Chapel Hill using adversity as positive

Running back Rex Rollins, who was hurt in Chapel Hill's season-opener, returned to the field last week against Lindale and led the Bulldogs in rushing with 127 yards on nine carries. (Jaime R. Carrero | Tyler Morning Telegraph)

Facing their stiffest test of the early season, the Chapel Hill Bulldogs rose to the occasion and reminded everyone why they’re ranked No. 1 in the state.

The Bulldogs were in hostile territory last Friday night at Eagle Stadium, matching up against eighth-ranked Lindale, but came away with a convincing 51-29 win.

“I felt like we did a good job in all three phases of the game,” Chapel Hill coach Thomas Sitton said earlier this week. “We’ve still got work to do, but that’s the best that we’ve played up to his point.”

Injuries in previous weeks threatened to define a team many felt were destined for a return trip to the Class 3A Division I state championship game.

But five weeks into the season, the Bulldogs have used the health setbacks as a source of motivation.

“We’ve done a good job of handling adversity with some of the things that haven’t gone our way,” Sitton said. “The kids are pulling hard for each other and believe in what we’re trying to get done.”

With the exception of quarterback Avery Saenz, who is expected to miss at least the remainder of the regular season, most of the injured playmakers returned to the field against Lindale and made an immediate impact.

Rex Rollins, lost early in Chapel Hill’s season opener, was the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 127 yards on just nine attempts. Andrew Tucker, out with the previous two games, ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns.

Tucker did most of his damage early on, scoring on a 34-yard run in the first quarter to give Chapel Hill a 7-0 lead. Rollins, meanwhile, logged runs of 66 and 50 yards in the fourth that set up touchdowns that sealed the win.

“We just try to keep a fresh pair of legs in there as much as we can,” Sitton said. “Our offensive coaches do a great job knowing which ones are tired and which ones to put in. In the third and fourth quarter, when the defense is tired of tackling, we’ve got fresh bodies running the ball.”

Sitton said his team’s offensive line has played an enormous role.

“The best thing about them, of course, is they’re a senior group,” he said. “They’re always the unsung heroes, but every football coach knows that games are won up front with the o-line and the d-line.”

Without Saenz, Chapel Hill has taken a more conservative approach on offense, scaling back its passing attack. Anthony Kincade attempt just seven passes against Lindale, but did complete a 56-yard touchdown pass and another 30-yard gain to Nelson Onwuzu.

“He’s doing a great job at quarterback right now,” Sitton said of Kincade. “He’s been throwing the ball well, managing the game well and communicating everything to our offense. He’s a real smart football player and I think he’s going to keep getting better every week.”

After a rough first two games, which included allowing 570 yards and 49 points to Whitehouse, the Chapel Hill defense has also begun to round into shape.

Two weeks ago against Hallsville, the Bulldogs held the Bobcats’ offense out of the end zone, forcing five field goals instead. Last week, Lindale fumbled on its opening possession of the game and had two first-half drives stopped on fourth downs inside Chapel Hill territory.

“The most important thing has been our effort in getting to the football,” Sitton said. “In the first couple of games, if one man misses a tackle, there’s nobody else there to help out. As the season has progressed, we’re getting better and running to the football. We’re doing a much better job of gang tackling.”

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