NO TIME TO RELAX: Seeking first Class 6A playoff victory, surging Temple hosts dangerous Waxahachie
PARTY AT THE PILE: Temple defenders Eric Shorter (left), Jayven Taylor (95), O'Tarian Peoples (2) and Johnny Donoso (22) converge on Killeen Shoemaker's Devin Brown during the visiting Wildcats' 27-24 win over the Grey Wolves on Nov. 19 at Leo Buckley Stadium. District 12-6A champion Temple (9-1) hosts the Waxahachie Indians (5-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game at Wildcat Stadium. Coach Scott Stewart's Wildcats are seeking their first postseason victory since 2017 and also Temple's first playoff win in the state's largest classification since 2003. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
It is a fact that Waxahachie brings a 5-4 record into its Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game against 9-1 Temple at 7:30 Friday night at Wildcat Stadium.
Although that overall mark certainly won't blow anyone's hair back, the District 12-6A champion Wildcats probably should not look at the Indians as a team that barely finished above the .500 level.
Instead, Temple would be wise to view Waxahachie – which survived the gauntlet in rough-and-tumble 11-6A – as a dangerous squad that finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak, which coincided with elusive senior Brandon Hawkins Jr. taking over at quarterback to join rugged senior Shawn Cherry in the backfield.
Riding a seven-game winning streak and playing on their home turf, the Wildcats have numerous reasons to carry confidence into their eighth consecutive playoff appearance and second home playoff game in three years. There also are plenty of reasons for Temple fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart and his team to give Waxahachie not only proper respect but also the Wildcats' undivided attention.
“The first thing I see when I turn on the film is they play hard,” Stewart said of head coach Todd Alexander's Indians, who are 4-0 since their 35-10 loss to eighth-ranked Cedar Hill on Oct. 30. “What I always do is ask how, why, when and where. How do you lose four (straight games)? How do you win four? There's other things involved there. Then I start looking, and three of the teams they lost to are now a combined 22-2.
“They lost to Cedar Hill, who's lost one game to (No. 2-ranked) Duncanville; they lost to (5A D-II No. 1) Ennis, who's not lost any games; and they lost to (No. 11) DeSoto, who's lost one game to Cedar Hill. It's just a different district. This is not a (Waxahachie) group where you look at their record and go, 'Eh.' They're not a .500 squad in my opinion.”
After Waxahachie struggled to a combined 3-17 record from 2018-19 in Alexander's first two seasons as head coach, the Indians are pumped up to return to postseason competition for the first time since 2017 and for only the second time in eight years.
“Anytime you can extend your season, it's a great thing. Our kids are excited,” said Alexander, a 1990 Waxahachie graduate and then a longtime Indians assistant coach before he succeeded former NFL quarterback Jon Kitna as head coach. “We had a rough last couple of years, so hopefully this season has kick-started us. Our strong point is that we've evolved into a blue-collar team with a never-quit attitude.”
Temple seeks its first playoff win as a 6A program and its first postseason victory since 2017, when the Wildcats defeated Port Arthur Memorial 33-29 in a 5A Division I Region III semifinal. Temple compiled a sterling 16-4 record – highlighted by state runner-up finishes in 2014 and 2016 – in the 5A D-I playoffs from 2014-17, but the Wildcats haven't won a postseason game while competing in the state's largest classification since Nov. 15, 2003, when they edged 5A bi-district opponent Round Rock McNeil 23-17 at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium.
Since Temple returned to the largest classification in 2018, it's been dealt a pair of painful first-round losses in the 6A Division II playoffs. Two years ago, a 3-7 but talented Mesquite Horn team invaded Wildcat Stadium, shredded Temple's defense for 613 yards and scored a touchdown with 11 seconds remaining to seize a stunning 45-38 win. Last November, then-defending state champion Longview overwhelmed the visiting Wildcats 41-10.
Now a junior, Temple defensive end Eric Shorter was in uniform against Horn and was a starting player against Longview. He said both first-round losses left a bitter taste in the Wildcats' mouth and have motivated them to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again this time around.
“I'm ready to go show everybody what the Temple Wildcats are all about and what we're fixing to come with,” said Shorter, who's Temple's second-leading tackler and has helped the Wildcat defense allow only 275.3 yards per game. “Everybody's been doubting us. We're really just ready for anything that comes our way.”
TUCK IT AND RUN: Temple senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi (10) finds an opening in the Harker Heights defense as senior receiver AJ McDuffy (left) blocks during the Wildcats' 38-36 comeback win against the Knights on Oct. 29 at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium. In his first varsity season, Arizmendi has passed for 1,733 yards and 24 touchdowns against six interceptions and has rushed for 451 yards. He'll make his playoff debut Friday night at Wildcat Stadium against the Waxahachie Indians. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Stewart said this Temple team has shown maturity and resilience throughout the season, which was delayed four weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wildcats avenged their aforementioned playoff loss to Longview by outscoring the Lobos 30-0 in the second half and romping to a 40-13 win in their Sept. 25 opener at Arlington's AT&T Stadium.
Temple bounced back from its lone loss – 43-25 at home to No. 14 Arlington Martin (8-1) in the non-district finale – by going 7-0 in 12-6A for its first outright district championship since 2015 and its first outright league title in the largest classification since 2007.
The Wildcats overcame a 20-0 deficit on the road to earn a 38-36 win at playoff qualifier Harker Heights, then drove to score the go-ahead touchdown with less than 2 minutes remaining and came up with a defensive stand to clip second-place Killeen Shoemaker 27-24 and clinch the district crown.
Temple also has dealt with the strange situation of having two open dates in a four-week span. The first came when rival Belton couldn't play its Nov. 13 game at Temple because of COVID-19 cases and quarantines, and the second one happened last week. Stewart isn't sure whether the extra open date helps the Wildcats, hurts them or is a non-factor.
“I'll let you know Friday night. It's a double-edged sword. I'm a routine guy, so I'd have rather played (last) Friday and just stayed in a rhythm. But then you go out there and (might) get somebody banged up,” said Stewart, whose Wildcats last played on Nov. 27, when they rolled to a 49-6 home win over Killeen. “This group does such a good job of just being in the moment. I'm very proud of how these guys handle a lot of stuff.”
The Temple-Waxahachie winner will advance to next week's area round to meet the victor of Friday night's bi-district game between host Rockwall-Heath (7-2) and Garland (5-3). Stewart said all four teams have agreed that the area-round matchup will be played at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco.
The proverbial elephant in the room is that high-scoring Rockwall-Heath is in its second season with head coach Mike Spradlin, who reinvigorated Temple's struggling program during a successful five-year run (44-17 with four playoff trips and eight postseason wins) as head coach from 2011-15. His Hawks coaching staff includes former Temple quarterbacks Joey Haag and Chad President and former Wildcats head coach Bryce Monsen.
As for Waxahachie, the Indians should be just as rested but no sharper than the Wildcats. Waxahachie was scheduled to conclude 11-6A play last week against No. 2 Duncanville, but Alexander and Panthers coach Reginald Samples mutually agreed to cancel the game, partly because the district seedings already were finalized and partly to avoid any unnecessary COVID-19 exposure.
Alexander said there were “mixed feelings in our locker room” because the Indians wanted to challenge nationally ranked Duncanville – the 6A Division I state runner-up in 2018 and 2019 – but also wanted to stay healthy for the playoffs.
“I don't doubt for one second that (Alexander) had kids who were disappointed, because they just flippin' play hard,” Stewart said. “When I turn on film, to me one of the biggest compliments you can give a coach is to say his kids play their tails off. I've seen Waxahachie in person and I've seen them on film. They play their ever-loving tails off.”
Added Stewart regarding the Waxahachie-Duncanville game being scrapped: “My best lessons have been the hardest ones learned, so I have a different perspective on that kind of concept now. I do agree with the sentiment that you've got to do what's best for your team, and you've got to do what you feel like is best for your team. If you look at it later and say, 'That probably wasn't the best thing for our team,' then don't ever do it again.”
Despite not getting to take on Duncanville, the Indians already had tested themselves against 5A power Ennis and then two top-notch district opponents in Cedar Hill and DeSoto.
“Those guys are on a higher level. We competed very well with Cedar Hill. Against DeSoto it was the same way,” said Alexander, whose squad lost to Ennis, Cedar Hill and DeSoto by a combined 115-16 score. “What it does when you play the best is it makes you worse or it makes you better. Playing those top-quality opponents elevated us and toughened us up.”
After beating 12-6A's Copperas Cove 34-7 in its season opener, Waxahachie scored only 33 total points during a four-game losing streak that began with a 19-7 setback against playoff qualifier Arlington Lamar. That's when Alexander moved dynamic athlete Hawkins from receiver to quarterback.
“We had a couple of injuries and we decided to make the change at quarterback,” Alexander said. “We didn't know if it was going to be temporary or permanent.”
It definitely turned out to be the right move for the Indians. They're 4-0 since the switch, averaging 25.5 points in wins over Mansfield Lake Ridge, Mansfield, Waco Midway (31-28 on Clyde Melick's 40-yard field goal as time expired) and Waco, which led 15-0 before Waxahachie scored 19 unanswered points and made a late defensive stand at the 2-yard line to prevail 19-15 two weeks ago.
“He's not a big guy, but he's elusive and he's a tough runner. He's very versatile,” Alexander said of the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Hawkins. “He started at cornerback as a sophomore, and as a junior he led the district in receiving yardage and was unanimous all-district at slot receiver.”
After catching 17 passes for 234 yards in Waxahachie's first five games, Hawkins added a completely different dimension to the offense when he moved to quarterback. In his first three starts at QB he rushed 70 times for 554 yards and seven touchdowns, with 170-yard games against Lake Ridge and Mansfield and then a 214-yard, four-TD explosion against Midway.
“(Hawkins) reminds me a lot of Ty Bell from Shoemaker – just an unbelievable athlete with a bunch of top-end speed. It's very effortless when he eludes tackles,” Stewart said. “He's one of those guys that just kind of sidesteps you. He identifies you as a potential tackler, and it almost looks like he's looking at the next guy. He's very elusive and looks like a strong kid."
Hawkins has has mixed results as a passer, completing 20 of 40 attempts for 135 yards and four touchdowns against three interceptions.
“There's going to be very high intent on that kid,” Stewart said of Temple's defensive plan. “He can throw it, but he's not going to sit there and pick defenses apart. If he doesn't like his first read, that's when it gets scary.”
Complementing Hawkins in Waxahachie's backfield is the 5-10, 210-pound Cherry, a powerful back who's rushed for 877 yards – including three games with 180-plus yards – and six touchdowns.
“He's a downhill kid and he's capable of breaking one,” Alexander said.
Said Stewart: “Their offensive skill is pretty salty. When No. 1 (Hawkins) is back there, the two best athletes in Waxahachie are playing quarterback and running back.”
Added Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox: “We have to tackle very well in space. Waxahachie has athletes who will spread you all across the field, so we have to be great tacklers and make effort plays.”
Waxahachie also has improved its defensive play during its four-game win streak, allowing 17.8 points per game. The Indians' top defenders include senior outside linebacker/end Jhmarques Head, senior linebacker Jace Robinson, senior safety Quincy Johnson and senior cornerback Preston Hodge.
“They're a disciplined defense,” Alexander said. “There's no selfish players out there.”
Said Stewart: “Their defense absolutely flies around. They're a little undersized but very aggressive. They're salty.”
CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN: Temple junior running back Samari Howard breaks away for a long gain during the Wildcats' 44-7 victory over Bryan on Oct. 23 at Wildcat Stadium. Howard has been a consistently dominant performer all season, rushing for 1,036 yards and 15 touchdowns and making 21 receptions for 342 yards and six TDs in nine games. He and District 12-6A champion Temple (9-1) aim to defeat visiting Waxahachie (5-4) in Friday night's bi-district playoff duel and advance to next week's area-round game against Rockwall-Heath (7-2) or Garland (5-3). (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Waxahachie's defense faces a tough task against Temple's potent and balanced offensive attack. The Wildcats average 38.3 points and 410.4 yards per game, and it's almost evenly split between the rush (1,861 yards) and the pass (1,833). Versatile junior running back Samari Howard is a leading contender for 12-6A's MVP award, with 1,036 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns plus 21 receptions for 342 yards and six TDs.
Temple senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi has been outstanding in his first varsity season, completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 1,733 yards and 24 touchdowns against six interceptions while spreading the ball around to senior receivers AJ McDuffy and Luke Allen, sophomore receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Howard. Arizmendi also has emerged as a running threat – especially recently – and has 451 yards on the ground.
“That Longview game, I was impressed for real. All that pressure he had on his back and all those great plays he was making for us, he came a long way,” Shorter said about Arizmendi. “He'll lock up here and there, but he's going to find a way for it to be done.”
Alexander knows that Waxahachie will have to play at the top of its game to have a shot to beat Temple, but he believes his resurgent Indians have the potential to pull off an unexpected playoff win on the road.
“Temple's skill players – the quarterback, running back and receivers – are very talented and all of them are threats. With their defense, it's pretty much the same,” Alexander said. “Temple plays hard and is well-coached, so it's a good matchup. We match up well with those guys. At first I thought (playing a true road game) could be a slight disadvantage, but we've played well on the road and our kids don't mind it.”
As for the Wildcats, they're savoring another opportunity to play at Wildcat Stadium and earn that elusive 6A playoff victory.
“I love playing at home. At home, the defense is the 'Clamp Crew' for real. Every time, we say, 'This is our house and nobody's going to come take it from us,'" Shorter said. “We're going to come to play Temple football."