COLLEGE STATION - On the ropes after a difficult day of pool play, the Stephenville Yellow Jackets were knocked out of the 2007 FSN Southwest 7-on-7 State Championship Tournament by fellow heavyweight Lewisville Hebron.
The loss came on a gray, gloomy Saturday morning at the soggy Penberthy Intramural Fields at Texas A&M in the first round of the championship bracket, and the wet weather matched the downcast mood of the Yellow Jackets after their 21-12 loss to the highly-touted Hawks, whose full squad won the 2005 Class 4A Division II state championship.
Although the Yellow Jackets hung with Hebron, wet conditions contributed to quarterback Kody Spano's three interceptions off tips. The picks and Hebron's dangerous deep game gave them the edge in the end.
"It was a good game," coach Sam Taylor said. "We hung in there with them."
And just like Stephenville's three pool games Friday, they started off on defense and trailed early. This time, though, they lacked time to catch up - because of the hour-long rain delay Saturday morning, their game was shortened from 40 minutes to 25.
Stephenville matched Hebron's first touchdown on a superb third-and-short conversion Trey Taylor turned into a score with his speed. This was after two crucial stops from the Yellow Jackets defense, who had their hands full with Hebron's fine receiving corps, led by Patrick Robertson and Darius Staten.
But the Hawks scored on their next two possessions, which book-ended a Stephenville drive snuffed by an interception.
Trailing 21-6 with about five minutes to go, the Yellow Jackets drove the field efficiently with sharp Spano strikes to Taylor and Brad Mills. Taylor then made a terrific catch over the middle on third and goal to give the Yellow Jackets their second and final touchdown.
The extra point attempt was intercepted, but more importantly, there was less than a minute left. Hebron ran one more play - a pass broken up by Cody Wood - before punching their ticket to the round of 16.
Yellow Jackets head coach Chad Morris emphasized the team's "great 7-on-7 season" and the fact that the team continued to play hard despite difficult circumstances.
"We went out here and played and competed and grew together," Morris said.
Several players were set back by injuries, most notably all-state safety Cody Davis. A spectator Friday after suffering a broken nose during Monday's practice versus Glen Rose, Davis played Saturday while wearing a protective mask.
"He gets everybody sparked," Morris said. Davis' presence in the secondary seemed to steady the Yellow Jackets, but ultimately they were unable to come up with enough game-breaking plays.
Receiver Chris Malone, nagged by a hurt ankle, still gave the Yellow Jackets another pair of sure hands. The lion's share of passes came to him, Mills, Taylor or newcomer Josh Graves.
After the game, Taylor put the loss, however disappointing, in perspective.
"Ultimately it's about August 13," he said, referring to the start of the fall season.
Morris thanked the team's coaches, Sam Taylor, Sam Malone and Ricky Mills, along with Bob Glasgow and Ernest Cannon, who helped sponsor the team's trip.
SHS 46, McAllen
Rowe 40 (OT)
Stephenville's tournament opener came as something of a shock, as unheralded McAllen Rowe took them to the wire - scoring early and often. The game also proved a pivotal 7-on-7 principle: though the game is geared around offense, defensive stops lead to wins.
The Yellow Jackets only managed to stop the Warriors twice, but both were crucial. After Rowe snuck in a game-tying touchdown just before the second half ended - and a two-point conversion that was caught despite Trey Taylor's best efforts - Stephenville allowed just one completion for short yardage during the Warriors' overtime series. Chris Featherston and Cody Wood each broke up passes at this critical juncture, with Wood's coming on fourth down at the goal line.
From that point on, the offense took over. They had only one three-and-out during the game, but were saved by a late, disputed touchdown just before halftime. Rowe's fans and coaches insisted the score came after play was stopped by the official horn, but the officials let the play stand.
From 15 yards out, Stephenville came through with a pair of clutch plays to secure the win. Spano connected with Malone on an out route, then hit Mills for the game-winning touchdown on third down. The extra point failed, but the Yellow Jackets escaped with the victory. Coach Sam Taylor framed the early scare as a needed wake-up call after several weeks without a close match, and acknowledged the learning curve in effect as several players were shuffled around on defense.
With Davis out of the lineup, Travis Haschke was moved to his position, and Taylor rotated to Haschke's spot - which he filled as a sophomore. In turn, Aaron Donohue saw more time at right corner, and was tested throughout the day.
Also, while the offense ran smoothly for the most part, they were hit with a delay of game penalty after their last touchdown in regulation - and were denied a chance at an extra point. One more point could have prevented overtime.
SHS touchdowns: Mills (3), Taylor (2), Malone (2), Spano (7)
SHS 32, Keller
Wide awake or not, the Yellow Jackets were caught off-guard by Keller Central, who handed them their first loss of the summer and made Davis' absence on defense all the more apparent.
As against Rowe, Stephenville started out in the hole after Central scored on the game's first drive. This time, the Yellow Jackets couldn't match the early touchdown and the defense surrendered a second touchdown, putting Stephenville in a 13-0 hole.
Spano hit Malone to get the Yellow Jackets on the board, but Central scored again on an out. Stephenville responded, though, as Spano hooked up with Taylor after a nice gain on a pass to Dakota Mathis.
Still, Central squeezed one more touchdown into the half, and led 26-12 at the break, having scored each time they touched the ball.
From that point on, each team's drive was capped with touchdowns, but Central again had one last possession before it was all over - and the Yellow Jackets simply couldn't catch up.
The Stephenville defense did have a few tantalizing chances that could have easily changed the game's momentum, which belonged to Central all game long. On Central's first drive of the second half, Haschke just missed an interception that could've provided a 12-point swing. On that same drive's extra point attempt, Colton Diffie was just short of a pick as well.
Bad breaks plagued the Yellow Jackets - for instance, Central's last touchdown came on third down, when their receiver broke loose after what should have been a short gain over the middle.
All of a sudden, Stephenville - a team that some observers expected to challenge for the tournament title and a berth to the national event - was in danger of being tossed into the consolation bracket, a veritable no-man's-land. The goal heading into Friday's finale was not just to win, but to win big in case equivalent pool records forced a points tie-breaker.
SHS touchdowns: Malone, Taylor, Graves, Mathis, Mills, Spano (5)
SHS 34, Cypress Falls 24
Equal parts relief and excitement lingered after Stephenville's win in the last game of pool play Friday. And even then, it didn't come easily.
As in the two previous games, Stephenville started the game on defense - and down by a touchdown when the offense took over.
But the drama couldn't all be heaped on the defense this time. After a pair of completions to Malone, Spano gave up his first interception of the day on a pass intended for Graves.
Soon thereafter, Cy-Falls' Darius Bolden caught his second touchdown of the game, and the Golden Eagles led 12-0.
Spano found Malone in the corner of the end zone for Stephenville's first score of the game, then hit Graves for the extra point. Moments later, Cy-Falls quarterback David Tamez connected with Bolden for yet another touchdown.
With Davis now watching from the sidelines, the Yellow Jackets appeared powerless to stop the Golden Eagles - Stephenville was saved by the clock on Cy-Falls' last drive of the half, the only one not ended by a touchdown. Still, the Yellow Jackets were down just four, 24-20.
Things took a turn for the better in the second half. The Yellow Jackets worked downfield methodically, and Spano found Taylor over the middle to give Stephenville their first lead, 26-24, since the close of their opener versus Rowe.
From that point on, they never looked back - as coach Sam Taylor said, their momentum snowballed after the big stop that followed. Featherston broke up a pass, which landed in the waiting arms of teammate Tom Ed Ramsay.
It was a stroke of luck that seemed a long time coming for the Yellow Jackets, who fed off the energy. Graves made a difficult catch on a slant, and Malone followed with a tough reception that drew a penalty against the Golden Eagles - who seemed to know the tide had turned. Graves then delivered with nice grabs for the touchdown and the extra point, and the final score was set at 34-24.
There was still a lot of football left, though - the Yellow Jackets simply locked Cy-Falls up in the second half, allowing no more points.
Coach Taylor identified Ramsay's interception as the game's turning point, noting it allowed the team to "get back and play how we did all summer."
Without Davis in the lineup, the objective was simply to get into the championship bracket, in the hopes the future Red Raider could suit up on Saturday, Taylor said.
"Our kids stepped up real well," he said. "I'm real proud of the kids."
SHS touchdowns: Malone (2), Taylor (2), Graves, Spano (5)