- Greg Wille
COMMENTARY: After a good Temple season that stopped short of great, Stewart, Wildcats aim to improve
GO-TO GUY: Temple senior wide receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot, shown making a touchdown catch in the season-opening victory at McKinney, was voted District 12-6A Offensive MVP after grabbing 48 receptions for 978 yards and nine touchdowns. The four-year starter and four-star recruit scored 36 career TDs and helped lead the Wildcats to a 26-2 district record and at least a share of three league championships. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
The 2022 football season will not go down as one of the best in the long, successful history of Temple’s program, or even in the last decade.
For the first time since 2018, the Wildcats did not earn at least a share of the District 12-6A championship or win a playoff game.
“No one held up a gold ball,” Temple seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart said Wednesday morning, referring to the coveted, shiny trophy awarded for a district championship and each postseason victory.
And with a 7-4 record, Temple didn’t accumulate eight or more wins for the first time since 2013, the first season of what’s become a 10-year streak of advancing to the playoffs, the Wildcats’ longest postseason run since 1976-85.
Those are facts.
However, a closer look reveals that the Wildcats competed against some of the state’s best teams – two of them advanced to regional finals or beyond – and were not very far away from achieving a more fruitful season.
On Oct. 21 at Killeen’s Leo Buckley Stadium, defending district champion Temple – riding a 19-game district winning streak – led Harker Heights 9-0 at halftime in a showdown that essentially would settle the 12-6A title.
But in the second half, the Wildcats couldn’t generate any offense and their defense couldn’t force record-breaking running back Re’Shaun Sanford II and the ball-control Knights off the field as a determined Heights team rallied to seize a 13-9 comeback victory that propelled it to the district crown.
Temple’s season has been finished for three weeks after a 30-21 loss to familiar playoff foe Waxahachie in a Class 6A Division I bi-district game at Wildcat Stadium.
Meanwhile, Harker Heights ripped off nine consecutive wins to surge into the 6A Division II Region II final before the Knights (12-2) finally met their match as DeSoto (12-2) cruised past them for a 60-24 win Friday night at Baylor’s McLane Stadium in Waco.
Discussing Temple’s season on Wednesday, Stewart said he makes it a point not to compare his program to others, but he deemed it noteworthy that the Wildcats’ four losses came against teams that currently have a combined record of 44-9.
College Station (12-2) won the 5A Division II Region III championship to advance to the state semifinals; state-ranked Arlington Martin (10-2) lost in the 6A Division I area round to Lewisville (12-2); Harker Heights delivered the best season in school history as it charged through Region II to reach the state’s elite eight; and Waxahachie (10-3) earned two playoff wins before being edged 10-7 by Spring Westfield (12-2) in a regional semifinal.
In addition, Temple’s season-opening 17-10 victory at McKinney came against a Lions squad that went on to reach the 6A Division II Region I semifinals before being eliminated 42-35 by perennial power Southlake Carroll (13-1).
Temple’s 2020 and 2021 seasons could be considered great, because in both years the Wildcats were undefeated district champions, beat Waxahachie in bi-district matchups at Wildcat Stadium and recorded nine-plus wins before being eliminated in the area round by talent-laden, high-scoring Rockwall-Heath teams coached by former Temple head coach Mike Spradlin.
Temple’s 2022 season certainly was good but stopped short of great, despite getting outstanding performances from four-year starters Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Taurean York and stellar seasons from players such as seniors Naeten Mitchell, Deshaun Brundage, Ka’Morion Carter, Josh Donoso, Landon Halvorson, Jaylon Jackson, Steve Jackson, Agustin Silva and Teryon Williams-Echols, juniors Ayden Brown, Reese Rumfield and Endrei Sauls and sophomore Christian Tutson.
FOUR-SEASON STALWART: Temple senior middle linebacker Taurean York, shown after scoring one of his three touchdowns against Hutto, was unanimously voted District 12-6A Defensive MVP and won that award for the third consecutive season. The Baylor commitment and first-team all-state player made 120 tackles and forced four fumbles this year (16 for loss) and finished his four-season varsity career with 435 stops. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Having had a few weeks to digest the totality of Temple’s season, Stewart reiterated that the Wildcats didn’t achieve the results they desired but that the top-notch quality of their competition was a significant reason for that.
“Nobody likes going 7-4, at least not here and not myself,” Stewart said on a cool, crisp morning that he noted would be perfect weather for a playoff practice. “Here’s the thing. I don’t look for validation, but there is a little bit of validation in the fact that of the four teams that beat us, two of them are still playing, one of them got beat last week (and Martin made the area round). When all four teams are playing in (the second round or deeper), you’re not sitting here going, ‘God, we were awful.’”
Stewart in particular identified Temple’s inability to withstand the rushing-heavy Harker Heights offense powered by Sanford, the two-time 12-6A Most Valuable Player. After turning a 9-0 halftime deficit into a 13-9 fourth-quarter advantage, the Knights clinched their breakthrough win by breaking numerous tackles on crucial third- and fourth-down plays during a 16-play drive that used up the game’s final 8½ minutes.
“We were three tackles away from beating Heights – any three of those eight (missed) tackles. Both of those fourth downs on that last drive, we had them behind the line of scrimmage,” said Stewart, whose 2020 and 2021 teams rallied from three-touchdown first-half deficits to overtake Harker Heights for dramatic wins.
That rare district defeat didn’t necessarily alter the course of Temple’s season, because even with a win the Wildcats still would have hosted a Waxahachie program they beat 38-0 and 28-14, respectively, in first-round playoffs in 2020 and 2021.
However, the Heights game might have had a carryover effect for Temple against a Waxahachie team hungry for revenge. The Wildcats made it difficult on themselves by committing five turnovers against the athletic Indians, who returned an interception for a touchdown and got another long TD return when Temple failed to properly cover its punt to begin the fourth quarter.
NOT SATISFIED: Scott Stewart has guided Temple to a 64-23 record, three district championships and seven playoff berths in seven seasons as head coach, but this season the Wildcats did not win a district title or a playoff game for the first time since 2018. Stewart said he expects Temple to field a mostly younger team in 2023. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
It comes as no surprise, then, that attention to detail and executing the basics are two areas Stewart is emphasizing as the Wildcats get into offseason workouts.
“We’re getting back to the small things. And again, I don’t think we’ve ever ignored the small things. It’s just attention to detail,” said Stewart, who’s coached Temple to a 64-23 record (.736) in seven years. “We live in a society where instant gratification runs the day, and things that are tough, we avoid. So we’re putting a little bit more emphasis on inundating and saturating them with things that are probably beyond what they think their threshold is.”
Temple owns a robust 89-27 record (.767) in the last nine seasons, beginning when Stewart arrived in 2014 for the first of two years as the defensive coordinator for Spradlin.
Competing in 5A Division I from 2014-17, the Wildcats went a staggering 47-12 overall (.797) and 16-4 in the playoffs, highlighted by appearances in the state championship game in 2014 and 2016, Stewart’s first season as a head coach.
After climbing to the 6A ranks in 2018, Temple has carved out an impressive 42-15 overall mark (.737) but has gone 2-5 in the playoffs. During that span, the Wildcats haven’t advanced past the area round or won a postseason game away from the friendly confines of Wildcat Stadium.
Extended playoff success at the 6A level has proved elusive for Temple despite the highly productive careers of team captains Harrison-Pilot and York, the Wildcats' longtime heart-and-soul leaders. They became varsity starters as 14-year-olds and never missed a game in four seasons while helping the Wildcats rack up a 26-2 district record, 34 wins overall and at least a share of three league crowns. This year they powered Temple to its first victory against previous nemesis Waco Midway.
Baylor-committed middle linebacker York earned the 12-6A Defensive MVP award as a sophomore, junior and senior – in a unanimous vote this year – and compiled 120 tackles this season to finish his decorated career with 435 stops. Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox said York is the best player he’s coached.
The first-team all-state performer also made an impact on offense this year, scoring three touchdowns against Hutto – one a go-ahead, final-minute reception – to help the host Wildcats overtake the Hippos for a 31-27 district win Oct. 14.
Four-star recruit Harrison-Pilot was a versatile, dangerous all-around player throughout his career. A starting safety as a freshman, he starred at wide receiver his final three seasons while also providing a spark at quarterback, especially in running situations.
Harrison-Pilot made 48 receptions for 978 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior en route to winning 12-6A’s Offensive MVP honor, the award that Temple running back Samari Howard earned as a senior in 2021. Harrison-Pilot scored 36 career touchdowns – 22 receiving and 14 rushing – to go along with throwing six TD passes. He took an unpenalized hit to the helmet area while trying to make a reception with 10½ minutes remaining against Waxahachie, forcing him to the sideline for the rest of his final game.
“I hate that for Mikal. Win, lose or draw, that’s not the way he’d want to go out. But I still love him and I’m glad he’s a Wildcat,” Stewart said after the playoff loss. “I can’t tell you how much that kid has meant to this program for the last four years. You’ll see him getting his name called on (NFL) draft day one of these years if he can stay the course, because he’s that special an athlete but he’s an even better person.”
ALL-AROUND PERFORMER: Temple senior Naeten Mitchell hugs the sideline as he catches an 18-yard touchdown pass from Reese Rumfield during the fourth quarter of the Wildcats' 30-21 bi-district playoff loss to Waxahachie on Nov. 11. The New Mexico State commitment made 127 tackles and eight interceptions in two seasons for Temple and as a senior earned first-team All-District 12-6A honors at safety and kick returner. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Mitchell, another team captain, played two seasons for the Wildcats and made a large impact on defense and special teams along with contributing on offense as a senior. With the skills and versatility to play safety or cornerback and a relentless, aggressive style of play, the New Mexico State-committed ballhawk compiled 127 tackles and eight interceptions in two years.
This season Mitchell blocked a Pflugerville Weiss punt and recovered it for a touchdown, sealed the Hutto game with an interception at the goal line and set up a touchdown against Waxahachie with a 72-yard interception return before catching an 18-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter. He was a first-team all-district selection at safety and as a kick returner.
“I’ll say this and I’ll say it with all the confidence I have in my person: that’s as big of a personnel hit as Taurean or Mikal – and I’m not taking anything away from what those children have done with this program,” Stewart said while discussing Mitchell's importance. “What you get with Nate on the field, what you get with his versatility and multiplicity on the field and then what you get off the field, it’s every bit as much as either of those other two – and those other two are one- or two-times-in-a-career type talents.”
After passing for 1,831 yards and 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions as a sophomore starting quarterback en route to first-team all-district status, Rumfield finished his junior season with 2,235 passing yards and 20 TDs against eight INTs. The second-team all-district performer also used increased size and physical strength to rush for four touchdowns after running for one TD last year.
READY, AIM, FIRE: Temple junior quarterback Reese Rumfield passed for 2,235 yards and 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions this season and earned second-team all-district recognition. The two-year starter added four rushing touchdowns. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Rumfield has completed 50 percent of his passing attempts in each season, although this year his percentage would have been higher if not for several drops by a mostly inexperienced group of receivers, especially in the season’s first half.
Temple this season had a new offensive coordinator in staff holdover Robby Case and a new quarterback coach in Brad Stanfield after veteran offensive coordinator Josh Sadler departed in early June to become head coach at Killeen.
Stewart believes that Rumfield is poised to produce a strong senior season with continued development during the offseason program.
“Reese is the best option we’ve got, and he’s got all the tools. I think consistency is something we’re going to focus on, and confidence,” Stewart said about Rumfield, who threw two touchdown passes but also three interceptions in the playoff loss to Waxahachie. “When he feels it and when he gets in a rhythm, he’s as good as I’ve coached here. When things are out of whack, sometimes he doesn’t have the confidence, and that’s something he’s going to build on as he matures.
“He’s not an unconfident kid when you talk to him, so it’s in there. I think overall he does a good job. We’ve got to take a lot at scheme and I think we can simplify some things.”
After quarterbacking Temple’s freshman team in 2021 and its top junior varsity squad this season, left-handed junior-to-be Cade Stewart – son of Scott Stewart – will continue to compete at quarterback moving toward next season but also might play another position during Rumfield’s final season as the starting QB.
It will be difficult for the Wildcats to replace the talent and steady production of Harrison-Pilot, but they certainly have a big-play wide receiver coming back in the speedy Tutson. As a sophomore he made 26 catches for 610 yards and eight touchdowns – he also scored two TDs on special teams – despite missing time during district play because of a broken collarbone.
“He’s big time,” Stewart said. “Dude’s got a gear like most people don’t have.”
UP-AND-COMING TALENT: Temple speedy sophomore wide receiver Christian Tutson made 26 catches for 610 yards and eight touchdowns and scored 10 TDs overall despite missing some District 12-6A action with a broken collarbone. He's expected to become the Wildcats' leading receiver next season after the graduation of 12-6A Offensive MVP Mikal Harrison-Pilot. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Temple also expects senior-to-be receivers Jaquon Butler, Jeremiah Lennon and Tavion Flowers to return next season after showing positive flashes this year.
The Wildcats will lose running back Brundage to graduation after the rugged senior rushed for 1,039 yards as a first-year starter. Stewart said incoming senior running back Jervonnie Williams (183 yards, two TDs this year) displays strong leadership qualities. The next running back group also will include senior-to-be Rymond Johnson and incoming junior Adrian Scott.
Senior-to-be Sauls will power the offensive line next season after earning first-team all-district honors at guard as a sophomore and at center as a junior. Incoming senior tackle Armando Gonzales will be another returning starter on the line.
Temple employed a senior-heavy defense this season and received strong performances from undersized linebackers Williams-Echols and Donoso. Cornerback Kaiden Anderson and safety Jaylon Hall made solid contributions as seniors despite having not played football since middle school because they focused on basketball.
Next year’s Temple defense projects to have only three returning starters, paced by incoming senior tackle Brown (41 tackles). The physical, active Brown was 12-6A’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year as a sophomore and a first-team all-district pick this season.
Athletic senior-to-be safety Damarion Willis suffered a season-ending collarbone injury against Hutto in the Wildcats’ eighth game. His absence proved even more costly because he also had scored four 2-point conversions and was the holder on kicks. Incoming junior safety O’Ryan Peoples will return after a shoulder injury sidelined him for most of district play.
According to Stewart, several talented incoming juniors and sophomores will be counted on to earn starting positions on defense and limit the effect of losing stalwarts such as York, first-team all-district picks in cornerback Steve Jackson and outside linebacker Donoso and second-team selections in tackle Carter, end Jaylon Jackson and inside linebacker Williams-Echols.
“We’re going to be a young team next year. We’re losing a lot. We’ve got some juniors who are going to be seniors who can play the game,” Stewart said. “I like our sophomore class and I like our freshman class, so I think we’re going to be junior- and sophomore-laden next year, which comes with some positives and also comes with a bucket load of concerns.”
Although Temple has produced 12 consecutive winning seasons and 10 straight playoff berths, Stewart cautioned that those achievements don’t guarantee anything for future Wildcats teams. Diligent work and consistent improvement remain the must-have elements as Temple strives to earn extended playoff success in the challenging 6A ranks.
“You fight expectations, because the expectations go up. I don’t worry about that, because nobody has higher expectations than we do for ourselves and I do for us,” Stewart said. “But then you fight complacency. These kids who are fixing to be seniors . . . it’s hard to fight that, ‘We’re going to show up and win just because we’re Temple.’
“I don’t focus on other teams. I do focus on the past. ‘This is why you didn’t hold up a gold ball.’ I said that (to Temple’s players) yesterday.”
The Wildcats’ old-fashioned football building is usually bustling with noise and activity throughout the season, but on Wednesday morning it was quiet and mostly empty. The floor in the large open area in the middle was covered by blue mats on which Temple’s players go through grueling mat drills, a traditional staple of offseason football conditioning programs.
Stewart said nine large trash cans were placed around the perimeter of the mats. Let's just say they weren’t put there as decorations.
“It’s very boot camp-ish in offseason. We went through a 40-minute mat room yesterday with nine trash cans around. Eight of them were utilized. We missed one,” Stewart said with a grin. “Again, that’s not out of anger or aggression or anything else. It’s just . . . the world may change, but football ain’t changing. It’s going to take tough kids who believe in each other and all the things that used to be a staple in the development of any human being. It’s just not as commonplace as it used to be.”
After a Temple football season that was good but stopped short of being great, the Wildcats' hard work continues.
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