the season, there’d be lack of effort from some guys and it was a big deal in practice. That’s not it anymore. We’re all going hard. As long as we go hard in practice and have a good week, we know we have a good shot. We have great athletes all over the field that can give us a good look going into the next game.
“When we work and compete in practice, the games are easy. It’s showing.”
Hay said practices are more intense, more driven. He said the turning point came after the 57-0 regular season finale loss to Katy four weeks ago.
Hay said the team left plays on the field against the Tigers and the previous week’s 38-12 loss to Tompkins that could have turned things around.
“Focus, focus, focus,” Jensen said. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been keying in on.”
Next up is 9-4 Cy-Creek, which ousted Taylor in the area round of the playoffs last season. The Cougars upended the Mustangs, 24-14.
But Taylor is hungry for the rematch. It is not the same team.
For the first time in many years, Taylor has a legitimate passing attack that can prevent defenses from loading the box. And defensively, few teams remaining in the playoffs have such big-play capability.
“Let’s just say I’m looking for revenge,” Hay said, laughing. “Before this (Humble) game even started, I just wanted to get through it, honestly, to get to Cy-Creek. I’m pissed off. They were the ones that knocked us off last year and we had a good shot at going far then, too. We’re looking to make big plays and come back and pop them in the mouth.”
Who’s to tell them no?
“It’s any other game,” Jensen said, “and if we do what we do, then we’ll win.”