Stephenville faces another ranked 4A

BRAD KEITH brad.keith@empiretribune.com
Witt Westbrook

By Brad Keith

Stephenville Empire-Tribune Sports Editor

Plenty of history and tradition will be represented when Stephenville (3-1) and Amarillo (3-1) tangle on the gridiron.

The programs have combined to win eight state championships - four each - but have none this century. Both, however, have teams expected to contend for state titles this fall. And both are making their marks in new classifications.

Amarillo, which won all its state titles from 1934-40, has dropped from 5A to 4A, where the Golden Sandstorm, or Sandies, are ranked 10th by the Associated Press.

Stephenville, which won all its crowns from 1993-1999, made three 4A Division II quarterfinal appearances in Joe Gillespie’s first four years as head coach, then fell to 3A for his fifth season. The Yellow Jackets were the preseason No. 1 in 3A, and the AP currently ranks them third.

The teams are meeting at a neutral location - Tiger Stadium in Snyder - at 2 p.m. Saturday. It’s the final non-district contest for both clubs.

“I respect Amarillo and all its traditions, but I think, No. 1, I have a great deal of respect for (Amarillo head coach) Mel Maxfield,” said Gillespie. “I’ve known him for quite a while and remember when he had a great deal of success at Forney and Burleson. We played against him at Burleson when (Mike) Copeland was the head coach here, and when (Chad) Morris was here we still played and we had some tremendous battles.

“It’s evident when you watch them on film how well coached they are and how hard their kids play,” Gillespie added. “That right there gets the respect of our coaches and our kids.”

Both teams have faced daunting pre-district schedules with Amarillo splitting with Wichita Falls Rider and Wolfforth Frenship - both state ranked in 4A at the time they played - and Stephenville beating both Aledo and Waco La Vega - ranked No. 2 in 4A and 3A, respectively, at the time they played.

“(Rider and Frenship) are two great football teams; big 4A powerhouses. Everyone knows about Frenship, and of course we know quite a bit about Rider,” Gillespie said, referring to Stephenville’s string of regular season and playoff meetings with Rider from 2003-2008. “(Amarillo) is 1-1 against those two and very easily could have and probably should have been 2-0.”

The defense-led Sandies have also blown out two 5A’s, taking down Odessa 56-15 and rival Amarillo Tascosa 48-0.

“Rider has an explosive offense and they held them to 13 points for most of the game,” Gillespie pointed out. “Rider scored in the final seconds then got the kickoff back and scored again. Amarillo should have won; they play tremendous team defense.”

Stephenville presents its own explosive offense, led by dual threat quarterback Tyler Jones and big senior receiver Brice Gunter. Jones passed for 183 yards and two scores and rushed for 126 and a touchdown last week while Gunter hauled in six receptions for 113 yards and a score.

As expected of a 5A falling to 4A, Amarillo, which reached the area round of the 5A Division II playoffs last fall, comes with plenty of depth.

“They rotate a lot of players in and out both offensively and defensively,” said Gillespie. “They lost their starting (running back - Drake Reid) against Rider and didn’t appear to miss a beat against Frenship.”

Depth is an area Stephenville is also improved in, Gillespie explains.

“Last year, there were times we may have shown up with 35 or 36 guys but we actually had about 30 or 31 ready to go. We had one back up or none at a lot of positions. When somebody went down, there was mass shuffling going on to get through the game,” he said. “This year, it hasn’t been like that. We have a lot of seniors who have stayed in the program and that helps. Preston Brown gets sick, here comes Jared Stroebel; Mookie Carlile has to come out for a couple plays the other night, we throw B.J. Kinsel in there and he does a good job.

“It’s a tremendous compliment to our coaches who are getting them prepared and a tremendous compliment to our kids,” Gillespie continued. “Whether you’re a starter seeing 65-70 snaps or that guy’s backup, you have to always understand you’re a play away from being a starter. That’s a life lesson - you always have to be prepared to step up in life, and you always have to be prepared to step up when it’s football season.”

Amarillo caps what Gillespie says ended up being an ideal non-district schedule.

“We’ve seen some great teams. I’m pretty sure if there are any teams in 3A more talented than Waco La Vega, you can count them on one hand with us being one of them,” he said. “We haven’t played a bad team and we sure aren’t this week. Our mentality will be pretty much the same as it’s been the whole way - we’re going out there to win, but at the same time, we’re going out there knowing this is one last game to use to get ready for district. We have four quarters left to prepare and we want to take advantage of every bit of it.”

Playing another Saturday game is something Gillespie feels will benefit both teams.

“To get two (Saturday afternoon games) in non-district and understand that here in six or seven weeks when the playoffs start there is always the possibly of playing on a Saturday afternoon, that keeps you from being in unchartered territory and that’s a huge advantage for a football team,” he said. “District play is important and in the playoffs each game means everything, so getting the kids in different environments and getting them out of their routine now, while there aren’t all those implications, can only help us down the road.”

Winning another Saturday game, he says, would just be icing on the cake.

“If we play the way the Yellow Jackets know how to play, it should be a great, fun Saturday of high school football.”

Follow Brad Keith on Twitter @etsports