CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES: Stewart, Wildcats savor outright crown before hosting Killeen in 12-6A finale
IN THE ZONE: Temple sophomore receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot catches a 22-yard touchdown pass from senior Humberto Arizmendi during the first quarter of the Wildcats' 27-24 win at Killeen Shoemaker last Thursday night. Harrison-Pilot's 8-yard TD run from the quarterback position with 1:41 left put Temple ahead for good as Temple clinched its first outright district championship in the state's largest classification since 2007. Coach Scott Stewart's Wildcats (8-1, 6-0) will aim to complete a perfect run in District 12-6A in their regular-season finale when they host the Killeen Kangaroos (2-5, 1-4) at 7:30 tonight at Wildcat Stadium. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
After Temple surged ahead of Killeen Shoemaker late and then staved off the Grey Wolves' last-chance drive to seal a 27-24 win that clinched the outright District 12-6A championship last Thursday night, the loud music blasting from the Wildcats' victorious locker room at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium certainly wasn't Kool & The Gang.
Nonetheless, the lyrics from that band's 1980 classic song “Celebration” summed up how Scott Stewart – who admittedly has struggled to fully enjoy the good times during his career – was feeling after securing his first outright district title in five seasons as Temple's head coach:
“Celebrate good times, come on! (Let's celebrate)/ . . .
There's a party goin' on right here/
A celebration to last throughout the years/
So bring your good times, and your laughter too/
We gonna celebrate your party with you”
So instead of stewing about things that didn't go well against Shoemaker or immediately turning his focus to preparing for tonight's 12-6A finale against the Killeen Kangaroos at Wildcat Stadium, Stewart actually allowed himself to let his hair down – so to speak – and participate in a whole-hog celebration of a great achievement by his team, with his team.
“That's why I wanted to go overboard, because I know sometimes they kind of look at me like, 'All right, are we supposed to celebrate this or not?' I mean, I went in the locker room and started dancing,” Stewart said Tuesday. “This is not one of those deals where it's our 12th straight (district championship). It doesn't happen around here near as often as people think, as much success as this town has had. I'm damn sure going to enjoy it.”
Temple shared last season's 12-6A championship with Waco Midway, which it lost to. Competing in 5A, the Wildcats went undefeated in district play in 2014 and 2015, the two years when Stewart was their defensive coordinator. But Temple hadn't captured an outright league crown in the state's largest classification since 2007, when coach Bryce Monsen's Wildcats went 6-0 in 13-5A. And before that, Temple hadn't won a district title by itself since coach Bob McQueen's 1995 squad did so.
Because of that, Stewart went against his nature to make sure that he fully savored what his Wildcats have accomplished.
“I have always struggled in enjoying the moment. I was raised by a guy that did not – I mean, you'd throw for 388 yards with four touchdown passes and one interception, and he wants to talk about the interception. And I share that personality,” Stewart said, referring to his father, Larry Stewart, the former Troy coach who's a member of the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “And as I get older, I'm really trying to enjoy those moments. This is Temple's first (outright) district championship since there's been a 6A.
“It doesn't mean I work any less hard. The older I get and watching my kids and watching my daughter (Temple senior student-athlete Cameryn Stewart) getting ready to graduate and leave, you know, she gets really hard on herself. I see a lot of my personality in that, and some of that I regret. At some point, you've got to just enjoy this. This is still a game. I know every time we lose a game people want (the coaches) fired, but the fact of the matter is it is a game.”
Sharing Stewart's outlook was senior cornerback Keon Williams, who said there definitely was a sense of relief after Temple eluded dangerous Shoemaker but that the overriding emotion for the Wildcats was pure joy.
“It was crazy and exciting. After the game we came in the locker room and partied a little bit,” Williams said. “You can actually feel that all the hard work you've put in, all of it pays off.”
Temple (8-1 overall, 6-0 in 12-6A) shoots for its first nine-win regular season since 2015 when it takes on old rival Killeen (2-5, 1-4) at 7:30 tonight at Wildcat Stadium. The Wildcats will have an open date next week before they host 11-6A's Waxahachie (4-4) in a 6A Division II bi-district playoff game at Wildcat Stadium, likely on Friday, Dec. 11.
With the possibility of cancelations (such as Temple's scrapped home game Nov. 13 against rival Belton) or postponements always looming in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stewart insisted that his district-champion team is grateful to be playing good football and isn't looking past Killeen or ahead to Waxahachie.
“We're practicing out there like it's the last game we'll ever play,” he said. “The energy's been very good, and the message I've sent is that we've all been shown – by powers beyond our own – that anything can be taken away from you at any point, so we need to play like this is our last game we're going to play. And if we get another one, then we'll treat that one like it's the last game we're ever going to play.
“The record we focus on is 1-0 this week. Again, who knows what we're promised moving forward?”
Wildcats display team mentality, maturity
in turning away Shoemaker's stiff challenge
Shoemaker had the opportunity in last Thursday's highly anticipated showdown to tie Temple for the 12-6A lead, and the Grey Wolves were in position to create that deadlock when Devin Brown's 2-yard touchdown run gave them a 24-20 lead with 4:15 remaining.
However, the Wildcats responded with a 70-yard drive that was capped by a weaving, diving 8-yard touchdown run by sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot, who leads the team in receptions but replaced senior starter Humberto Arizmendi at quarterback in that special situation and helped Temple seize a 27-24 lead with 1:41 left.
The Wildcats sealed their dramatic victory when defensive linemen Jayven Taylor, Eric Shorter and Jaylon Jackson combined to tackle Brown for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1 with a minute remaining, leading to Temple's aforementioned and well-earned postgame celebration – complete with another gold ball trophy to symbolize the district championship,
“I lost about a decade off my life Thursday night,” Stewart joked. “My dad was like, 'That was an exciting game for a spectator.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I bet it was.' Just shaving years off the end of my life.”
Added Stewart: “I love this group, because they don't blink. We talk about not blinking and not letting the pressure of the situation get to you. We went down and scored with several minutes left and our defensive guys were up yelling, and after we went back on defense our offensive guys (were up yelling). I think that's huge. You want those kind of groups.”
Arizmendi tossed an early 22-yard touchdown pass to Harrison-Pilot but threw for a season-low 75 yards against Shoemaker's speedy defense. However, Arizmendi exploited a Grey Wolves weakness identified by offensive coordinator Josh Sadler to rush 18 times for a career-best 139 yards, with five runs of 16-plus yards.
“It was pretty obvious early on and Sadler came to me and said, 'They're not even accounting for (Arizmendi as a runner), so we're probably going to do some read-game stuff.' And I was like, 'Well, everyone on the field's going to catch him, so make sure he covers the ball up,'” Stewart said. “And he can run a little bit, but not like that. And to watch Mikal get a shot (at QB late in the game), I don't know that Humberto makes that move (for the score).”
Stewart noted that Arizmendi was the first player off the sideline to celebrate the go-ahead touchdown with Harrison-Pilot (who also played 10 to 12 defensive plays in the secondary), a sign of the Wildcats' cohesiveness.
“They want to win games and do whatever it takes,” said Stewart, who got 178 yards and two touchdowns from junior Samari Howard in a 33-carry, workhorse performance. “This is not a real mature group as far as experience goes, but it's also not a group that thinks (it has everything figured out). That's a cool vibe to have, and I appreciate them for that. They don't blink and they don't seem to be affected. It's almost like they don't know that they're supposed to be panicking or freaking out. These guys just like playing football.”
As great as the Wildcats felt after overcoming a strong Shoemaker challenge for the second straight season (Temple rallied for a 38-28 home win in 2019), Williams said his team has many strides left to make as postseason play approaches.
“Yes, we have a lot to improve,” the senior cornerback said. “I feel like we still haven't put our best game together yet.”
With Temple off from school during Thanksgiving week, Stewart – who planned to clear his head by hunting on his grandfather's land near Jarrell – urged his players to enjoy and take advantage of this unique form of preparation.
The coach's message to his players: “This is going to be the most fun week of your life, because you get to be a professional football player. Not in the form of payment, but you literally get to get out of bed, go grind on ball and watch film, go home and eat, play video games, get in the rack and get up the next morning. You're dang sure not going to have that a year from now, or for some of you a couple years from now. You're going to have to get up every day and go grind, quicker than you want.”
Struggling Killeen out of 12-6A race, but
Temple coach wary of Kangaroos' Marshall
Killeen reached the playoffs in 2016, head coach Neil Searcy's second season. However, his Kangaroos have experienced a playoff drought since then, and with a 1-4 record in 12-6A with two games left, this will be their fourth consecutive year to miss out on postseason play.
After a 27-20 win over crosstown rival and seventh-place Killeen Ellison on Oct. 20, Killeen lost 45-27 at second-place Bryan and then 52-23 last week to Harker Heights, which shares fourth place with Belton. Kangaroos' postponed Nov. 6 game against last-place Copperas Cove will be made up next Friday at Buckley as the season finale for both teams.
But as long as 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior Kadarius Marshall is wearing a No. 5 jersey for Killeen, Temple's coach won't feel very comfortable about facing the Roos.
“He's a special talent,” Stewart said about Marshall before joking, “I think he's 28 years old. He's been there forever. It's nice to see those kind of kids graduate.”
Marshall was 12-6A's Offensive Newcomer of the Year in 2018, when the Wildcats limited him to 33 rushing yards but still watched the sophomore make two touchdown receptions in Temple's 35-13 road win. Marshall was a first-team all-district selection last season – he rushed for 1,300 yards and 18 TDs – but had to sit out with a shoulder injury as the host Wildcats amassed 564 yards and rocked the Roos 56-27.
Stewart and Temple expect to see plenty of Marshall tonight on both sides of the ball, as the senior is playing outside linebacker in addition to his duties on offense as he shares the running back position with small, shifty junior Emory Arthur, who rushed for 119 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats' one-sided win last year.
“I don't remember him playing on defense prior to this year. He's not playing as much on offense, because (Arthur) is pretty dang good,” Stewart said of Marshall, who rushed for 350 yards and six TDs and recorded a team-best six tackles for loss through Killeen's first five games (complete season statistics are unavailable). “He's still a horse (on offense); don't get me wrong. He's played quite a bit at outside linebacker this year."
Tall juniors Ahmad Bailey and Jacobia Thomas have split playing time at quarterback for Killeen. Along with Marshall, the Roos' leading defenders include senior lineman Taquon Jones, senior linebacker Jabez Eliam, junior outside linebacker Tyquan Scoby and senior safety Jayden Hill.
“Coach Searcy does a good job. To me, the biggest compliment that you can give a coach is, 'Man, your kids played their tail off,'” Stewart said. “And when I turn on the film, that's what I see from Killeen. You don't know the ins and outs of everything, but obviously those kids are buying what he's selling. That's not easy to do in 2020."