NEW CHAPEL HILL — From the moment the final seconds of Chapel Hill’s loss to Henderson in last year’s state championship game ticked down, expectations for this year’s Bulldogs team have risen with each week.
Coming into this year, Chapel Hill penciled in 14 returning starters, which helped make the Bulldogs a heavy favorite for a return trip to the state finals.
But if Chapel Hill was to make good on its promise, replacing graduated linebacker Lairamie Lee was a top priority.
Lee, now a freshman at North Texas, was the heart and soul of last season’s unit. He earned first-team all-state honors after racking up 175 tackles and six sacks.
After some early growing pains in 2011, the Chapel Hill defense is coming off its most dominant outing of the season against Rusk.
“We’ve grown a lot over the course of the season,” said Chapel Hill defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jason Holman. “Obviously we had some losses from last season with the seniors that graduated. It just took us several games to get caught up, schooled up on how everything works.”
Rusk’s offense was on the field for 12 series, and the Chapel Hill defense was able to force 11 three-and-outs in the Bulldogs’ 51-7 win two weeks ago.
“We were on fire that game,” senior linebacker Tyraiel Hart said. “Everybody was on key and doing their jobs right.”
Hart was Lee’s backup a season ago and has worked his way to stardom, leading this year’s team in tackles with 102.
“I don’t know if you can ever replace a Lairamie Lee, but he’s grown into the position,” Holman said. “Playing behind Lairamie last year, seeing everything that he did and the effort that he put forth, I think it’s just spilled over to not only Tyraiel but the entire group.”
Replacing Lee and fellow 2010 senior Collin Gray was a cause for concern early. In Chapel Hill’s second game of the season against Whitehouse, the Bulldogs allowed 570 yards, 49 points and six touchdowns that covered more than 30 yards.
“That Whitehouse game really woke us up and let us know that we need to step up our game and compete the way we want to compete and be a dominant defense like I know we are,” senior linebacker Kevin Garcia said.
The very next week at Carthage, Chapel Hill allowed just one touchdown through three quarters before Carthage rallied to get the game to within a point in the closing seconds.
Carthage opted to go for two and the win.
“I remember everything like it’s in slow motion,” senior linebacker Christman Weeks said. “Everybody manned up and read their keys. Whenever the quarterback rolled out of the pocket, we all just swarmed to him and got him before he could get into the end zone.”
That play ended a game in which starting quarterback Avery Saenz was injured in the first half and has yet to return to the field.
“I think that let us know that we could deal with any kind of adversity that came our way,” Weeks said. “No matter what we were going to pull through.”
NOTES: No. 1 Chapel Hill (9-0, 3-0 in District 17-3A) faces Athens (5-4, 1-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday from Bruce Field in the regular-season finale. A Bulldogs win would give Chapel Hill the first perfect regular season in school history … Chapel Hill has already clinched a postseason spot and will face Jasper (5-4) in the bi-district round of Class 3A Division I playoffs. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, at Lufkin’s Abe Martin Stadium.