COMMENTARY: Strong team chemistry has fueled Temple's district championship run as playoffs approach
WINNING MOMENT: Temple players celebrate their District 12-6A championship after they defeated Killeen Shoemaker 27-24 at Leo Buckley Stadium two weeks ago. Having won at outright district title in the state's largest classification for the first time since 2007, the Wildcats (9-1) will host a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game against Waxahachie (5-4) at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Wildcat Stadium. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Scouting, film study, game plans, practices, in-game coaching adjustments and, of course, the players' character attributes and on-field talents all are significant factors for Temple's football team.
Without those aspects, the Wildcats almost certainly wouldn't be 9-1 overall and the 7-0 champions of District 12-6A entering their Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game against Waxahachie (5-4) at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Wildcat Stadium.
Scott Stewart definitely knows this, but Temple's fifth-year head coach also knows that there's something more at work with these 2020 Wildcats. It's a word that gets used a lot in the world of sports, but a lot of teams don't possess it: Chemistry.
It's difficult to ascertain how much of Temple's success this season can be attributed to its outstanding team chemistry – that is, how well its players get along with each other, how they support each other, how they push each other to stay the course during challenging circumstances and how much they prioritize team goals over individual achievements.
But Stewart has coached long enough to know team chemistry when he sees it, and he's seen it within this crew of Wildcats.
“I think chemistry is very tangible. I think part of it is we came in with so little experience coming back that they didn't know they were worth (much), so the buy-in was a lot higher,” Stewart said Tuesday morning as he tried to make the best of an “open date” week that he generally disdains. “I'm not suggesting that other groups didn't; I'm just saying (Temple's current players) were more of a sponge.
“When you get a bunch of three-year starters, sometimes . . . now, I'll take them all day, every day if I had my druthers. But I do think chemistry is real, and this group is one of the tighter groups that we've had here.”
To provide a fitting example of Temple's chemistry, Stewart only had to think back to last week, when his players still had practices and Friday's regular-season finale against Killeen (the host Wildcats rolled to a 49-6 victory) but were out of classes because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“When we came up here during Thanksgiving (week), they were like, 'Coach, when we get done practicing in the morning, can we stay up here and play video games with each other?'” Stewart recalled inside the Temple Athletic Complex, the spacious, renovated old building just south of Wildcat Stadium that for the last two seasons has housed the coaches' offices, team meeting rooms and an often-used kitchen. “They want to hang out with each other. They like to hang out with each other.”
To be sure, though, simply hanging out is not what it's all about for the players that Stewart and his coaching staff are entrusted to lead and take care of. When they spend time together at the building they call the T.A.C., all involved can reap the benefits from a positive family atmosphere, which might not be available to some members of the Wildcat squad when they leave campus.
“It's unfortunate, but the reality of the fact is that we've got some kids who don't go home to great situations. I want them to have a place where they feel safe, where they know they're loved, where they know they're fed, where they know there's accountability,” said Stewart, who has a 47-15 record with two district titles as Temple's program leader. “They'll never say it, but a lot of them crave that. That doesn't mean they get their way."
Temple players have spoken throughout the season about their strong bond and how that helps them avoid panicking when they're trailing in games. Such was the case Oct. 29 at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium, when the Wildcats were down 20-0 early in the second quarter before they charged back and held on to edge the Knights 38-36.
“Tonight, we were down 20-0 and we were picking each other up. We were saying, 'Next play. Next play,'” Temple sophomore middle linebacker Taurean York – the Wildcats' leading tackler for the second consecutive season – said after that game.
On the same evening, junior running back Samari Howard explained that Temple's coaches had put the players through a practice drill that specifically tested their ability to overcome a deficit.
“Our coaches told us, 'Don't panic,'” Howard, who's scored 21 touchdowns and is a leading contender for 12-6A's Most Valuable Player award, said that night. “Wednesday we practiced being down by 11 and it showed up tonight. We practiced it and didn't freak out about being down.”
The Wildcats tapped into that same refusal to panic two weeks ago in another Thursday night duel at Buckley. Needing a win against a talented Killeen Shoemaker squad to clinch the outright 12-6A championship, Temple fell behind 24-20 when Grey Wolves running back Devin Brown scored a go-ahead touchdown with 4:15 remaining.
Undeterred, the Wildcats swiftly drove down the field and regained the lead on an electric 8-yard touchdown rush by Mikal Harrison-Pilot – a starting receiver who moved to quarterback in a specialty situation – with 1:41 remaining. Temple then needed a defensive stop, and senior nose tackle Jayven Taylor, junior end Eric Shorter and sophomore tackle Jaylon Jackson combined to drop Brown for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1 near midfield to secure the Wildcats' dramatic 27-24 win.
“It's just a lot of fight,” Stewart said after Temple – whose only setback was an eye-opening 43-25 home loss Oct. 9 to now-No. 14-ranked Arlington Martin (8-1) – clinched its first outright district title in his five seasons in charge. “I think our kids believe in each other and believe in our system and believe in our approach and believe in our process.”
During a highly abnormal offseason that included the cancelation of spring football practice because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most interested observers thought Temple's starting quarterback this season would be Harrison-Pilot, the mobile, strong-armed sophomore who started at free safety as a freshman and was a second-team all-district selection.
Partly because Temple had a different senior starting quarterback every season from 2016-19 (each became his district's offensive player of the year), it had to be tantalizing for Stewart and offensive coordinator Josh Sadler to think that Harrison-Pilot potentially could become a three-year starting QB.
However, in a wise piece of coaching, Stewart and Sadler allowed senior Humberto Arizmendi – who quarterbacked Temple's top junior varsity team last season as a junior – to compete on equal footing with Harrison-Pilot for the top spot. The coaches' difficult decision essentially hinged on which player performed better in the home scrimmage against formidable foe College Station, and that evening Arizmendi demonstrated a sharp passing touch and better command of the offense.
Stewart announced that Arizmendi would be Temple's starting QB in its Sept. 25 season opener against state-ranked Longview at Arlington's AT&T Stadium, and that's never ceased to be a great decision. Arizmendi passed for 208 yards and four touchdowns in his varsity debut as the Wildcats outscored the Lobos 30-0 after halftime for a resounding, tone-setting 40-13 victory that avenged their 41-10 first-round playoff loss at then-undefeated Longview in 2018.
Arizmendi has gone on to complete 63.7 of his passes for 1,733 yards and 24 touchdowns against six interceptions, and he's emerged as a viable running threat with 229 of his 451 rushing yards in the last two games against Shoemaker and Killeen.
But there's another thing that has made going with Arizmendi at QB the best decision: Harrison-Pilot maturely accepted a starting role at inside receiver and has blossomed into a go-to playmaker, as evidenced by his late go-ahead touchdown at Shoemaker. He leads Temple's deep receiving corps with 36 catches and 441 yards, and his six touchdown grabs are tied with Howard behind the team-leading seven TD receptions of senior AJ McDuffy.
Another sign of the Wildcats' clear-cut camaraderie: After Harrison-Pilot scored the winning touchdown against Shoemaker, Arizmendi – who had rushed for a career-best 139 yards that night – came off the sideline to celebrate with the guy he's completed three dozen passes to this season.
Temple's offense has produced 410.4 yards per game – almost evenly split between rushing and passing – despite the fact that senior left tackle Alex Rodriguez is the only player on the five-man unit who played a significant amount of time in 2019. Senior left guard Kai Lynn, senior center Matthew Frye, senior right guard Allen Camacho and junior right tackle Colby Rice are the other starters, with senior Eddie Torres stepping in at left guard when Lynn replaced an injured Rice.
“It's the definition of synergy. In other words, the whole is better than the sum of its parts,” said Stewart, who has a pair of first-year offensive line coaches with Mike Bickham and Justin Bell. “That's not to suggest they can't play the game; I just think they're better as a group. Chemistry is a very tangible thing with this group, and Coach Bickham and Coach Bell have done a good job of getting that group mentality, that herd mentality.”
There's also been impressive growth for a Temple defense that's permitted only 275.3 yards per game, including just 81 against Killeen. Current juniors such as ends Shorter and Tommy Torres, linebackers Marshall Grays and Faylin Lee and safety O'Tarian Peoples took their lumps as sophomores who played in last year's painful playoff loss at Longview, but they've become stronger, more reliable players this season for coordinator Dexter Knox.
As Temple prepares for its eighth consecutive playoff appearance, Stewart and the Wildcats are at something of a crossroads.
In Stewart's two seasons as defensive coordinator (2014-15) for head coach Mike Spradlin and then his first two seasons as a head coach (2016-17), Temple won at least three playoff games every year and reached the 5A Division I state championship game in 2014 and 2016, losing competitive battles against state powerhouses Aledo and Dallas Highland Park, respectively. The Wildcats' postseason record during that memorable four-year run was a staggering 16-4.
However, here comes the big “yeah, but . . .”: That all came at the 5A level. Playoff success in the 6A Division II ranks has proved elusive for Temple. Two years ago, a 3-7 but very athletic Mesquite Horn team invaded Wildcat Stadium and racked up 613 yards total offense in dealing Temple a stunning 45-38 defeat. A year later, defending state champion Longview controlled the visiting Wildcats 41-10 for its 27th straight win.
But as Temple senior cornerback Keon Williams said last week, this year's season-opening pounding of the Lobos gave these Wildcats a boost of confidence that they could go on to achieve more special things.
“I feel like everybody who played in that (2019 Longview) game had a chip on their shoulder for that team,” Williams said. “That impacted us a lot. It showed us what we can do."
If Temple advances past 5-4 Waxahachie next Friday on its home turf at Bob McQueen Field, it will be its first playoff win in the state's largest classification since a 2003 bi-district victory over Round Rock McNeil. And if the Wildcats get that proverbial monkey off their backs, opponents such as Rockwall-Heath – coached by Temple's former boss Spradlin – and No. 8 Cedar Hill could await in the rugged Region II bracket.
It remains to be seen whether this stellar Temple team can continue to compete until at least Christmas, which would mean playing three rounds or more. But if the Wildcats don't make a return trip for the state title game at AT&T Stadium, where they began the season with such a big bang, it certainly won't be because they lack cohesiveness, esprit de corps and that one thing so many teams seek but never truly find: chemistry.
“I just love coming up here,” Stewart said. “I love being with these kids and I want to see them be as successful as they can be."