The UIL reformatted its playoff system in a way that made it unlikely for Stephenville and Wichita Falls Rider to meet in the area playoffs again this season.

Then the two 4A powers began the year with consecutive losses as Stephenville kicked off the season with an 0-2 mark and Rider lost its first three.

Somehow though, it’s as if everyone close to either program knew this game was just meant to be. It’s time for the Class 4A Division II area finals, and that means it’s time for Stephenville vs Rider.

The Yellow Jackets and Raiders square off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Northwest ISD Stadium in Justin. The winner advances to face either El Paso Parkwood or San Angelo Lakeview in the Region I semifinals next week.

“There just doesn’t seem to be any way around it,” said Stephenville head coach Joseph Gillespie of clashing with Rider again. “But you wouldn’t want it any other way. This is the team we have to beat in order to get where we want to be. That’s how it is and that’s how it has been for the last few years.”

Rider and Stephenville first met in the 2004 bi-district playoffs, and have gone on to play every year since with the exception of 2005 when Stephenville took the 4A-Division I route. This week’s battle is the sixth between the Raiders and Jackets in five seasons, with Rider having eliminated SHS each of the past two seasons and in three of the last four.

Stephenville does have a pair of victories over the Raiders, having knocked them off both at home and in Wichita Falls in 2005 and ‘06. This Rider team, however, will be much different than those Stephenville saw in the past.

There will be no Shavodrick Beaver. The Michigan-bound quarterback suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Denton Guyer early in District 5-4A play. Sophomore Malcolm Carter, who began the year with the junior varsity, replaced Beaver and the suddenly run-happy Raiders are district champs and haven’t lost since.

One snag - Carter went down last week during Rider’s 42-7 bi-district defeat of undermanned Springtown.

Enter Reid Barnette, a backup quarterback/starting wide receiver who returned from a broken left arm to catch a touchdown pass against Little Elm. He had Rider’s only two receptions on five first-half pass attempts last week. The Raiders did not attempt a pass after the break.

“Rider has a lot of the same personnel we’ve seen the last couple of years,” explains Gillespie. “The only exception is Beaver at quarterback, and that’s a big exception. But it’s still Rider, and they still have great athletes. They ran the ball a lot last week, and not to take anything away from Springtown, but I think most of the solid programs in the state would have approached that game the same way Rider did - establish the run and get a win.”

Beating Rider would certainly be the penultimate high point of a Stephenville season that has unfolded much like a roller coaster ride.

Following the 0-2 start, Stephenville came from behind to stun rival Brownwood, then opened district action with three straight wins including one over Mansfield Timberview in a televised game.

Stephenville then suffered what some area football historians have said is their worst loss since the 1960s in a 56-3 defeat by Everman, but came right back with another four game streak that included wrapping up a playoff spot and clipping talent-laden Fort Worth Dunbar, 47-41, in a thrilling double-overtime postseason opener last week.

Advancing to the playoffs and winning a postseason game put Gillespie in select company at Stephenville. Over the last 20 years, Mike Copeland is the only other SHS coach to accomplish that feat in his first year at the helm. Art Briles and Chad Morris each missed the playoffs their first year in Stephenville.

And for all Morris did before leaving for No. 1 Lake Travis, he never beat Rider.

“This second round game has been kind of a stumbling block for us,” Gillespie pointed out. “We’ve only won one area championship and that was in 2005 when we didn’t play Rider. We’re looking at this as our opportunity to even the score a little bit and prove to everyone we can beat this team in a playoff game.”