Stephenville. Rider. Two of Class 4A's banner football programs are set to clash Saturday in Wichita Falls.
The battle is being billed as one of the state's biggest games this week, as both teams are ranked in the Associated Press top 10 poll. The Yellow Jackets are tabbed as the No. 3 team in the state, while Rider is right on their heels at No. 5.
If the rankings alone don't warrant all the hype this early-season match-up is receiving, the history between the schools certainly does.
Stephenville and Rider met twice on the gridiron last fall. SHS knocked off the Raiders 24-15 in the regular season in Stephenville. Rider got the last laugh, however, by eliminating the Jackets from the 4A-DII playoffs with a 17-13 upset in the area round. Rider also ended Stephenville's season in 2004, winning a postseason shootout, 63-42.
“Does it have a lot of hype to it? You bet!” Stephenville Head Coach Chad Morris said.
“I don't think you can downplay it,” he said of the Jackets' memory of their season coming to an end at the hands of the Raiders last fall. “It left a bad taste in our mouths.”
Still, Morris has elected not to discuss those disappointing memories with his team.
“We haven't talked about it other than showing a little game film. Our approach is we beat them once and they beat us once.”
Morris is quick to point out that this is a non-district game, and that nobody's season is on the line.
“It's a big game because it's the only game,” he said. “At this point of the season it's big for us because it's a report card game. After Saturday, we'll know where we are as a team at this point.”
Rider is stacked with individual talent.
Defensive back Malcolm Martin doubles as a Raiders track star and has orally committed to play for Texas A&M next fall.
Running backs Damien Washington and Jurrell Thompson each broke the 1,000 yard barrier last fall, running for 1,634 and 1,088 yards, respectively. The tandem combined to score 30 touchdowns.
“They've shown to want to get Washington the ball,” Morris said. “But Thompson can run it, too, and he's a phenomenal blocker.”
Rider features a dangerous double threat quarterback in Shavodrick Beaver, who threw for 1,500 yards in 2006, and is also dangerous with his feet.
“When you get him flushed out of the pocket is when (Beaver) becomes the most deadly,” Morris said of the signal-caller's scrambling ability.
None of this is new news to Yellow Jacket fans, who saw the same three Rider stars pop big plays last year.
“They're basically the same team as we saw last year,” Morris said, “except, they throw the ball better now.”
The Raiders began the 2007 season with a 31-7 pounding of then No.5-ranked Wolfforth Frenship. They followed that performance with a 42-35 defeat of class 5A Midland Lee last week.
Stephenville looks just as intimidating on paper, with senior QB Kody Spano leading an offense that has been highlighted so far by junior RB Brad Mills and his seven touchdown runs. The Jackets have their own star DB in Cody Davis to counter the presence of Martin.
Rider has scored 73 points though three games, while Stephenville has tallied an impressive 95 points while facing inferior opponents in Waco Midway and Azle.
The statistics show the Jackets to have an edge defensively, as Rider has surrendered 42 points, while SHS has given up just 21.
The numbers for both teams are impressive, which is expected from schools ranked among the top five in the state.
Once the ball is kicked off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wichita Falls Memorial Stadium, there will only be two numbers that arouse anyone's attention, and those will be on the scoreboard.
Is it the playoffs? No. Is it a district game? No. Is it an early season clash that warrants being hyped as one of the biggest battles so far this year on the prep gridiron? Absolutely.
Brad Keith is the sports editor at the Empire-Tribune. He can be reached at (254) 965-3124, ext. 241, or by e-mail at email@example.com