Not many expected Southlake Carroll to last long in the 5A Division I bracket.
For one, teams with good running games seemed to gash the Dragons defense, and the region featured plenty of teams with excellent running games.
But over the course of the last six weeks, Carroll's defensive front -- led by Jeff Miller, Matt Watford, Nash Dickey and James Hagerman -- found its game and shut down Cedar Hill, Arlington Martin and Dallas Skyline on the ground. Now Carroll is one win away from the school’s eighth state title.
The Dragons play Fort Bend Hightower (13-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in the 5A Division I final.
“Those guys have just gotten better,” said Carroll head coach Hal Wasson of his defensive line. “They’re tougher. They have a nasty mindset. To me, our front has improved more than anybody.”
Carroll (15-0) came into the year knowing it had good pieces on defense. Will Davis, a Kansas State commit, lead a seasoned group of linebackers, and Sabian Holmes gave the team’s secondary a veteran leader.
But the defensive line didn’t return a single starter, and it showed early in the year. Copperas Cove ran for almost 400 yards in Zero Week, an occurrence that repeated itself throughout the regular season.
L.D. Bell put up 300 yards rushing against Carroll. Keller Fossil Ridge ran for 250. Denton Guyer also went over the 300-yard mark.
“We thought last spring we’d have a pretty good [defensive] unit,” Wasson said. “We didn’t play as well as we’d like to the first three or four games, but I doubt anybody does. They’ve continued to improve and mature and get better.”
Things changed in the playoffs. The defensive line improved, linebackers started swarming to the ball carrier, and teams that looked capable of knocking off the Dragons didn’t even come close.
Carroll blew out Cedar Hill, 40-7. The Longhorns barely rushed for 100 yards. Despite having a 1,600-yard rusher in the backfield, Arlington Martin averaged less than 4 yards per carry in a 31-14 loss to the Dragons.
And Carroll’s defense isn’t just shutting down opposition offenses. It’s also making big plays.
Against Dallas Skyline last week, a Carroll lineman tipped a Devante Kincade pass that ended up being intercepted. The Dragons scored a touchdown off the turnover. Carroll forced three Skyline turnovers on downs, including two when Skyline was in the red zone.
So what has allowed Carroll’s defensive line to improve so suddenly?
“It’s the investment they’ve made -- the investment in the weight room, the investment in the mindset of all of it, the investment of wanting to get better, the investment in believing in the schemes,” Wasson said. “It’s a lot of little things, but if you had to use one word it would be investment.”