FAMILIAR MATCHUP: Stewart, surging Temple host Tolleson, dangerous Waxahachie in bi-district battle
ALWAYS ATTACKING: Temple defenders such as senior end Eric Shorter (13) and junior linebacker Taurean York will contend with a talented, versatile Waxahachie offense when coach Scott Stewart's District 12-6A champion Wildcats host coach Shane Tolleson's Indians (6-4) in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game at 7:30 Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Winner of eight straight games, Temple has allowed 48 total points in its last four contests. Temple beat Waxahachie 38-0 in the first round at the same venue last December. The winner will play No. 5-ranked Rockwall-Heath or Garland Naaman Forest in next week's area round. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
In December 2016, then-Denton Ryan defensive coordinator Shane Tolleson watched Temple play Dallas Highland Park in the Class 5A Division I state championship game at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.
One week earlier, Ryan’s Raiders had lost 31-24 to Highland Park in a state semifinal. Although Highland Park defeated Temple 16-7 that day, Tolleson came away highly impressed after the Wildcats – playing their second state title game in three years – limited the Scots’ high-powered offense to 14 points.
During the offseason period that followed, Tolleson reached out and contacted defensive-minded Temple head coach Scott Stewart, who was coming off his first season in charge after serving two years as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator.
“Coach Tolleson just called and said, ‘What are you doing (on defense)? Nobody can hold those guys to 14,’” Stewart recalled. “I went up to a couple of their clinics and met with his (Ryan defensive) staff on some of their coverage stuff. They had a three- or four-year deal where they got beat by Highland Park in the same round.
“I got to know him through that process and just have the utmost respect for him. You talk to certain people and you just know there’s something a little different about them. He’s got the ‘it’ factor.”
Now in his first season as Waxahachie’s head coach and ready to bring his Indians (6-4) to Wildcat Stadium for a 6A Division II bi-district battle against District 12-6A champion Temple (8-2) at 7:30 Friday night, Tolleson confirmed that anecdote by phone Thursday.
“Highland Park was my Achilles’ heel when I was at Ryan,” said Tolleson, the defensive coordinator for the highly successful Raiders from 2014-20. “I saw Temple hold them to 14 points, so I called Coach Stewart and said, ‘You just held them to 14 points. What was your thought process?’ He opened his door to me and we built a good relationship. Iron sharpens iron. I think I fed him breakfast. He’s definitely helped me.”
Highland Park went on to defeat previously unbeaten Ryan 45-35 and 43-21 in 5A Division I state semifinals in 2017 and 2018, respectively, but the tide finally turned for Tolleson’s defense and the Raiders on the first day of 2021. Ryan stymied nemesis Highland Park for a 17-7 victory in the 5A D-I Region II final, and the Raiders proceeded to capture the state championship with a 15-0 record.
Said Tolleson about the defensive advice he and his Ryan staff received from Stewart after the 2016 season: “It didn’t pay off right away, but it did help our football team.”
Said Stewart about Tolleson, who took his first head coaching job at Waxahachie in February: “He’s very complimentary of me, which is not why I like him. (Our backgrounds are) very similar and we’ve been through a lot of the same wars, been through a lot of the same trials and tribulations. I’ve got the utmost respect for that guy.”
DOMINANT PERFORMANCE: Running back Samari Howard (8) finds open space as quarterback Humberto Arizmendi looks to block during Temple's 38-0 victory over Waxahachie in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game last December at Wildcat Stadium. The Wildcats host the Indians in a first-round rematch Friday night. Howard became Temple's all-time leader in points (336) and touchdowns (53) in a 77-12 home win over Copperas Cove last Friday. The Air Force-committed senior what likely will be his final home game with 3,596 career rushing yards. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Temple and Waxahachie also clashed in the bi-district round last Dec. 11 at Wildcat Stadium, where the 12-6A champion Wildcats rolled to a 38-0 win to record their first playoff victory as a 6A program. Overall, Temple is 1-3 in playoff games at the 6A level.
Temple’s defense returned an interception for a touchdown a minute into the game and permitted only 16 passing yards and 152 total yards in blanking the Indians. Then-senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi threw touchdown passes of 42 and 37 yards to current seniors KeAndre Smith and Tr’Darius Taylor, respectively, and then-junior Jalen Robinson rushed for a 33-yard TD.
Although Waxahachie came into last year’s playoffs as a 5-4, fourth-place team on a four-game winning streak and now enters the postseason as a 6-4, fourth-place squad coming off a disappointing loss and three defeats in its last five games, there are obvious indications that these Indians will be a more challenging matchup for Temple, which has averaged 55 points during its eight-game winning streak.
Waxahachie’s losses to non-district opponent Ennis (22-21 in overtime), 11-6A third-place club Cedar Hill (14-10) and district runner-up DeSoto (31-25) last Thursday came by a combined 11 points. The Indians lost 52-3 at No. 4-ranked, 11-6A champion Duncanville after the teams played to a 3-3 halftime tie.
From Temple’s perspective, Stewart has seen too many good things from watching Tolleson’s first Waxahachie team for the Wildcats to think their playoff opener will be an easy one to win, regardless of what happened between the two schools 11 months ago.
“He’s doing it right. Again, when you play a team (in consecutive seasons) and you see maybe not the exact same kids but the same kids from the same school . . . they do not look like the same team, and that’s a tribute to him and his staff,” Stewart said. “He is a huge part of the reason they did that. I see Shane Tolleson in the way they play football. When your kids take on the personality of their coach, it tells you a bunch. It tells you he’s obviously earned their trust.
“I talked to him in getting prepared for this and I said, ‘You’re not going to hear me right now and it’s hard to see right now, but y’all don’t look the same (as Waxahachie looked in 2020). And those bobbled snaps on the 3-yard line (trying) to go win it, that’s the part you’ll see go away over time. You already don’t look like the same team, but you’re looking at the record. I know you as a competitor and I know you personally. You’re seeing that as, ‘We ain’t much better,’ and I’m telling you, it’s a different football team.’”
In an 11-6A finale last Thursday, host Waxahachie had a first-and-goal opportunity at the 3-yard line with less than a minute remaining, trailing DeSoto 31-25. However, a fumbled snap cost the Indians and their heavily pressured fourth-down pass fell incomplete as the Eagles – who dominated 12-6A runner-up Harker Heights (9-2) 65-28 in a bi-district playoff Thursday night in Waco – escaped with the win.
If you’re thinking Tolleson considers that narrow loss a moral victory for Waxahachie, think again.
“That was very disappointing as a head coach. We did not come here to be in fourth place,” said Tolleson, who aims to guide Waxahachie to its first playoff win since the 2017 Indians finished 8-5 under former NFL quarterback Jon Kitna. “One big goal for us was to not be licking any wounds coming into the playoffs. It was unfortunate, because we had our chances.”
The following night, Tolleson was in Temple to watch the surging Wildcats demolish Copperas Cove 77-12 as they completed their second consecutive 7-0 march through 12-6A.
He saw senior running back Samari Howard rush for four first-half touchdowns as the Air Force commitment became Temple’s all-time leader in scoring and TDs, and he also saw junior wide receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot catch two touchdown passes from sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield and run for a TD from the QB position.
“We’ve got to stop Temple’s great running back and also stop No. 7 (Harrison-Pilot) when he comes over in their Wildcat package,” Tolleson said. “We say, ‘It’s all about the football.’ That means winning the turnover war and making sure we’re in the plus on that ratio. We’ve got to handle the trip down there and playing in the hostile environment. But we always say, ‘Spot the ball. We’ll play in an H-E-B parking lot if we have to.’”
Stewart said Waxahachie’s offense is much more productive and versatile than the unit that Temple shut out last December. Junior quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. is a 6-foot-1, 195-pound dual-threat performer who’s 85-of-156 passing for 1,221 yards and eight touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Last week against DeSoto, Hartsfield connected with dynamic junior two-way threat Keith Abney II (5-11, 175) three times for 119 yards, giving Abney – also a standout at cornerback – 28 catches for 482 yards, both team highs. Senior tight end Joseph Lankford (6-3, 230) is another pass-catching weapon.
“To come in and do that in 6A football, I don’t think you can do that unless you’re a kid of the highest character. He’s effective on both sides,” Tolleson said about Abney, whom Stewart described as “so natural.”
Skilled junior running backs Jayden Becks and Iverson Young share Waxahachie’s rushing workload. Becks (742 yards through nine games) ran for two touchdowns against DeSoto to push his season total to 10, while Young caught a TD pass last week after entering the district finale with 712 rushing yards.
“If you have two of the top running backs in District 11-6A, you may be all right. They alternate and they’re going to pound the rock,” Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox said. “They’re going to make you stop the run, and then they’re able to throw it over the top of you, too. The quarterback throws a really good ball and runs well, too, and they’ve got fast receivers. (Abney) is their do-it-all kid who plays both ways and is a stud athlete. They’re good.”
Waxahachie’s offense will contend with Temple’s quick-reacting, turnover-collecting defense that continued to improve through the district grind. The Wildcats allowed 48 points in their final four games. Junior linebacker and three-year starter Taurean York has set the pace with a career-high 117 tackles, and the active starting line of ends Eric Shorter and Jaylon Jackson and tackles Tommy Torres and Ayden Brown put constant pressure on opposing backfields. Junior safeties Naeten Mitchell and Zion Moore also have provided stellar play.
On the flip side, Waxahachie’s aggressive defense – which deploys in a similar formation to Temple’s 4-2-5 scheme – must contend with an explosive Wildcats offense that’s produced 440 yards per game in its last eight.
Howard, the reigning 12-6A co-MVP, has rushed for 1,369 yards and 16 touchdowns and scored 116 points overall. First-year starter Rumfield (1,807 passing yards, 24 touchdowns) has thrown for 10 TDs in the past four games without an interception. His top three aerial targets are big-play senior Devan Williams (29 catches, 707 yards, 10 TDs), Harrison-Pilot (27, 461, six) and speedy senior Taylor (18, 333, two).
Stewart said reserve senior running back Robinson (311 yards, three touchdowns) isn’t expected to play against Waxahachie after suffering a dislocated elbow on his 19-yard run against Copperas Cove. Senior backup Tavaris Sullivan has rushed for six TDs.
Temple’s sturdy offensive line must continue to open holes for the rushing game and protect Rumfield against Waxahachie’s fierce and disruptive defensive front. Senior end Brendan White (6-1, 200) and sophomore end/outside linebacker Jermy Jackson (6-1, 170) entered the district finale with 15 and eight sacks, respectively.
The hulking Demarcus Becks (6-0, 290) controls the middle of the line with help from fellow senior tackle Rolando Sierra (5-11, 240). Stewart said Becks – who also plays tight end in Waxahachie’s power sets – reminds him of a larger version of former Temple defensive tackle Jayven Taylor and noted that Becks “gave Duncanville fits.”
“Becks is really good, and up front they’re as good as we’re going to play,” Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler said. “They’ve got two defensive ends who lead that district in sacks. They’re special kids and fast off the edge.”
Junior middle linebacker La’Markus Reed (5-8, 190) has been a tackling machine for the Indians, racking up a district-leading 116 stops (84 solo, 12 for losses) through nine games.
“La’Markus is our quarterback on defense, the engine that makes it go,” said Tolleson, who’s also gotten reliable production from junior outside linebackers Corey King Jr. (78 tackles) and Robert Hannah Jr. (57 tackles).
In an effort to handle the inherent pressure of postseason play, Temple senior left tackle Colby Rice said the Wildcats’ potent offense needs to stick to the same approach and formula that’s worked so well during the team’s eight-game winning streak.
“We’ve just got to do what we were trained to do,” said Rice, who has three career playoff starts under his belt. “Like Coach Stewart says, whenever things hit the fan, we resort to our lowest form of training. In our head when we think we can’t do it, we have to keep a level head.”
Winning a first-round playoff game at home for the second straight season doesn’t figure to be an easy task for Temple against a skilled Waxahachie squad that’s boosted its level of competitiveness in Tolleson’s debut season as a head coach.
That said, the Wildcats haven’t gone 21-1 in district play the last three seasons by taking any opponent lightly or looking ahead to future games. Stewart said that brand of discipline and focus should continue to serve Temple well in its ninth straight playoff trip.
“You can blindfold yourself and spin around five times and throw a stick and hit six coaches better than me, but that is a philosophy that I adhere to,” Stewart said. “It’s, ‘What can I get better at?’ I think that’s more of a personality deal. That’s not me trying to sugarcoat it. That’s not me trying to deny that distractions are out there. I think you’ve got to own it.
“I mean, I get as real with these kids as anybody ever has. People kind of raise their eyebrows when I talk about stuff we talk about. The kids aren’t stupid. They know it’s out there, so address it, label it as a distraction and then starve it. That’s the only thing I know how to do: Starve the distractions and feed the focus. We need to try to play like we want to play because of who we are, not anything else or anybody else.”
The Temple-Waxahachie winner will advance to next week’s area round against the victor of Friday night's game in Rockwall between No. 5-ranked and 10-6A champ Rockwall-Heath (9-1) and Garland Naaman Forest (5-2). Rockwall-Heath’s high-scoring Hawks, guided by former Temple head coach Mike Spradlin, defeated the Wildcats 56-28 in an area-round showdown last December at Baylor’s McLane Stadium in Waco.
“I’ll tell (my teammates) we’ve got to focus on Waxahachie. We’re not playing those (Rockwall-Heath) guys yet,” defensive leader York said after Temple’s blowout win last Friday. “Hopefully we get a chance to play them, but right now Waxahachie’s the main focus. We have to keep what’s in front of us first.”
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