Stephenville begins its 30th football playoff trip Friday on the heels of the program's 21st district championship.
As you'd expect of a program that's been there 29 times before, Stephenville seems to feel right at home in the opening round of the playoffs, even though the game has always been played away. The Yellow Jackets are in the playoffs for the 23rd time in 24 years and are 20-2 in their last 22 bi-district games.
Stephenville is 4-0 in bi-district under fifth-year head coach Joe Gillespie, a perfect mark that is on the line when the Jackets meet Burnet at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Waco ISD Stadium.
Everyone expected the No. 3 Yellow Jackets (9-1) to be here, but some are surprised to see Burnet (5-5) in the postseason.
The Bulldogs won their final three contests - the key being a 44-36 upset of once state-ranked Liberty Hill - to secure a playoff spot, and because Burnet is the largest school in 8-3A, the Bulldogs face Stephenville in 3A Divsion I. The winner meets Kennedale or Burkburnett in area, and if the Jackets win that game is already set for 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23, at Ram Stadium in Mineral Wells.
Gillespie says it's not any one thing that has made the Yellow Jackets so successful early in the playoffs, but a number of things. He doesn't care which prove to be most advantageous to his team Friday, as long as they extend the program's first-round win streak to eight.
"I think it's a number of things that have contributed to us being successful in bi-district, starting with the fact we've had a lot of good football teams," said Gillespie who has been on staff at Stephenville since 1995. "I can speak to the vast majority of those bi-district wins - first of all our kids do a good job of gelling at the right time, and I think the course of action and progress we as coaches allow throughout the season helps with that; the other thing is absolute determination and belief in the goals we have set for ourselves. We absolutely focus 110 percent effort mentally and physically on one ball game and those next 48 minutes, because all we're guaranteed at this time of year is the next three practices, a walk-through and 48 minutes on Friday.
"It's an awesome time because you get to see young men come together after they've poured so much into it and sacrificed so much to get here - time, money because they could be out getting a part-time job, blood, sweat, tears, so many emotions - and for the seniors, all that's been going on for six years and you're anteing it all up for one game," he continued. "It's a legacy, and we want to continue to carry that legacy forward. It means a great deal to our kids."
Beating Burnet would mean a great deal, too. Especially to those who were part of the Yellow Jacket team widely favored to win the 7-on-7 Division II (1A-3A) state title in July only to be upset by the Bulldogs in overtime of the opening round.
"Our kids were a little shocked and upset with themselves for not taking care of business, and of course Burnet was over there hooping and hollering - not to be disrespectful, but because they had just won a big ball game," Gillespie said of the moments following the defeat. "I told them, No. 1, it's touch football, and No. 2, you could see them again in the first round of the real playoffs. When I mentioned that, the spark come back in their eyes a little bit.
"As soon as we knew for sure it would be Burnet (in the first round), the kids started talking about it and how this is how they wanted it to come out," Gillespie said. "We're going to get our chance at them; we have them for 48 minutes Friday."
Gillespie is concerned with Burnet - or any playoff foe for that matter - pulling out all the stops and throwing everything - possibly even the kitchen sink - at the Jackets.
"They kicked kind of a pooch-style onside kick early in the game and got it against Lampasas last week," said Gillespie. "Things like that you come to anticipate from teams, and we certainly do anticipate them to try a lot of different things Friday.
"In a sense that makes you a better team, because facing opponents like that forces you to be on your toes and aware at all times - on offense, defense and special teams," he continued. "And we have some stuff up our sleeve, too. It's not like we're just going to stay on the defensive the whole time waiting to see what they're going to do next."
Burnet passes the ball more than any of Stephenville's regular season opponents, Gillespie says, with the exception of Glen Rose.
"Burnet throws the ball around and they have a good quarterback to do it with," he said.
Junior Derek Kiser was the Built Ford Tough Player of the Week after torching struggling Llano for five touchdown passes in a 62-34 rout two weeks ago. Stephenville's quarterback - senior Texas State pledge Tyler Jones - took the same honor when he passed for three touchdowns and rushed for two against Glen Rose on Oct. 19.
"He's a heck of a competitor, he throws the ball pretty well and he executes their offense really well with the quick game," Gillespie said of Kiser. "He keeps drives alive with his legs; that's certainly a huge reason why they are where they are right now."
Gillespie said Burnet's offense has been known to come out in different looks throughout the season.
"A couple times in district that's what they did - come out in a different look than you would see in any of their other films and use it to catch teams off guard," Gillespie said. "We expect them to do the same thing Friday."
That's where the Yellow Jackets' strength of schedule may play in their favor.
"We've faced teams that are very good offensively in very different ways," Gillespie pointed out. "We've seen everything from Amarillo's wing-T to Aledo being Aledo and Glen Rose spreading it out all over the field. We're not sure what (Burnet) will come out in, but odds are we've seen it and game-planned against it."
Gillespie originally said he was not a fan of having the final week of the regular season off, but now he says it was a blessing in disguise.
"Mookie Carlile (heel) is back, Raul Rocha (knee) is back and we anticipate having Nick Pack (knee) back after he was injured the first week and missed the whole regular season," Gillespie said Tuesday. "Sam Macklin is off crutches and rehabbing hard; we might have him next week but it's looking more like two (weeks)."
One Jacket who will not return in the postseason is Logan Levisay, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Glen Rose.
"Logan had successful knee surgery (Monday) to fix his ACL and other stuff; I understand it went real well," Gillespie said. "It's unfortunate he can't be out there playing, but we're glad he's doing well and that he's just a junior and can be back with us next year."