PAINFUL ENDING: Temple can't overcome turnovers, mistakes as Waxahachie seizes 30-21 playoff victory
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
TIGHTROPE TOUCHDOWN: Temple senior Naeten Mitchell keeps his left foot in-bounds as he catches an 18-yard touchdown pass from junior Reese Rumfield in the fourth quarter of the Wildcats' 30-21 loss to Waxahachie in a Class 6A Division I bi-district playoff game Friday night at cold, windy Wildcat Stadium. Mitchell earlier had a 72-yard interception return to set up senior Mikal Harrison-Pilot's 5-yard TD run. Temple finished 7-4 after its first opening-round playoff loss since 2019. The Indians (9-2) atoned for back-to-back playoff defeats at Temple in 2020 and 2021 and advanced to play Rockwall (10-1) next Friday. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Friday night’s first-round playoff game at cold, windswept Wildcat Stadium was packed with so much potential for Temple.
Potential for the Wildcats to earn a bi-district home victory against Waxahachie for the third consecutive season and advance in the Class 6A Division I state playoffs.
Potential for Temple to become only the fourth Texas high school football program with 800 all-time wins.
And potential for a successful, fitting finale on Bob McQueen Field for four-year varsity stalwarts Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Taurean York, whose stellar play had helped lead the Wildcats to 34 victories, three district championships and four postseason berths.
But instead, the evening ended with tears flowing for Harrison-Pilot, York and their teammates after ill-timed mistakes by Temple led to a painful defeat.
Waxahachie returned an interception and a punt for long touchdowns, five turnovers plagued the Wildcats and an injury that sidelined Harrison-Pilot for the final 10½ minutes proved crucial as the determined, opportunistic Indians seized a 30-21 victory to finally get past Temple on their third attempt.
Afterward, Temple seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart credited athletic, physical Waxahachie (9-2) – which built a 10-0 first-quarter lead and never trailed – for how well it played but also lamented the many errors that prevented the Wildcats (7-4) from gaining their third straight area-round trip.
“Waxahachie's well-coached, they have a lot of pride and they played inspired football tonight. You’ve got to match that, and I thought we did intensity-wise. Our defense played their absolute tails off,” said Stewart, whose Wildcats allowed 218 rushing yards and 60 passing yards. “They’ve got a huge offensive line and two running backs who are going to play college football, and we held our own. We just can’t make all the other mistakes. We’ve got to clean that stuff up, and we’ve got a while to clean it up. You can’t make big mistakes in big football games and be successful.”
Waxahachie lost 6A Division II first-round matchups at Temple 38-0 in 2020 and 28-14 in a tightly contested game last year, but the Indians were not to be denied in the teams’ third showdown. With their first playoff victory since 2017, they advance to challenge No. 18-ranked Rockwall (10-1) in the area round at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
“I wish I could take credit, but it’s these kids and just their grit and determination to come here for a third time. After getting beat two years in a row and having that mental hurdle, they fought through it and I’m just so proud of them,” said Waxahachie second-year head coach Shane Tolleson, who got Keith Abney II’s 42-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter and LaMarkus Reed’s 60-yard punt return TD to begin the fourth on a Temple special teams breakdown.
“Coach Stewart is unbelievable. It doesn’t matter what talent they have; they execute and do a great job. He always finds and gets the best out of his kids. My hat’s off to them.”
Temple senior Naeten Mitchell’s 72-yard interception return in the second quarter set up Harrison-Pilot’s 5-yard touchdown run, and Mitchell made a sideline-hugging 18-yard TD catch from junior Reese Rumfield with 7½ minutes remaining to keep the Wildcats in contention.
However, it wasn’t enough for District 12-6A runner-up Temple – which scored three touchdowns but couldn’t convert any of its extra-point opportunities – to overtake revenge-minded Waxahachie and live to play another week.
“We definitely want some plays back, but we’ve got to give credit where credit is due,” said Mitchell, who’s committed to New Mexico State as a defensive back. “Waxahachie worked their tail off and they’ve been looking forward to beating us after we beat them the last two years.”
Some 25 minutes after the game ended, an emotional York still was being consoled by bundled-up family members, friends and other supporters following the all-state middle linebacker’s 23rd and final game at Wildcat Stadium.
“It’s just tough when you pour so much into it and all the adversity that I’ve had to overcome. A lot of people didn’t think I’d ever be here – me and Mikal,” said the Baylor-committed York, the two-time 12-6A Defensive MVP who finished with 435 career tackles in 45 games. “We’re leaving one win short of 800. There’s a lot of games that we’ve dropped over the past four years that I think we should have won, but you can’t complain.”
Having set a goal to help Temple win a third state championship even before Stewart and the coaching staff decided to start him as a 14-year-old freshman, York said it’s difficult to accept the fact that the Wildcats didn’t advance past the second round in his four seasons.
“I think if that you would have told me in 2018 that I wouldn’t have a ring on my finger by the time I got done with high school, I would have told you that you were a liar. But I can’t complain about God’s plan,” York said, pausing to congratulate Waxahachie senior quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. and tell him to go win the Indians' next game.
“Of course the Wildcats are going to shake back, but it just wasn’t our year. We played through a lot of adversity and just played a sloppy game overall, but I couldn’t be more proud of this team. I gathered them up and broke down in tears just talking to them before the game. I was just so happy and amped to play. I started with tears and ended with tears, and that’s how you want to go.”
Along with his 5-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the versatile Harrison-Pilot caught a 40-yard TD pass from Rumfield a minute into the second half to highlight his seven-reception, 140-yard performance. However, the uncommitted four-star recruit who also often lines up at quarterback absorbed a hard shot to the helmet area – Waxahachie was not penalized for targeting on the play – while making a 33-yard catch at midfield with 10½ minutes remaining in the fourth.
Harrison-Pilot had to be helped off the field, immediately sat on the bench while being checked out by team physicians and was not able to return to the field. As play continued, several teammates came up and hugged Harrison-Pilot – who like York played every game for four seasons – as tears filled his eyes.
“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. “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.”
York said it was extremely difficult to see Harrison-Pilot have to stay out of the game when the Wildcats needed his longtime close friend’s well-established playmaking ability on the field.
“I had to wipe away a lot of tears in the third and fourth quarter. I was like, ‘It’s not over until the clock hits 0:00.' The hardest one was when Mikal went out," said York, whose voice cracked when he talked about Harrison-Pilot. “I had to wipe Mikal’s tears while the game was still going on. He rose to the occasion tonight and he knew I was going to come with it. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s going to do big things.”
Tolleson believed that Harrison-Pilot’s absence during the final 10½ minutes made a major impact on how both teams played down the stretch.
“It completely changed the game. Not taking anything away from the other guys on their offense, but he draws your attention everywhere he is,” Tolleson said. “You better know where he is or he’s going to hurt you, and he did.”
BLUE-FRONT, WHITE-BACK SWARM: Temple defenders Josh Donoso (22), Ka'Morion Carter (right) and Ayden Brown combine to tackle Waxahachie quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. for an 11-yard loss on the first play from scrimmage during the Wildcats' 30-21 loss to the Indians in Friday night's Class 6A Division I bi-district playoff game at Wildcat Stadium. Temple's defense allowed only 17 points and 278 total yards, but Waxahachie scored 13 points on Keith Abney II's 42-yard interception return and LaMarkus Reed's 60-yard punt return. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
The chilly, breezy conditions made the ball hard, slick and difficult to control for both squads, and on the harsh evening’s first play from scrimmage Hartsfield lost the ball as he pumped his arm to throw. Hartsfield fell on his fumble as junior Ayden Brown and seniors Josh Donoso (10 tackles) and Ka'Morion Carter swarmed him for an 11-yard loss.
However, Hartsfield’s 25-yard pass to Abney kept the drive alive and the Indians used the rushing of Hartsfield and hard-charging seniors Jayden Becks and Iverson Young – who ran for 90 yards apiece – to advance to Temple’s 19-yard line before a 36-yard field goal by Jesse Garfias gave Waxahachie a 3-0 lead with 5 minutes gone.
After Temple’s first possession went nowhere, Alcorn State commitment Hartsfield (59 passing yards, 53 rushing yards) galloped for 28 yards on a draw play before Young – who rushed for 170 yards and a touchdown at Temple a year ago – broke numerous tackles on his 22-yard TD burst through the middle for a 10-0 Indians advantage with 3 minutes remaining in the first quarter.
The Wildcats responded with a sharp drive to reach the Waxahachie 26, but when Rumfield looked to pass while rolling right to avoid pressure, the ball slipped out of his hand and the Indians recovered it at the 39 for the first of Temple’s five turnovers.
“We just can’t make those kind of snafus in this kind of game and think that we’re going to come away successful,” Stewart said. “We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing on offense, and we’ve got eight months to do it.”
Waxahachie quickly moved to the Temple 28, but Mitchell then made a momentum-changing play. The savvy safety stepped in front of a receiver on Hartsfield’s short pass to the right side, intercepting it at the 23 and then using his speed and a series of evasive moves to cut across the field before the Indians finally tackled the spinning Mitchell at the 5.
“This is what I live for. I try to preach leadership, and hopefully I leave that behind,” said Mitchell, who made a team-leading five interceptions this season. “I take a lot of pride in my heart and I’ve had a big heart since I was a kid, watching (older) football players do their thing.”
Playing quarterback, Harrison-Pilot took the next snap and ran off right tackle for the 5-yard touchdown 3½ minutes into the second period. But on the extra-point try, the snap was low and went through the hands of holder Ethan Magana before he was tackled, keeping it a 10-6 Waxahachie lead.
After Temple’s defense produced a stop, another key mistake by the Wildcats hurt their cause a few minutes later. Rumfield tried to pass to a slanting Harrison-Pilot on third-and-3, but Harrison-Pilot was able to get only one hand on the head-high ball and it deflected straight to Abney, the Utah State-committed two-way starter who made the interception and raced 42 yards along the left side for a touchdown.
Temple’s Steve Jackson tackled the holder on a botched extra-point try, leaving Waxahachie’s lead at 16-6 with 4:45 remaining until halftime.
The turnover bug bit the Wildcats again on their ensuing drive. On third-and-12 from Temple’s 48, a defender hit Rumfield as he threw and the affected ball was grabbed out of midair by 280-pound sophomore tackle Jacob Ervin for an interception that he returned to the Wildcats’ 34.
But Temple’s defense answered with a big stop as Hartsfield’s fourth-down pass to the end zone fell incomplete with 45 seconds remaining. Rumfield completed passes of 25 and 19 yards to Harrison-Pilot, whose 11-yard run moved the Wildcats to the 17 with 18 seconds left.
A penalty on Rumfield for intentional grounding pushed Temple back to the 30, but on fourth down Waxahachie was penalized for roughing the quarterback as time expired. The Wildcats took advantage of an untimed down from the 15 as senior Mateo Lopez made a 32-yard field goal into a stiff, unrelenting crosswind to cut the Indians’ halftime lead to 16-9.
The momentum remained on Temple’s side when senior 1,000-yard rusher Deshaun Brundage fielded the second-half kickoff at his 30 and kept churning his legs within a massive scrum for a 27-yard return to the Waxahachie 43. Harrison-Pilot then caught a Rumfield pass, broke a tackle and sprinted in for a 40-yard touchdown that trimmed the Wildcats’ deficit to 16-15 53 seconds in to the third period.
However, another breakdown in the kicking game cost Temple. Magana dropped the extra-point snap and was swarmed, allowing Waxahachie to preserve its one-point lead.
“We take a lot of pride in our special teams, but we’ve got to make some big kicks when it comes to it,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got a lot of things we need to work on.”
Sturdy defense continued to keep Temple afloat, forcing a long, unsuccessful field goal attempt after Waxahachie recovered Rumfield’s under-duress fumble at the Wildcat 29 4 minutes into the third.
OFF TO THE RACES: Temple senior Mikal Harrison-Pilot breaks free from Waxahachie's defense on a 41-yard run during the third quarter of the Wildcats' 30-21 loss to the Indians in a Class 6A Division I bi-district playoff game Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Harrison-Pilot made seven receptions for 140 yards with a 40-yard touchdown from Reese Rumfield but didn't play in the game's final 10 1/2 minutes after taking a shot to the helmet while making a 33-yard catch. The versatile four-year starter finished his senior season with 48 receptions for 978 yards and nine TDs. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Harrison-Pilot then broke out of a crowd for a 41-yard run on the left side to reach the Waxahachie 31, but Temple’s offense stalled and Lopez’s 41-yard field goal try fell well short despite a helping wind.
Young’s 34-yard run and a 25-yard blast by Becks helped the Indians move to the 3. Temple hit Hartsfield hard on his rush to the right side and forced a fumble, but Becks was in the right place at the right time as he scooped the ball up at the 1 and scored inside the pylon for a 23-15 Waxahachie lead with a minute left in the third.
The most damaging play from Temple’s perspective came to begin the final period. After Harrison-Pilot was hit early on a third-down pass but Waxahachie wasn’t called for pass interference, the Wildcats punted from their 46 and Lopez’s high kick was knocked down by an invisible wall of wind before taking a pro-Indians bounce.
Noticing a lack of Temple players in the area because they all had run past where the short punt settled, Reed alertly picked the ball up at his 40, charged toward the right side and outran everyone along the Waxahachie sideline for a tide-turning 60-yard touchdown and a 30-15 advantage with 11:33 remaining.
“We didn’t execute very well. We train our guys on the shield to trail the football and never run past the football, and they ran down the field like there was a 40 mph wind at their back,” Stewart said. “If you don’t execute against good football teams . . . I thought our defense played their tails off, but we give up 13 non-offensive points and get beat by nine. I’m not a mathematician, but . . .”
Tolleson said that crucial punt play wasn’t designed for standout linebacker Reed to return it but that the Indians certainly were happy about the result.
“I was saying, ‘Don’t touch it. Just don’t touch it,’” Tolleson, who won a state championship as Denton Ryan's defensive coordinator in 2020, said with a laugh. “But I tell them all the time, ‘Hey, if you make a big play, I’ll say high-five and good job, and if you don’t, I’m going to get on to you.’”
Temple responded when Rumfield (15-of-36 passing, 197 yards) completed a 33-yard pass to Harrison-Pilot, who made the one-handed catch at midfield despite having his other arm grabbed early by one defender before a second player delivered a punishing shot to his head/shoulder area. The officials declined to assess a penalty for targeting as Temple’s star wide receiver slowly got up and was helped off the field.
“From my perspective, it was targeting,” Stewart said. “But if you add on another 15 yards, your best offensive player still isn’t on the field. That’s football.”
Said Mitchell about the durable Harrison-Pilot being forced out by injury: “It hurts to see him sit out. He’s a senior and he loves football as much as anybody. I know it hurt me and it hurt him. I don’t call him a friend; I call him my brother. We tried to fight for him, but it just didn’t pan out.”
Desperate for a touchdown to stay in contention, Temple drove to the 18 and faced fourth-and-15 when Mitchell came through. Rumfield rolled right and eventually saw Mitchell get open near the sideline in the end zone. Straining to keep his feet in bounds, a leaning, fully extended Mitchell caught Rumfield’s well-placed pass for a touchdown to draw the revived Wildcats within 30-21 and keep their comeback hopes alive with 7:27 remaining.
But needing to convert the extra point to make it a one-possession game, Temple couldn’t do so. A high snap gave the burly Ervin time to break through the line and block Lopez’s kick, a vital play that preserved the Indians’ nine-point lead.
The Wildcats’ next drive was thwarted when safety Greg Hatley III intercepted Rumfield’s pass at the Waxahachie 21 with 2:51 remaining.
York then caused Young to fumble and Brown recovered the ball at the Indians’ 27 with 1:31 left, and on the next snap sophomore receiver Christian Tutson appeared to catch Rumfield’s pass on the right side of the end zone for a touchdown. However, the officials ruled that Tutson lost control of the ball before he completed the catch.
“I mean, I’ll argue that (call), but you’ve got to finish the catch,” Stewart said. “So that’s a great learning moment, because he's going to have to be the man for the next couple years. That kind of experience, I can’t teach in offseason. He played his guts out. To stick a 15-year-old kid out there against (Abney) and have him hold his own, I’m very proud of that kid.”
After Waxahachie stopped Rumfield’s fourth-down run short at the 8, the Indians celebrated their satisfying, breakthrough road victory over playoff nemesis Temple.
The Wildcats made their 10th consecutive postseason appearance but did not win a district championship or a playoff game for the first time since 2018, their first year in 6A.
Afterward, Stewart said he urged Temple's players to let the disappointment of their season-ending home defeat sink in and motivate the returning Wildcats to keep improving.
“The lessons you learned here are going to help you. Let it hurt right now and try to process that the best you can,” Stewart said he told his team. “It’s going to hurt if it means anything. If it doesn’t hurt right now, you’ve got no heart. Most of them are struggling right now, and that’s the way it should be.
“When something gets taken away from you that you dearly love, then there ought to be some pain involved. That, too, is a life lesson, and whatever lessons we need to learn tonight we’re going to learn the hard way. And sometimes those are the best lessons learned.”
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