Prestonwood, Nolan meet for TAPPS Div. I edge

PLANO -- Prestonwood Christian Academy had to deal with more than a fair share of changes going into this season. The defending TAPPS Division II state champs were moved up to Division I alongside perennial private school powerhouses like Dallas Bishop Lynch and Forth Worth Nolan. The Lions also had to break in a junior quarterback who was starting for the first time on varsity in a pass-heavy spread offense.

In hopes of keeping his team from becoming satisfied from the success of the previous season and not facing the challenges ahead, head coach Chris Cunningham instituted a mantra of “never backing down” for his team. This focus, he said, keeps his team working on improving each week to overcome any challenges that might present themselves throughout the season. Cunningham said the slogan also reflects the school's religious faith.

Cunningham came to Prestonwood from Colleyville Heritage High School, where football tradition is held in high regard. Now in his new role, Cunningham can teach his players lessons that go beyond just the game of football.

Running back Kenneth Huggins leads Prestonwood, and all area private schools, in rushing yards with 1,111 to go with 13 touchdowns on 109 carries. He was the key factor in the Lions' 45-21 win over Argyle Liberty Christian last week at Cowboys Stadium in a rematch of last year’s Division II state championship game.

“[Huggins is] unique,” Cunningham said. “He’s as good of a back as there is out there. With his combination of speed and good hands we can do a lot with him.”

On Friday, Prestonwood (6-1, 3-0 TAPPS 1-I) will be a part of what could be the most important private school game in the area this season against Fort Worth Nolan (7-0, 2-0), last season’s Division I state champion. Prestonwood's only loss this year was to UIL Class 3A power Celina.

“Coming off a big win last week at Cowboys Stadium, we’ve got to keep our composure,” Lions quarterback Parker Ash said. “We’ve got to look past all their wins and this-and-that’s they’ve won.

Nolan boasts a very balanced offense lead by quarterback Michael Smith. Smith has completed 60 percent of his passes this season for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns.

“[Smith] is a very impressive field general,” Cunningham said. “He just wins ballgames for them. You can just see it in him. He gets done what needs to get done, makes the throws and makes the runs. They really rally around him.”

Balancing out the Nolan offense is running back Alex Sauza, who is second in rushing yards for area private schools behind Huggins with 1,087 on 138 carries, and he's scored 13 touchdowns. Cunningham said Sauza is a speedy back with some power and physicality.

Ash is in his first season as Prestonwood's quarterback and has had no trouble finding his rhythm. He leads area private schools in passing yards with 1,708 and 16 touchdowns.

Ash said if Nolan’s defense puts five men in the box, it should open up the run game for Huggins. And if the Vikings put more pressure in on the run, he was prepared to get the job done through the air.

The battle for the top spot in TAPPS Division I comes down to two teams with similar philosophies, tools and tendencies, Cunningham said. Cunningham said he knows Nolan will be ready to play at its home stadium and he believes his team will bring its A game as well.

“You play a team that’s the quality of Nolan, that should bring out the best in you,” Cunningham said.