Hico had no business even being on the same field as Kerens 10 years ago, says Hico head coach Keith Wood, as he recalled a 2A regional semifinal contest against Kerens when he was the Tigers' defensive coordinator in 2002.
"They had us down 19-0 in the first quarter and were just running all over us," Wood remembered. "But we came back and won."
Indeed. It was the deepest playoff run this century by Hico, which was eliminated the next week by Winters in the state quarterfinals. It was also Hico's last playoff victory, something the Tigers look to change this week.
Kerens (5-5) is the opponent again as Hico (7-3) returns to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. This time, both Hico and the Bobcats are competing in 1A Division I, and this time it's a bi-district contest with the winner moving on to face Honey Grove in area.
Hico meets Kerens at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Rockets Stadium in Robinson.
"They're very athletic; they have kids who look like Greek gods and can run like crazy," said Wood of Kerens, the third place team from District 6-A Divsion I. "We just have to contain them, keep everything in front of us and tackle well like we did against Goldthwaite."
Hico upset Goldthwaite 9-6 to earn a share of the District 5-A Divsion I championship. The Tigers, Goldthwaite and San Saba were even atop the standings, with the point-spread tiebreaker landing in Goldthwaite's favor and giving the Eagles the opening-round bye in the playoffs.
"Somebody asked me if I would have rather won by 10 and got the bye, but to be honest, I don't think I would have liked that," said Wood, who is in his fifth year as head coach. "We just came off a bye right before Goldthwaite, and you don't want to slow down once you get on a roll at this time of the year. I'm glad we're playing this Friday."
The Tigers will take a much-improved passing attack into the playoffs, off-setting their usually successful wing-T ground game. Colton Stegall passed for eight touchdowns in four district games, including the only score last week to Brandon Stewart. Stegall has made Stewart his favorite target when the Tigers go to the air.
"I feel like if we can run for 300 and throw for 100, that's good for us because it keeps the defense off-balance," said Wood. "We do have a bit of a passing game now if they want to stack it up there. We've been playing (Stewart) at more of a receiver type of position than at running back, and that allows us to throw the ball more efficiently than we have in the past. Defenses have to be sure to account for him, because he's a playmaker."
The same can be said of Stewart on the defensive side, where he plays mostly linebacker with some secondary assignments mixed in and has produced 131 tackles including 21 against Goldthwaite.
"He's had a couple games like that where he makes around 20 tackles or more," said Wood. "He's kind of our bell cow defensively."
Stewart has also scored on defense, returning a fumble 76 yards against Italy, the only common opponent between Hico and Kerens.
Both teams hosted Italy, Hico in non-district and Kerens last week to conclude its regular season. Hico led 8-0 after Stewart's long fumble return then scored 20 fourth-quarter points to break open an 8-8 tie in a 28-8 win over the Gladiators. Kerens led 21-20 at halftime against Italy, but as outscored 20-6 in the second half of a 40-27 loss.