It may only be opening weekend for high school football teams, but no one will be surprised if there is a playoff atmosphere at Bearcat Stadium in Aledo tonight.
Stephenville travels to Aledo for a clash between traditional powers that have spent the last eight years developing what Yellow Jacket head coach Joseph Gillespie calls a healthy rivalry born of mutual respect between strong programs.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. in front of what promises to be a near capacity crowd in the 8,155-seat stadium.
“It’s Aledo and Stephenville. When fans go to watch this game each year, they know what they’re probably going to get - high caliber football on both sides of the ball and a good, close game,” Gillespie said.
Both schools have spent the off season reloading after successful 2009 campaigns. Aledo scored in the final minute to knock off Stephenville 24-20 at Memorial Stadium last year, marking the beginning of an undefeated regular season for the Bearcats, who finished 11-1 after being eliminated in the 4A Division II area finals by Everman. Stephenville lost again the next week to Denton Guyer, but came back to go 10-4 and reach the 4A Division II quarterfinals before also being sent home by Everman.
The Yellow Jackets graduated all 11 offensive starters and six defensive starters from that team, while Aledo lost lost seven regulars on both sides of the ball.
“I think we both have the same problems right now. We’ve both had to replace our entire offensive line and quarterback,” Aledo head coach Tim Buchanan said. “The difference I see is we’re probably starting more young kids on defense and Stephenville is probably starting more young kids on offense.”
Some things, however, never change.
“One thing you know about Aledo is they’re always going to have somebody who can deliver the mail,” Gillespie said. “When you look at Stephenville you always think about great quarterbacks, when you look at Aledo you think of great running backs. Even at quarterback they’ve had kids like Brocerick Newton and Cole Loftin, who were really running backs playing quarterback. They had a great running back in Ryan Christian and they have one now in a young cat named Johnathan Gray.”
Gray was moved up to the varsity level after the third game last year and rushed for 970 yards as a freshman during Aledo’s final seven regular season contests. He also started both Bearcat playoff games.
Stephenville looks to counter with James Myles, a junior who sat out the first half of last season due to transfer regulations after moving from Mansfield to Stephenville. Myles played a lot on both sides of the ball during the last half of the season and the playoffs, backing up record-setting running back Brad Mills on offense and seeing action at linebacker on defense.
Aledo may be further along at quarterback, where Trey Ozee takes over after seeing playing time as the backup a year ago. Stephenville is starting over with sophomore Connor Washington, who led the Yellow Jacket freshman team to a district title in 2008.
Both coaches were concerned with their tackling in scrimmage play, but attributed much of that problem to opposing offensive schemes they will likely not face the rest of the season.
“Burleson ran a wing-T at us and we would stop them three or four plays and then they would bust a 50-yard run,” Buchanan said of his team’s scrimmage last week. “But we didn’t spend hardly any time working to get ready for Burleson, we were spending our time getting ready for Stephenville and the type of offenses we will see all year.”
Gillespie’s assessment of his team’s defensive performance in its scrimmage against Weatherford was almost identical.
“They had some big plays against us, but we didn’t really work much on what they were running,” he said of opposing Weatherford’s option-running style offense. “That’s an offense that takes a long time to prepare for and we were more concerned with getting ready for what we believe teams will try to do against us when the season begins.”
Both teams also showed flashes of brilliance during the scrimmages.
Stephenville moved the ball up and down the field when its first team offense was in possession, including a 13-play, 70-yard touchdown march on the opening drive. Myles had a pair of receptions and three carries on the drive, including a one-yard touchdown plunge. Washington completed four of six pass attempts on the possession.
Buchanan said Aledo’s offense had little trouble moving the ball against Burleson, scoring several touchdowns on the night.
“I’ve seen tape of Stephenville’s scrimmage, and I would say the scrimmages went about the same for both teams,” Buchanan said.
Gillespie is quick to point to the fact that good teams don’t show a lot of offensive or defensive packages during scrimmage play to avoid putting them on film for future opponents.
“That makes it kind of dangerous to play a well coached, good football team like Aledo because both teams are a little different than we were last yeear, and we don’t know a whole lot about what their going to do,” he said. “But they’re in the same boat because I know we didn’t tip our hat too much against Weatherford, either.”
Stephenville has won five of the previous seven meetings since the Bearcats moved up from Class 3A in 2002. Both schools have had one semifinals appearance in the 4A Division I ranks since that time, and a handful of other solid playoff runs.
“It’s two good football programs that respect each other,” Buchanan said of the budding rivalry. “When we moved up from 3A we looked at Stephenville as the team to beat. Nothing’s changed.”
That’s a feeling, Gillespie says, that is absolutely mutual.
“We have a great deal of respect for Aledo and everything ‘Coach Buc’ and his staff have accomplished there. They have a great program there and we feel like we have a great program here,” Gillespie said. “When two programs like this get out under the ‘Friday night lights,’ anything can happen.”