On Friday, Euless (Texas) Trinity, the No. 3-ranked team in the nation, will face off against No. 28 Coppell (Texas) High. The matchup is the latest tough face-off in a brutal gauntlet facing the Trojans in Texas' brutal Class 5A Division I state tournament. Yet, when Trinity looks across the line, one of the forces holding together the defense it faces is a sport that won't start for some three months or more.
In a true rarity for Texas football, six starters on the Coppell's High School football team are lacrosse players. They're not just average lacrosse players, either; according to the Dallas Morning News, three have already committed to play Division I lacrosse and a fourth is likely to follow that path as well.
"Coppell has been able to fly relatively under the radar this season despite playing one of the best schedules in the country, and the reason is its defense," RivalsHigh senior analyst Dallas Jackson said. "The team has not given up more than 20 points in a game all season and has played some of the best teams in Texas."
Four of the most important members of that defensive unit are lacrosse players, forming an unintentional bond that is evident to anyone who seems them work together.
"That whole group right there, they are funny, they've got great personalities, and they are really a big part of our core," Coppell coach Joe McBride told the Morning News. "It's just a tight-knit group."
While such a strong crossover between football and lacrosse might not seem so strange in New York or Connecticut, the sport is still a relative novelty in Texas, where it only truly picked up momentum and state-wide organization in the 1990s. Of the thousands of high schools in Texas, only 77 feature varsity lacrosse teams. To this day, the game is still not recognized as a varsity sport by the University Interscholastic League, the athletic governing body that organizes Texas school sports, though it has gained legitimacy as it spreads rapidly across the state. The sport is governed by the Texas High School Lacrosse League, which splits the state into four different regions (though only three of those regions have schools which compete at the highest, Division I level).
For Coppell, senior linebacker Brandon Mullins, pictured at right, who leads the team in tackles, is such a good defenseman that he's headed for Syracuse, one of the sport's most stories programs. Coppell's leading receiver, Tyler Landis, will play for Brown and fellow senior Nate Hruby -- who lines up at wide receiver on the other side from Landis -- will play lacrosse for the Air Force Academy. Starting defensive back Sam Johnston is also considering playing in college, and junior starting linebackers Matt Ainsworth and Ethan Evans could both play lacrosse in college as well.
All three of the Division I-committed seniors have been key factors in the rise of both Coppell programs, leading the Cowboys to the Division II state lacrosse title last spring and helping push the team into the national rankings for football.
"Entering the year it looked like Coppell needed a deep threat to make the kind of noise it has," Jackson said. "The wide receiver group is exceeding expectations and puts the exclamation mark to the point that the best high school teams often don't have the best college prospects."
Mullins said that success is forged from a similar ideology in both programs.
"It's the attitude," Mullins said. "We have a positive winning attitude in lacrosse, and you can feel the same thing on the football field."
While attitude may be one of the things Mullins and his fellow lacrosse-football crossover players get from the two sports, there are plenty of other football benefits from playing the stick sport. In addition to a high level of hand eye coordinator, lacrosse requires a developed sense of physicality and leverage, traits which are essential in good defensive football players.
There's little doubt that Mullins falls in that category. His coach has called him the best player he'd ever worked with, thanks in part to quick thinking that can be attributed partly to his days playing lacrosse.
"Along with great ability, he is unbelievably coachable," McBridge told the Morning News. "[Mullins is] just a great character kid, a great effort kid, and his toughness is probably the highest mark of all of them."
If Mullins and his teammates pull off the upset, the win would justify all those accolades and then some. For now, he and his teammates are making sure not to get ahead of themselves.
"It's definitely great to be a part of a team that's doing something that's never been done before," Hruby told the Morning News. "But hopefully we have a lot more playing ahead of us."