Facing gauntlet of undefeated, larger teams, Class 3A, DII Clifton Cubs still searching for first thrill of victory in the 2020 season
MAYPEARL – While maintaining the standard of setting up a tough non-district schedule to get ready for district competition, no one imagined the Class 3A, Division II Clifton Cubs would be taking on a murder’s row of opponents to open the 2020 Texas high school football season.
But that has proven to be exactly the case.
Playing Class 3A, DI Maypearl for the fifth straight season in a non-district game, the Cub defense delivered another performance worthy of winning. But the Panthers scored just enough to remain undefeated as they handed Clifton a hard-fought, but disappointing 17-7 loss on the road last Friday night.
For the third straight week to open the season, the Cubs (0-3) took on a team from a higher classification. Despite playing three bigger schools in Class 4A, DII Sanger, Class 3A, DI Little River-Academy and Maypearl, the Cubs have played well enough to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter in all three games. But in part at the expense of Clifton, all three non-district opponents own undefeated records after three weeks of the season.
“Again, we played well enough defensively to give ourselves a chance to win a ball game,” Clifton football head coach Chuck Caniford said. “We did a better job taking care of the football, but this week it was penalties that were our downfall offensively. We had multiple big plays that were called back due to penalties and put us in long yardage situations.
“I was proud of the fight our kids continued to show that gave us a chance in the fourth quarter. But we have to continue to clean up those mistakes that are drive killers.”
With experience of 13 returning starters and the confidence of winning back-to-back games to open the season, Maypearl (3-0) jumped out to a 7-0 first quarter lead. Then after the Panther held Clifton on their end of the field, Maypearl capitalized on a short Cub punt to score again. But thanks to a Clifton defensive stand, the Panthers settled for a field goal to take a 10-0 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
“We are doing some really good things defensively, and have been all year,” Caniford said. “I think that our effort is what is allowing us to overcome some adverse situations in these first three games. Our kids are playing with tremendous effort defensively.”
Trying to breathe some life into the Cub offensive unit, Caniford shook the lineup up in the second half and it appeared to be paying off. Freshman quarterback Riley Finney completed six of 13 passes for 94 yards, spreading the ball around to senior Tyler Anderson as well as juniors Luis Rodriguez and Will Simmons.
But the Panthers sacked Clifton eight times, picking off two passes and recovering a fumble, to stall any potential scoring threats.
“We made a couple of personnel changes in the second half that gave us a spark,” Caniford said. “Riley came in and gave us a little spark. Shawn Barnett did a nice job at right tackle in his first varsity action. Both Devin Byrd and Joe Taylor ran the ball really well in the second half.
Sophomore Joe Taylor finished as Clifton leading rusher with 71 yards on 13 carries, while Byrd added 20 yards on six attempts. But it proved to be the Cub special teams that finally put points on the board as sophomore Larrett Thomas blocked a Maypearl punt, and sophomore Weston Urbanovsky returned it for the touchdown. Senior Jose Ramirez nailed the extra points to make it a three-point game in the third quarter.
The Panthers promptly responded by mounting a scoring drive to build their 10-point advantage, and Clifton could not answer. Byrd led the Cub defensive unit with 11 tackles, followed by Finney with six while senior Elias Tebo and Thomas collected five takedowns apiece.
Playing tough non-district schedules have paid off for Cubs in the past under Caniford’s watch. The Cubs lost three of their first four games in 2016, and two of the first three in 2017, but made the playoffs both seasons. In fact, Clifton has qualified for the postseason six consecutive seasons during Caniford’s tenure.
“Our philosophy has always been to challenge our team in non-district in order to prepare us for the district schedule,” Caniford said. “That has never been more important this year, as we have more quality teams in our district this year than we have in recent years. We have to find out now what needs attention, and the only way to do that is by playing good teams.
“Our first three opponents, all from bigger classifications, are a combined 9-0 at this point. We have certainly had our struggles, but we have also been in a position to win all three of those games.
“The key to that philosophy is keeping your perspective. They don’t give out gold footballs for non-district champions. You earn those in October and November. We just have to keep working to get better every day. And if we can do that and keep our faith, we will be able to meet our standards in district play.”
Photos by DAVID HARDING
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