MANSFIELD — Both fans and opponents of the 2017 Stephenville football team are learning each week what head coach Greg Winder’s players may have known all along — they are developing into one of the best teams in the state.
In an immensely entertaining, tense football contest, the Yellow Jackets held off state-ranked and previously unbeaten Argyle 31-28 Friday night at Newsom Stadium in Mansfield in the regional (third) round of the playoffs to advance to next week's Class 4A, Div. I state quarterfinal playoff round.
The Jackets, making the most of physical play, team unity and intense enthusiasm have seen their confidence grow while improving to 11-2. Argyle's outstanding season ended at 12-1, one year after finishing at 11-1 in 2016.
Stephenville will play its state quarterfinal game against Wichita Falls Hirschi at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8, at Chisholm Trail High School in Saginaw. That venue, named Rangers Stadium, is located at 2576 Northwest College Drive in Fort Worth. Rangers Stadium was built in 2012 — the last year Stephenville won a state football championship.
Ticket prices are $6 for adults, $4 for students, both prior to the game and at the gate. They can be purchased at Stephenville High School starting Wednesday.
Stephenville will be on the visitors side, Athletic Director Mike Copeland said.
This marks the 16th time in school history the Jackets have made it to the state quarterfinals in football. They have reached the semifinals eight times, and have five state championships.
Stephenville scored first and the game was tied at 7 early in the second quarter, but the Yellow Jackets never trailed. Leading by 3, Stephenville's defense forced the Eagles to try a 25-yard field goal that was deflected by SHS senior Cole Pettit, allowing the Jackets’ offense to run out the final 3 seconds for the triumph.
Argyle came into the game ranked No. 3 in the state by the Associated Press. The Jackets had two back-to-back non-district losses, but came into the game on a six-game win streak.
“That’s why you play the games,” Winder said. “In the playoffs, you never know what the outcome is going to be. Our kids can compete with anybody. That's what I like about our kids' confidence. It was a total team effort. It was awesome.”
In two state football polls that are published online, Stephenville entered the Argyle game ranked eighth among Class 4A, Div. I schools by Texas Football magazine, and seventh by MaxPreps. Argyle was third and second, respectively.
"The defense played real well, like they have all year," Winder said. "We were physical, we tackled well and the secondary played well too. (The Eagles) are a really good football team. Our guys can compete with anybody — and they do."
Blake Aragon and Krece Nowak scored two touchdowns each for SHS, but it was a 26-yard field by by teammate Chase Carrillo at the 3:40 mark in the third quarter that gave the Jackets the winning margin.
SHS senior quarterback Easton Jones connected with Aragon for both of his TDs, from 6 and 43 yards out.
Jones passed for 260 yards in all, completing 16 of 27 with one interception. He now has 2,505 yards passing on the season with 29 TDs.
Aragon hauled in 9 of those passes for 160 yards. Gage Graham (3 catches) and Nowak 2 catches) both had 43 yards receiving.
Nowak, who leads the Jackets in rushing and scoring, gained 156 yards on the night on 19 carries. He has 1,627 yards overall with 16 rushing TDs to go with 6 scores as a receiver.
After Stephenville went ahead 21-7 with Aragon’s 43-yard TD pass from Jones with 11:25 left in the third quarter, the Jackets came up big on defense on Argyle’s next possession.
After the Eagles moved into scoring position with a 42-yard pass play, three plays later from Stephenville’s 5-yard line Clearman threw into the end zone where it was intercepted by Cole Pettit.
Nowak scored the game’s first TD on an 18-yard run in the first quarter. His other TD, Stephenville’s final score, was a 64-yard sprint that may have broken the spirit of the Eagles as the Jackets gained a 10-point lead, 31-21, with 5:37 left in the fourth quarter.
Nowak said that when he saw the hole that the offensive line opened up over the right side, he knew he was going to score.
“It was a really great feeling,” Nowak said of seeing the opening develop.
After Stephenville’s kickoff, the Eagles moved into scoring position with a 35-yard pass play, then scored on a 24-yard completion at the 4:52 mark, pulling within 31-28.
Argyle then forced the Jackets to punt from near midfield, but made a crucial mistake trying to field the ball inside its own 15-yard line. The ball bounced off of the player who was trying to catch the bouncing ball, and Stephenville’s Gage Graham was there to pounce on it.
The Jackets’ offense stalled and was faced with fourth-and-13 from the Argyle 16, but Jones was sacked and the Eagles took possession at their own 27-yard line.
Argyle drove to the Jackets’ 10-yard line, thanks to a 32-yard run, but after an incomplete pass into the end zone with Pettit defending, Pettit then got a hand on Travis Garner’s 25-yard field goal trying, and the Jackets took over to kill the final 3 seconds with one snap to Jones.
Argyle was playing with junior Hayden Clearman at quarterback, who replaced injured senior Jon Copeland, who had been lost to an injury suffered in the eighth game of the season on Oct. 27. Copeland passed for 2,043 yards and 24 TDs in his eight games.
Graham said that advancing as one of the final 16 Class 4A, Div. I teams left in the playoffs by beating such a quality team was, “Insane. It feels amazing. It’s a great accomplishment. We’ll be ready for who we play next.”
That team, the 11-2 Hirschi Huskies, advanced by defeating Decatur, 58-28. Hirschi had beaten Decatur on Oct. 20 in district play, 69-36.
Stephenville also played Decatur in a non-district contest Sept. 22 on the road and won 41-20.
Hirschi, the District 4-4A, Div. I runner-up (4-1) behind Argyle, shut out three of its first four opponents this season. The Huskies lost to Argyle in district play on Nov. 3 on the road, 37-19.
Junior running back Daimarque Foster of Hirschi is one of the top running backs in Texas, with 3,139 yards and 44 rushing TDs in 13 games this season, averaging 12.7 yards per carry.
Also for the Huskies, quarterback Mar’tez Vrana has passed for 2,150 yards and 23 TDs with only 2 interceptions in 13 games.
Stephenville’s defense, with assistant coach Cody Moore in his first season as the team’s defensive coordinator, may have the answer to Foster and Vrana after holding Argyle — which had scored 70, 66, 63 and 62 points in games earlier this season — to 28 Friday.
“It’s all the kids,” Moore said. “They accepted the challenge and they stepped up to it. I can’t be any more happy with them. We just knew we needed to get stops. We knew the offense had a great game plan.”
Hirschi was not in last week’s AP top 10 rankings, nor the Texas Football Class 4A, Div. I top 10, but was sixth among Div. I teams in the MaxPreps rankings.
The winner will advance to next week's state semifinal playoff game, against the Region 2 champion, either Kaufman (12-1) or seventh-ranked Kennedale (12-1).