Joseph Gillespie loves this time of year.
While most in the area are sleeping late, resting their stomachs for the day of feasting ahead, his Stephenville Yellow Jackets (7-5) will be on the field at 8:30 a.m. for their usual Thursday walk through.
Except there's nothing usual about practicing on Thanksgiving.
"There's only one practice better than a Turkey Day practice and we all know what that is," Gillespie said following last week's 52-39 area-round win over Fort Worth Southwest. "That's one we all know about and that's before game 16."
Stephenville has made it to week 13 of the high school football season, and that means a spot in 4A Division II's Sweet 16. The Yellow Jackets battle Canyon Randall (10-2) at 4 p.m. Friday in a regional semifinal contest. The winner meets either Aledo or Hereford in a state quarterfinal next week.
Stephenville has proven dominant through the years in round-three playoff games, most coming against schools from West Texas. The Yellow Jackets are a perfect 11-0 in the round since 1989, including 10-0 in the Division II regional semifinals.
The last time the Jackets reached round three was two seasons ago, and they blasted El Paso Parkland 53-14 after leading 46-0 at halftime.
But Randall, Gillespie warns, is no Parkland.
"They have a very fundamentally sound football team and they present a much different type of challenge than what we're accustomed to from non-district and district and even in the first couple weeks of the playoffs," Gillespie said. "That's especially true on the offensive side of the ball."
Gillespie says Randall will usually have one or two tight ends on the line and operates at a 3-1 run-pass ratio.
"They will spread it out a little bit now and then, and they pass enough to keep you honest," he said. "But mostly they want to be physical and run the football."
Hunter Alford is a throwback run-first quarterback who likes to keep the ball on traps and sweeps. Gillespie said he runs mostly by design as opposed to scrambling like Wesley Harris, the Fort Worth Southwest quarterback Stephenville faced last week.
"He's more of a running back than what we would call a true quarterback," Gillespie said. "But what he does, he does well. He's definitely a player you have to stop in order to slow them down."
With Alford leading the attack, the Raiders have scored exactly twice as many points (368) as they have allowed (184) this season. They have won eight of their last nine games, falling only to Hereford 17-14 during that stretch.
Gillespie says Randall's biggest strength is its offensive line.
"They have one of the top two or three offensive lines we've faced this year," he said. "That's not because of their size, but because they execute well and they're physical. They just get after you."
The third-year head coach says he sees a lot of his own team's traits when he watches Randall on film.
"They're just like our kids. They go hard every play and they have a never-say-die attitude," he said. "We're going to have to stay on them all night."
Stephenville fans held their breath last week when standout running back Aiavion Edwards left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury. He returned in the fourth quarter for a 22-yard carry, finishing with 129 yards.
Edwards, who needs 197 yards to match the school's single-season rushing record, isn't the only starter hobbled by a recent ankle injury.
Outside linebacker Tyler Floyd wasn't sure last week if he would be able to play. He did, going the whole way.
"We've been real smart with Aiavion and Tyler this week," Gillespie said. "We've limited them practice-wise. Both would tell you right now they're good to go, but our deal is we have to get them to game time. I'm a tough guy, but I have to be a smart guy, too."
The contest is the first between Randall and Stephenville, and couldn't come with more on the line.
"It's exciting to see a new team," Gillespie said. "When you have schools like Stephenville and Canyon Randall that are known programs for being in the playoffs, it's neat that we're finally meeting each other."
For Randall, it's neat to be in the playoffs at all after going just 1-9 in head coach Bryan Wood's first-season last year.
"They were a bit down last year, but they're back and they have a good football team," Gillespie said. It's going to be a tough challenge Friday."