With a trip to the state semifinals on the line last season, Henderson's Patrick "Monsta" Brown dedicated his performance against Celina to his older brother and teammate, LaMarcus Brown.
Then a standout junior, "Monsta" put together a monstrous game that included a 49-yard touchdown run and a 52-yard punt return TD, which helped the Lions roll past the state's fifth-ranked team, 42-19.
"It's his birthday," Patrick said that night about LaMarcus, then a senior who added to the rout with a 60-yard fumble return in the opening quarter.
This weekend, Patrick and the Lions (8-4) will take on eight-time state champion Celina (10-2) for the second season in a row in the Class 3A Division II regional playoffs. The matchup is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mesquite's E.H. Hanby Stadium, located just down the street from where the teams collided last season (Mesquite Memorial Stadium).
For Henderson, the matchup will mark the program's third straight trip to the third round after winning the 3A D-I title in 2010 and falling in the 3A D-I semifinals in 2011. But with Kilgore having joined District 16-3A during last winter's biennial realignments and reclassifications, the Lions have been making this postseason trek in D-II.
Just like a year ago, Patrick Brown has helped lead the charge. During the regular season, the multi-threat athlete started taking 50 to 80 percent of the snaps at quarterback while carrying the ball 140 times for 1,105 yards and 14 touchdowns, which goes along with three punt returns for scores.
But also like last year, the Lions are far from a one-man show. On offense, senior running back Diamante Wright has stepped off 198 carries and 13 TDs behind 6-4, 255-pound lineman Nic Siler (Air Force pledge).
On defense, seniors Bo Brady and Jamaal Kind have anchored a unit that allowed 20.2 points a game during the regular season and is allowing 17 points an outing during the playoffs. Brady has registered 67 tackles, 27 tackles for losses and 12.4 sacks at defensive end, while Kind has posted 102 tackles and 11 tackles for losses at middle linebacker.
Despite having four losses on their ledger, the Lions have been one the 3A Region II's best teams this season after suffering three losses to Hallsville, Gilmer and Kilgore by four points or less. Meeks sees some similarities with the Lions and his 1989 Chapel Hill squad, which went 6-4 during the regular season but went on to claim the 4A state title.
"I think that in any of three games, we could have won those games," Meeks said about this year's losses. "We didn't make enough plays in them, but that's a great learning experience for your team. Now our kids know we have to make every play."
Because of graduation and returning less than half its starters from last season's squad, Henderson has limited experience when it comes to the postseason. Somewhat the opposite could be said for Celina, which has more experience at quarterback (sophomore Nathan Elliot) and boasts one of the state's top offensive linemen (senior Jake Raulerson, Texas pledge).
Elliot has completed 125 of 226 passes for 1,443 yards and 18 touchdowns with three interceptions, plus has carried the ball 81 times for 456 yards and nine TDs. His rushing production ranks fourth on the team behind junior Conner Tolbert (109-648-8), senior Willie Sims (63-539-11) and junior Deshawn Davis (48-456-9).
Senior receiver Ben Thiel has caught 40 passes for 726 yards and nine scores.
"I think they are a little more experienced team than they were last year," Henderson coach Dickey Meeks said about Celina, which returned five starters on each side of the ball from last year's 11-1 squad. "They've got 38 seniors, which is a lot for a 3A school. As far as a total matchup or whatever, they've got a little more experience than we do this year."
The winner between Henderson and Celina will advance to play either Gainesville (12-0) or Gilmer (11-1) in the state quarterfinals. Gainesville and Gilmer meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mesquite Memorial Stadium.