CEDAR HILL, Texas -- For a football program that recently joined the elite of Texas Class 5A, the Cedar Hill (Texas) Longhorns have grown oddly comfortable with erasing huge deficits.
It happened in 2006 against next-door neighbor DeSoto (Texas) in district play, rallying from 23-0 in the third quarter to win in triple overtime. In last year's Division II quarterfinals, the Longhorns trailed Plano West (Plano, Texas) 28-0 at halftime but advanced with a 52-49 win.
It happened again Saturday night in another meeting with DeSoto -- now not only in a different district, thanks to biannual realignment, but even a different region. Cedar Hill star outside linebacker Aaron Benson and the Longhorns, ranked No. 12 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50, trailed 28-7 after only nine minutes but rallied in front of a sold-out Longhorn Stadium plus an ESPN audience to win 44-41 in the season opener for both schools.
"A lot of teammates had their heads down," Benson said. "I told them we needed some turnovers. 'We need to stop 'em!' And we came out and got some turnovers."
Benson, a University of Texas commit ranked No. 51 in the ESPNU 150 (and No. 5 at his position), recovered from a shaky start to bolster a Cedar Hill defense that initially was stunned.
"Early, he was on a high that kind of got him out of position," Longhorns coach Joey McGuire said. "Late second quarter and on, I thought he had a really good game. He was in on a lot of plays.
"I thought he settled our front down. We had some young kids out there -- not that they were juniors or sophomores, but young from Friday night experience."
Said Benson, "I tried to fill in the holes more because the running back was squeezing through."
Benson is one of a handful of Cedar Hill players headed for major college football. Another is running back Ben Malena, a Texas A&M commit who last season rushed for 2,202 yards. Malena was lost late in the first quarter Saturday night to an ankle injury, which made Cedar Hill's win more unlikely than the garden-variety Longhorns comeback.
Maybe part of the reason is the Cedar Hill-DeSoto rivalry. The backyard battle between one-school southwest Dallas County suburbs (DeSoto's population is about 47,000, Cedar Hill's about 43,000) has developed into one of Texas' best in recent years because of the quality of play in multiple sports.
After the Longhorns scored that triple-overtime win over the Eagles during the 2006 season, Cedar Hill beat DeSoto again in the playoffs en route to a 16-0 record and the Division II state championship.
During the 2008-09 school year (the first time in years when the two schools were in separate districts), they met in the 5A boys' state basketball final. DeSoto won 59-47, and some of the players on the court in Austin this past March were on the field Saturday night: DeSoto offensive tackle Evan Washington and receiver Darius Terrell and Cedar Hill receiver Oliver Wells.
Saturday's game was a made-for-TV affair that replaced existing openers on both teams' schedules.
"It's crazy," Benson said of the rivalry. "We all know each other and talk a bunch of trash, but it's great."
Benson was a freshman when Cedar Hill won the '06 state title to cap the first season in which the Longhorns won a playoff game. He watched from the sideline inside San Antonio's Alamodome as star senior quarterback William Cole passed and ran Cedar Hill to victory over Cypress Falls (Houston).
Last season as a junior, Benson thought the once-beaten Longhorns were headed to another state title. The run ended in the Division II quarterfinals against Wylie (Texas), which reached the final before losing to Katy (Texas).
"I didn't want to come back out here," Benson said of the playoff loss. "Then, it made me want to work harder."
Benson committed to Texas after UT's first junior day in the spring. Among the other schools pursuing him were Oklahoma, LSU, Nebraska and Texas A&M. He'd pretty much made up his mind during the visit to Austin but took his mother's advice to first make the three-hour trip back north to Cedar Hill and give it more thought.
But it didn't take long after that.
"I thought, 'I'm never going to get another chance like this,' so I went on ahead and committed," he said.
McGuire said Saturday's game was an example of opponents working away from Benson, who plays on the left side, as the game goes on.
"After he got settled down in the second quarter, we rotated three linebackers on the right side because it felt like they were kind of picking on us there," McGuire said.
Benson, a cousin of former Texas star running back Cedric Benson from Midland, is a 6-foot-1, 210-pounder with 4.5 speed. McGuire marvels at his reaction time and execution.
"When he sees it, he's one of the fastest kids to get to the football," McGuire said. "It's like he's shot out of a cannon."
Benson is the latest Cedar Hill football player to head to Austin. Defensive tackle Jarvis Humphrey signed in 2008 but was plagued by a kidney problem and left school in the spring. Offensive tackle Thomas Ashcraft signed with UT in February.
McGuire, in his seventh season at Cedar Hill, emphasizes to his players the importance of sticking to their verbal commitments.
"We tell 'em once you commit, it's like a marriage," McGuire said. "You don't back out of it."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com.