Nathaniel Vargas

Nathaniel Vargas (11) and the Grandview Zebras will try to win their fifth consecutive area playoff game when they meet the Gladewater Bears at 7 p.m. Friday in Royse City.

GRANDVIEW — After claiming their fifth consecutive bi-district championship last week, Grandview will try to match that with a fifth consecutive area-round victory but it won’t come easy for the Zebras in a Class 3A Division I area showdown Friday against the Gladewater Bears.

Winning in the bi-district round of the playoffs has become the norm in Grandview. Last week’s 49-7 bi-district win over Teague was the Zebras’ seventh bi-district title in the past decade.

For a program that has become accustomed to making deep playoff run after deep playoff run — including back-to-back state championships in 2018 and 2019 — one might think a bi-district title is a ho-hum accomplishment, but Grandview Head Coach Ryan Ebner said they cherish every victory and extra week of practice they can get.

“I think any time you can get any playoff win in the state of Texas, it’s a pretty big deal,” Ebner said. “We’ve got some younger kids so for some of them it was their first time to experience the playoffs and a playoff win. There are those expectations [of making deep runs] but any time you’re able to move on to the next round, you’re pleased with it as a coaching staff and for the kids.

“I feel like, at the end of the day, we’re fortunate to be where we’re at. There’s been a lot of ups and downs throughout the season with injuries and things like that, and you’re constantly having to reinvent yourself, so any time you can move on in the playoffs it’s a big deal.”

If the Zebras (9-2) are to advance to the third round of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, they’ll have to get past a Gladewater team that hasn’t experienced defeat since Sept. 17.

The Bears have an impressive 2021 résumé with their 8-2 record and undefeated District 6-3A Division I championship. Gladwater has won seven consecutive games since a 1-2 start to the season. Both of the Bears’ losses this year are against fellow East Texas powerhouses in Kilgore (10-1, ranked No. 6 in Class 4A DI) and Gilmer (10-1, ranked No. 2 in Class 4A DII).

“They’re very athletic with a lot of good team speed,” Ebner said. “I feel like they have pretty good size up front. And anybody who doesn’t have a ton of size for them is quick and speedy. They run a bunch of different things on offense but at the end of the day they’re going to ground and pound and try to just constantly move the chains. We’ll have to be very sound in our communication on defense because of the different formations they give you.”

Gladewater not only operates out of the spread but they’ll also spend a large portion of games in the I-formation. Ebner said defending an offense that can line up in a spread look one play but then go a little old-school out of the I-formation can be challenging.

“We’re just going to have to have different groupings to match up with the group they put out there,” Ebner said. “You can’t stay with the same 11 all game. You have to match what they’re trying to do. If they bring out more size [in I-formation], you have to bring out more size. If they bring out more skill-type kids [in the spread], you have to bring out more skill-type kids. It’s about that and also having constant communication about what you’re seeing out there.”

The Bears are led by senior D.J. Allen, a Division I recruit who holds more than 20 Division I offers, including from the likes of Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech and USC.

“D.J. Allen is their dude,” Ebner said. “He’s a Division I kid. He was at wide receiver but they got him playing quarterback. They find a bunch of different ways to get him the ball in different areas.”

Ebner said defending a special athlete like Allen requires all 11 players.

“It will be making sure our rules are right as far as who’s got what and then other than that it will be making sure we’re not rushing to get to him as much as it is gathering up as a team and making sure we’re forcing him to the sideline,” Ebner said. “We have to do a good job of staying in front of him and then team tackle. You can’t always expect to tackle a great athlete one-on-one, you have to work as a team to slow him down and make him go lateral instead of vertical.”

Allen has rushed for 836 yards and eight touchdowns on 85 carries (9.8 yards per rush), but the Bears aren’t a one-man show. Zaveyion Campbell and G’Braylon Polley also have the potential to do serious damage in the run game. Campbell has rushed for 692 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 carries while Polley has 446 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 86 attempts.

“They use multiple people in the backfield,” Ebner said. “No. 3 [Campbell] and No. 40 [Polley] are good ball carriers. They run a lot of fullback dive. But No. 3 is their main tailback and No. 11 [Kollin Lewis] is their main receiver.”

Grandview’s offense, which scored 40-plus points last week for the sixth time this season, is coming off one of its most efficient outings of the year against Teague despite having their third-string running back and a move-up from the junior-varsity team shouldering the load in the run game.

The Zebras, led by junior receiver Kason English, will face a Gladewater defense that operates out of the 3-4 and crowds the line of scrimmage.

“They put a lot of guys in the box and use a lot of man coverage in the secondary,” Ebner said. “Our offensive line will have to do a great job of communicating as always. They like to be aggressive up front and also put pressure on your receivers to get open. So we’ll have to do a good job of protecting the quarterback to give our receivers time so they can get open.”

After the graduation of four-year starter Dane Jentsch at quarterback, the Zebras entered this season with some question marks on offense but Ebner said he likes how Grandview has evolved on offense throughout this year.

“As players have gotten hurt or some things change, I think we’ve done a good job as a coaching staff of using different personnel to take on each team and try to provide some stuff that can confuse them or hurt them,” he said. “I think we’ve done a good job of evolving and the coaches putting kids in the best places to succeed.”

Looking at the overall matchup of this week’s opponent, Ebner said possession of the ball will be key.

“They do some things in special teams like onside kicks, so we just have to make sure we’re not giving up the ball and losing possessions,” Ebner said. “... When the ball is being kicked to us, we have to get it. The other thing is we have to eliminate the big play. We have to make them earn it. There’s more opportunity for things to happen for us if we don’t give up the big play and make them earn everything.”

Grandview and Gladewater are scheduled for a 7 p.m. kickoff Friday from Royse City ISD Stadium.

The winner advances to the third round against the Mount Vernon vs. Whitney winner.

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