Stephenville head coach Joe Gillespie admits that a year ago this week, he was not excited about facing Amarillo High School.
It wasn't because the Sandies were a state-ranked 4A team - the second the Jackets had seen in four weeks - or that they had plenty of experience returning from a club that journeyed a few rounds into the 5A Division II playoffs the year before. That part excited him.
But Amarillo, under head coach Mel Maxfield, was - and still is - an old-fashioned team whose scheme fit the legendary mantra "Three yards and a cloud of dust."
"Amarillo was loaded backfield, ground-and-pound, you know what's coming and stop it if you can," Gillespie said. "Coming down from 4A, and from the districts we had been in when we were in 4A, we never faced that. Two years ago, every team we faced ran the spread."
But in hindsight, Gillespie says the matchup with the physical Sandies was exactly what his team needed.
"After the season, after we played Alvarado and Venus in district, then Kennedale and Kilgore and even El Campo to some degree, who all ran variations of ground-and-pound offenses, I was glad we played Amarillo. Being in that game and competing against those guys ended up paying off big for us down the road."
A year later, Gillespie can't wait for the opportunity for his team again to familiarize itself with what Amarillo - and others ahead on the schedule - does offensively.
"They're very similar schematically, except I feel like they throw the ball better than last year," Gillespie said. "Now for them, that can mean going 5-for-8 for over 100 yards and a touchdown or two, but it's effective. Personnel-wise they may not be as talented as last year, but I think they play harder."
Gillespie says there isn't a "nickel's difference between their tailback (Brent Burdett), fullback (Deon Lynch) and wingback (Treyton Roland)," when they run the ball, adding "The real leaders of their offense are their tight end (Dally Burney), a big, good looking kid who blocks very well and can also run routes and catch the ball, and their center (Britt Thomas). He's a varsity veteran back from last year, and I'm sure a lot of their blocking calls and such go through him. He's a good one."
With the old-fashioned offense, it may seem as if Amarillo would pride itself on winning low scoring slugfests, but that hasn't been the case. The Sandies average 37.5 points through four games, and are 2-2 after dominating 5A Odessa and Amarillo Tascosa and losing tough battles to 4A powers Wichita Falls Rider and Wolfforth Frenship. Rider edged Amarillo 45-44 in overtime two weeks ago, while Frenship beat the Sandies 42-31 last week.
"You go toe-to-toe with Rider and Frenship, you have a good football team," Gillespie said. "That's exactly what they are, a good, disciplined football team that makes its opponents be disciplined or makes them pay for their mistakes."
Stephenville will have to be better against the run after surrendering 290 yards on the ground to Waco La Vega. Aledo and Monterrey Tec also rushed for more than 250 yards against Stephenville.
"We need this challenge, that's another reason I'm so excited," Gillespie said. "We're able to challenge our defense and see how they respond to that challenge. It's all part of that week-by-week process we talk about. There are challenges each week, and if you conquer those challenges you become a better football team."
Stephenville averages 33.3 points, and is coming off its best offensive outing of the season.
"We still faced some adversity last week, but our adverse minutes are getting fewer and fewer," Gillespie said. "If we keep minimizing those minutes, eventually we'll be talking about facing an adverse play, or something adverse during a play rather than an adverse series or entire quarter."
Junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham passed for three touchdowns and rushed for two a week after throwing for three and running for one against Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Dillard. Meanwhile, running backs Kaegun Williams and Will Brock have become quite the 1-2 punch, combining for 201 yards against Dillard and 138 against La Vega.
"They are a good 1-2 punch. Will isn't the biggest or fastest kid, but he's just a warrior and he runs the ball with that mentality. Kaegun is so talented, and he's so young that he gets a lot better every week with all the experience he's gaining and the acclimation to the speed of the game," Gillespie said. "And it isn't just those guys. Jarrett's playing better at quarterback, the receivers are running better routes and catching the ball better each week and the offensive line is getting better and giving them protection and holes to run through."
It's the final pre-disrict game for Stephenville, which is idle next week and opens district on Oct. 11 at Glen Rose. A win Saturday would match Stephenville's best five-game start under Gillespie, who led the Jackets to a 4-1 start on their way to being 3A Division I champs at 13-1.