The Stephenville Yellow Jackets will be taking on their third top 10-ranked opponent this season when they attempt to improve to 2-0 in district Friday in Waco against the La Vega Pirates.

Greg Winder’s Yellow Jackets, ranked No. 9 in last week’s Associated Press Class 4A state poll, opened District 5-4A Division I play last Friday by pulling out a 21-14 home victory over China Spring.

Meanwhile, fourth-ranked La Vega (4-2) was idle last week and Friday’s 7 p.m. game against SHS will be the district opener for the Pirates. Their last outing was a 45-18 non-district win over No. 6 Midlothian Heritage — snapping that team’s 23-game regular-season win streak.

Friday’s game matches the two teams that were eliminated in the state semifinal round of the 2017 4A Division I state playoffs. Stephenville lost to Kennedale, 54-28, while La Vega dropped a 46-39 decision to eventual state champion Carthage.

The previous year, La Vega had defeated Carthage in the semifinals on the way to winning the 2016 state championship.

The Jackets had a season-opening 45-35 loss to Argyle, which is now 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the state behind defending champion Carthage. La Vega also played Argyle, Sept. 7, and lost 31-29 after giving up a touchdown late in the game.

La Vega’s other loss this year was to Class 5A Austin LBJ, 20-17 on Sept. 14.

Since then, all the Pirates have done is average scoring 54 points per game in rolling over Pflugerville (61-14), Heritage (45-18) and Liberty-Eylau (56-19).

In Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, Stephenville was picked as the district favorite over La Vega, followed by China Spring, Brownwood and Gatesville.

The Pirates have an outstanding group of running backs, led by John Richards who had 1,543 yards rushing with 22 touchdowns last season.

“They’re going to run the football,” Winder said of La Vega. “Their offensive line does a good job up front. They’re big all over the place.

“They try to run the stretch play with their speed, and get outside. We’re going to have to tackle well — tackle better than we did Friday (against China Spring).”

Defensively, La Vega features linebacker Jared Rogers and defensive back Donta Stuart, both preseason 4A all-state picks in Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine.

Winder said that La Vega and Argyle are probably the two best defensive squads they will see in the regular season.

“They can miss tackles, and they’ve got the speed to come get you anyway,” he said. “Overall, their speed is real impressive.”

Winder noted that his players will probably need to have a chip on their shoulder to improve their tackling as they take on such a strong team.

WINNING RALLY

Running back Krece Nowak caught a screen pass from quarterback Kade Renfro and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown play with six minutes left in the game as Stephenville rallied for a 21-14 win over China Spring Friday night in the District 5-4A Division I opener on the rain-soaked Memorial Stadium turf field.

Winder said the blocking by the offensive line and receivers to spring Nowak loose was “really impressive.”

Nowak had a 69-yard TD run that gave the Jackets their 13-0 lead late in the first quarter. By then the rain had obviously made the ball slippery, and the snap on the extra point kick attempt got loose and Chase Carrillo never got a chance to kick the ball — leaving it a 13-0 Stephenville lead with 1:23 left in the opening quarter.

Renfro had connected with Gavin Rountree for a 45-yard scoring pass midway through the opening period for the first score of the game. That first SHS TD followed Quentin Walker’s recovery of a China Spring fumble at the 7:30 mark in the first quarter.

The Jackets had led 13-0 in the first half but the Cougars (4-3, 0-1) scored twice on short TD passes in the third quarter to grab a 14-13 advantage.

The game was halted for almost an hour because of lightning at the 8:26 mark in the third quarter, and the Yellow Jackets seemed to play at a higher level than they had in the third quarter.

“The main thing is, we’re 1-0 in district,” Winder said. “This district’s tough. We just sort of stalled away offensively, and had some missed tackles on defense also. We let them back in the ball game in the second half.”

Less than 2-1/2 minutes after the lightning delay, the Jackets picked up what turned out to be the winning score.

Nowak motored down the right sideline and outran the defense to reach the end zone, almost being forced out of bounds at the one-yard line.

“I saw the offensive line pulling out and I had a feeling (it might be a TD),” Nowak said, also noting he got key downfield blocks from receivers. It was crazy — that moment of relief. Then the defense had to get one more stop, and they did. We couldn’t have done it without the defense.

“We knew we had to stay focused. In the second half, I don’t know what when wrong. We can’t come out like that against La Vega.”

In order to extend the lead over China Spring to seven points, the Jackets went for a two-point conversion. Renfro fired a bullet into traffic in the back of the end zone to sophomore slot receiver Trace Morrison, who made the catch to make it 21-14.

“We were telling them, it’s not over,” Winder said. “They don’t ever quit.”

China Spring drove the ball to Stephenville’s 36-yard line after losing the lead, but the Jackets’ defense stopped a pass attempt on fourth down to give the ball back to the offense before SHS ran out the final two minutes.

“The defense stepped up really big,” said Renfro, who threw for 175 yards with the two TDs and one interception. “We had a few moments when we were getting down We looked at each other and said it’s time to step up.”

Nowak recorded 229 yards in total offense, including 150 yards rushing. Kason Phillips added 31 yards on five carries.

The Jackets missed out on a scoring opportunity right before halftime when they reached China Spring’s 2-yard line. Blu Caylor took the handoff and crashed into the middle of the line but the ball came loose and rolled into the end zone where it was recovered by the Cougars for a touchback.