The Stephenville Yellow Jackets are headed for a showdown — and it’s only the first game of football’s 2018 regular season.
Head coach Greg Winder’s Jackets, coming off a 12-3 season in which they reached the semifinal round of the Class 4A Division I playoffs, will play at Argyle Friday night. The kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Eagle Stadium.
In the preseason Associated Press state rankings, Argyle is No. 2 in the state in Class 4A Division I behind defending state champion Carthage. The Jackets are ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll.
The non-district matchup is a high-profile contest pairing Argyle against the team that handed the Eagles their only loss in 2017. The Jackets eliminated the Eagles in the third round of the playoffs last season, posting a hard-fought 31-28 victory at Newsom Stadium in Mansfield. The Eagles came into that contest with a 12-0 mark, ranked No. 3 in the state.
“Our guys are real excited to get the season started,” Winder said. “They’ve been talking about this game for a while.”
Stephenville’s first three games on its nine-game schedule will be on the road, and Winder knows the overall schedule will be incredibly tough.
“This (Friday in Argyle) will be in a different environment, with a packed house,” Winder said. “For the season in general, Argyle is just the first game in a long season. We can’t just focus on one game.”
He also knows that beating Argyle would be a powerful message to send to the rest of the state.
“It would be a great statement to beat the No. 1 team in the state,” he said. “If we could, it would be a heck of a victory.
“We have to execute and play well offensively, defensively and on special teams. They run an up-tempo, fast spread. They will be able to run the ball and throw it too. They are big up front. The big thing is, we can’t let them have big plays.”
The Jackets’ next game will be Friday, Sept. 7, at Everman (7:30 p.m.).
While Stephenville’s own football history — with five state championships between 1993 and 2012 — has produced a consistently winning program that results in high expectations and player confidence, Winder fully expects the Eagles to also have a high level of confidence.
“They’ll be confident,” Winder said. “Argyle is always confident.”
The Eagles’ recent history is filled with winning seasons, including a combined record of 37-4 the past three years. When they were in Class 3A Division II they won the 2013 state championship. The Eagles were Class 4A Division I state finalists in 2005, 2011, 2014 and 2015. Their 2015 state title game was a narrow 33-31 loss to Waco La Vega.
Argyle is rated as the top-ranked 4A Division I team in Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine’s preseason poll. The Jackets are ranked third in the state in that poll.
In the preseason poll released online by the Texas High School Coaches Association, Argyle is the No. 1 team in Region II and Stephenville is tied for No. 4 with La Vega, which is in the same new district with the Jackets.
Argyle has seven returning starters on offense and eight on defense.
Argyle’s defense features linebacker Chase Petter, the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year in 4A Division I.
On offense, the Eagles will depend on quarterback Hayden Clearman, running back Noah Lang and wide receiver Alex Gonzales.
“They are really good, fast and big up front,” Winder said. “The key for us on offense is to try to sustain drives and not turn the ball over.”
The Jackets lost three-year starting quarterback Easton Jones to graduation, and left-handed Cole Stanley is expected to step into the starting role this year, backed up by junior Kade Renfro — last year’s junior varsity quarterback.
Stanley gained some varsity experience at the position early last season when Jones was recovering from an elbow injury.
“He’s been executing real well in the preseason,” Winder said of Stanley.
The Jackets have seven offensive and eight defensive starters returning.
Running back Krece Nowak, along with receivers Kyle Lindsey and Gage Graham are key returning weapons on offense for the Jackets.
This will be Nowak’s third year as the starter at running back. He rushed for 1,793 yards and 18 touchdowns while averaging 7.4 yards per carry in 2017. Nowak added 42 pass receptions for 654 yards and seven more TDs. He finished the season just 60 yards shy of the SHS all-time single-season rushing mark.
Graham and Lindsey were third and fourth on the team in pass receptions last season, with 38 and 35, respectively.
On defense, senior linebacker Blu Caylor and Graham at safety are key anchors. Caylor led the team in tackles with 189, while Graham was second with 146. Graham ranked second on the team in interceptions with five.
The Eagles’ two scrimmages were against Denison and Grapevine. Their next game will be against La Vega.
In their second and final scrimmage, last Friday at Class 5A Division I Granbury, the Jackets scored three touchdowns while giving up only a field goal.
SHS scored first on a 10-yard TD run by Nowak, and added a long TD pass from Stanley to Gavin Rountree.
The Pirates, who were 5-5 last season, then managed to get their lone score on a field goal from 24 yards out.
The Jackets scored their final TD on a 15-yard run by Kason Phillips.
“They’re a very improved team,” Winder said of Granbury. “I thought we looked a lot better than last week (against Glen Rose). Our energy was back.”
Winder said the defense showed spark, which “helps our offense out,” and added, “The defense was flying around, and our offense did some good things too. I think we’re in pretty good shape.”