Top five showdown looms at La Vega

BRAD KEITH brad.keith@empiretribune.com
Sville cruises past Ozen 26.jpg

Falling to 3A hasn't kept Stephenville from playing in one of the state's biggest games each week this fall.

First, the Yellow Jackets opened with an international game against Monterrey Prepa Tec (Mex.). Then it was the big 3A-4A crossover contest with Aledo, followed by a Lone Star Sports High School Football Classic showdown with Beaumont Ozen.

And it only gets bigger at 7:30 p.m. Friday when the Yellow Jackets (2-1), ranked fifth in 3A by the Associated Press, visit No. 2 Waco La Vega (3-0).

"This game is definitely going to be billed as big as any we've played to this point," said Stephenville head coach Joe Gillespie, whose club stunned Aledo 41-28 when the Bearcats were ranked second in 4A just two weeks ago. "They were 11-1 last year so they have one loss in 15 games, they have eight starters returning on offense and eight on defense and (La Vega head coach Willie Williams) has been there (30) years.

"La Vega is just like Stephenville, Aledo or Abilene Wylie," he continued. "They have that tradition and mystique to the point they believe they're going to win every time they take the field."

Gillespie compares La Vega to the Everman teams Stephenville played from 2006-09.

"We were watching them on film and somebody said they look a lot like Everman," Gillespie explained. "And that's exactly right. They have that kind of talent and they do a lot of the same things. They are a lot like the good Everman teams we've seen.

"And like Everman, there aren't a lot of secrets to what they're trying to do offensively and defensively," he continued. "But they execute very well and they let athletes be athletes."

And athletes are something the Pirates have no shortage of, beginning with running back Randy Gober, the 2011 District 19-3A MVP with 1,376 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. He had 116 yards and three scores on just 15 carries in La Vega's 54-7 rout of winless Mexia last week.

Quarterback Marcus Evans is as dangerous - arguably more so - with his feet as his arm. He passed for 159 yards and a TD while rushing for 76 yards and two scores last week.

Javon Arnett is La Vega's other top skill player and also starts in the secondary for a unit that surrendered just 15.7 points per game last year and is led by defensive tackles Shaquille Walker and De'Andra Minnitt and linebackers Jimmie Gamble and Gerald Horne.

The Panthers had a scare in their opener, winning 24-23 in overtime at Palestine. They dominated Hutto 35-9 in their home opener on Sept. 7.

For Stephenville, fresh off a 31-6 thumping of 2011 4A Division II regional semifinalist Beaumont Ozen, it's just another week on a tough schedule, Gillespie says.

"For all the trouble we had getting our schedule together, it's ended up being really tough," he said. "Is La Vega tough, you bet, but everyone we're playing right now is tough. This is just the next step in the process.

"It's a big game for both schools, we just happen to get to play it when there's nothing on the line and we can both use it to get better," he added. "In that regard, it really is just the next step."

Gillespie has been especially pleased with the way Stephenville's defense has progressed. Ozen needed a 61-yard punt return to set up its only score last Saturday.

"We felt like we played well (defensively) on all but the last two series against Aledo and then we were real pleased last week," he said. "We're pleased with the direction we're headed but we're certainly not satisfied. We're still seeing a lot of ways this team can improve, and I'm sure La Vega is plenty capable of showing us some more this week."

Associated Press pollsters certainly agree.

"Honestly, I like (being the 'underdog') more (than being the favorite)," Gillespie said. "Don't get me wrong, I also liked being picked No. 1, but for some odd reason - maybe it's just my personality but I also think it's our team's personality right now - I like to scratch and claw and come out from a corner and get after it."

He'll get his wish Friday night.

"They're a very good football team, no doubt," he said. "We're going to have to play our best to this point of the season to go to their house and get a win."

Follow Brad Keith on Twitter @etsports