Joe Gillespie wanted to go 3A. And he was one of those with a wide smile when the new UIL classifications were unveiled in February.

But Gillespie scoffs at those who instantly anointed the Yellow Jackets the kings of 3A football. Winning a state title in any classification, he warns, is hard work.

"Two years ago we were in the state quarterfinals in a game I thought we should have won. I still feel like we could have won a state championship then," said Gillespie, who on Friday completed his fourth year as Stephenville's athletic director and head football coach. "We've been close a number of times to winning a state championship and it hasn't happened."

Not since 1999, when Gillespie was in his fourth of 13 years as an assistant at Stephenville. If he's learned anything in his 17 total years coaching at the school, it's that nothing comes easily.

"We have a lot of tradition and a lot of expectations," Gillespie said. "All of that is founded on hard work."

So how does Gillespie protect his team from the state title chatter all around town? The only way he knows how.

"We want to outwork everyone," he said. "That's always been our plan, it didn't change because we fell from 4A to 3A. We know that to get where we want to be, it takes work."

Gillespie's message to his team the last time he gathered them before school let out was simple.

"Good job, now keep it up," he said. "We've had three phases of off-season during school and now we're entering our final and most important phase. Our 7-on-7 and summer conditioning and all that is the fourth quarter of our off-season. It's crunch time.

"We believe you win games in the off-season, even playoff games," he said. "We're winning playoff games right now with the work we're putting in. We're not winning them because we were 4A and now we're 3A. That won't get us anywhere. Hard work will."

And Gillespie, whose club has been to three 4A Division II state quarterfinals in his four years as head coach, believes his team is right on target.

"If you asked me in January where I wanted us to be when school ended and I answered very honestly, I think we would find that we're right there," he said. "I've been very pleased with the progress we've made so far, and I'm confident these guys will keep it going.

"You don't get up at 5:30 or 5:45 every morning, lift weights at 6:30, go to school, have workout during the athletics period then work again after school just to let all that momentum go away because it's summer," he added. "The accountability, dependability, all the abilities we preach all year continue through the summer, too. That's our message to them right now."

If the start of 7-on-7 play is any indication, the Jackets have maintained their focus. They won six games against 4A and 5A competition to claim the championship at the Dallas Under Armour Sevens tournament in Cedar Hill on May 19, and followed it up with a perfect 5-0 mark to qualify for state at Springtown Saturday.

But it's the next 2-3 weeks, Gillespie says, that will be especially telling.

"The first few weeks of summer are so key for us. Nowadays, with our ability to condition, all the 7-on-7 league play and tournament play, all the mini-camps at colleges and things of that nature…the days of a 2-3 month siesta and I'll see you in August are over with," he said.

Gillespie has again set up a difficult early-season schedule for his team, further protecting it from any 3A complacency. The Yellow Jackets open with Monterrey Tec, Mex., a traveling club that has faced the likes of Highland Park, Dallas Jesuit and Midland Lee. Three-time defending 4A Division II champ and nemesis Aledo is up next on the road, Waco La Vega is an always-tough 3A customer and giants Beaumont Ozen and Amarillo lie in wait at neutral locations.

"We set up a really tough schedule the last couple years and we really feel it helped us," Gillespie said. "Two years ago we started 1-4, fixed some things on our team, and almost won a state championship. I certainly hope we start better than that (this year), but I believe our non-district schedule will help us become a better football team each week."

And anyone who has ever asked Gillespie about his team's goals knows that's the ultimate plan.

"Get better each week," he said, as he has many times prior. "Get better every day during the summer and then get better each week throughout the season."

And that, like everything else Gillespie and the Jackets strive for, depends on hard work.

"Let the town people do the talking and we'll do the working. We're fine with that," he said. "We've got a job to do, and it's the same job whether we're 3A or 4A. That job isn't finished until the third week of December when you're holding up that finger as No. 1."

Follow Brad Keith on Twitter @etsports