Stephenville (12-1) is once again just one game away. Then again, so is Kilgore (13-0).
Just like last year, the former 4A turned 3A state powers will collide in a 3A Division I semifinal, this time at 2 p.m. Saturday in Corsicana.
Stephenville won 42-32 last year, a week before throttling El Campo 70-35 for the state championship. The Jackets jumped ahead of Kilgore 35-10, and the Bulldogs didn't once have a possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
"I don't think it means a lot, maybe more from their standpoint than ours because we were victorious," said Stephenville head coach Joe Gillespie concerning the rematch scenario. "Had we been on the flip side of that last year, then yeah, it would probably play a bigger role for us."
Playing for a spot in the state championship game against Carthage or LaGrange, on the other hand, means a great deal to both clubs.
"It's a state semifinal and you're one win away from being back at Cowboys Stadium playing for a state championship," Gillespie said. "I don't know anything that could be more motivating than that."
Kilgore is similar to last year: fast and ground oriented. The Bulldogs have rushed for an average of 8.3 yards per carry as a team this year while throwing the ball just 6.1 times per game. They complete 3.4 of those passes.
"It takes tenacious defense and you have to be very phsyical," Gillespie said of trying to slow Kilgore's rushing attack. "You have to win the war in the trenches, and the bottom line is you have to make plays when you're there to make them. We have to be great tacklers Saturday.
"They throw the ball well enough to keep you honest," said Gillespie. "They do it just enough to keep you from loading up the box to stop the run, and that enables them to keep doing what they do. They have a great football team. You know that because they are in the final four. Everybody is great at this time of year."
The ground attack is paced by Kevrin Justice with 1,654 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns. Davionta "Ju Ju" Brown has rushed for 1,176 yards and 18 scores.
The Kilgore defense features three defensive backs with four interceptions each. Stefun Tatum and Jeff Sanders have also broken up eight passes and six, respectively. Linebackers Jake Brantley and Kris Haynes have 122 and 117 tackles, and defensive lineman LaDarrin Anthony has 88 tackles, 11 sacks and 34 quarterback hurries.
Stephenville, of course, is more versatile offensively. Junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who picked up an offer from Oregon Tuesday evening, has passed for 2,640 yards and 30 touchdowns with just four interceptions while also rushing for 999 yards and 16 scores. Over the last two games, he is 37-54 passing for 716 yards and five TDs.
Freshman Kaegun Williams has rushed for 1,521 yards and 18 TDs while also catching 20 passes for 386 yards. Stidham's top target is Brock Morrison with 31 receptions for 540 yards and 10 scores, while Ben Martin has 25 catches for 555 yards.
The Stephenville defense is paced by Tyler Isham with 94 tackles and four forced fumbles. Mookie Carlile has 81 tackles and five interceptions while Kobe Beavers has 79 stops, two blocked punts including one that went for a touchdown and a defensive TD when he picked off a lateral and returned it 30 yards.
Stephenville is racing the clock with its preparations for Kilgore after last week's blast of winter weather delayed the Yellow Jackets' quarterfinal game three days. By the time they defeated Lubbock Cooper 42-28 Monday night, Kilgore's 59-19 thrashing of Tyler Chapel Hill was already three-day old news.
"I don't know if 15, 16, 17 year olds worry about that, but I can tell you 42 year olds do a little bit," said a chuckling Gillespie. "But like we told the kids, it is what it is so you might as well make the most of it. They get eight days, we get five. There's nothing we can do about that."
While the short week brings obvious challenges, Gillespie said some are overplayed.
"Honestly, there are a lot of weeks where we work hard Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and I feel like we're ready to play right then," Gillespie said. "The walk through on Thursday and then getting to Friday is like hurry up and wait because we're ready to roll mentally and physically. It's my job and all our job as coaches to be sure all we're missing by Saturday is the wait."
Carthage and LaGrange play Friday night in Mansfield. The state championship is set for noon Friday, Dec. 20, at Cowboys Stadium.