- Greg Wille
READY FOR PART III: Temple braces to host talented, improved Waxahachie in another first-round clash
TRACKED DOWN: Temple defensive end Jaylon Jackson tackles Waxahachie quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. as linebacker Taurean York (5) closes in during the Wildcats' 28-14 win over the Indians in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff win last November at Wildcat Stadium. All three players return as seniors this season as Temple (7-3) hosts Waxahachie (8-2) in a 6A Division I first-round battle at 7:30 Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Coach Scott Stewart's Wildcats have two straight bi-district victories over the Indians. Temple is seeking to become the fourth Texas high school football program to win 800 games. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Temple’s football team is hosting Waxahachie in a Class 6A first-round playoff game at 7:30 Friday night at Wildcat Stadium.
Does that sound familiar? Well, it should, because it’s about to happen for the third consecutive season.
However, there are some noteworthy differences between the teams’ past two bi-district matchups – Temple won 38-0 and 28-14, respectively – and this year’s duel, Wildcats-Indians Part III.
For starters, the two teams competed in the Division II bracket the last two years, whereas they now find themselves in Division I for this postseason.
Temple entered its previous two showdowns with Waxahachie after winning District 12-6A championships with perfect records; this year the Wildcats (7-3) had to settle for the runner-up spot in 12-6A after host Harker Heights defeated them 13-9 in a Week 9 showdown, ending Temple’s run of district titles at three.
Waxahachie was 11-6A’s No. 4 seed in 2020 and 2021 and came to Temple with middling records of 5-4 and 6-4, respectively. This season, however, the athletic, physical Indians have a robust 8-2 record after finishing third in rough-and-tumble 11-6A behind state-ranked perennial powers Duncanville and DeSoto.
So although this upcoming installment of the Temple-Waxahachie trilogy has a familiar appearance, those changes and variables mean that anything could happen when seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart leads the Wildcats against his good friend and Indians second-year head coach Shane Tolleson on what’s expected to be a cool, blustery evening at Wildcat Stadium.
Because Temple has ended Waxahachie’s last two seasons, Stewart expects nothing less than a strong challenge from a hungry Indians team – paced by a rugged rushing attack and a stubborn defense – that figures to have grown quite tired of walking off Bob McQueen Field at Wildcat Stadium as the losing squad.
Shooting for the 800th win in their program’s rich history, the Wildcats certainly like the fact that they have home-field advantage, yet Stewart is wary about facing the same team in the same round at the same venue for a third year in row.
“You can’t control it, so I don’t know that I spend a lot of time trying to develop a philosophy. I will tell you that it’s harder to beat people the longer you play them,” said Stewart, who’s guided Temple to the playoffs in all seven seasons at the helm. “It’s harder to keep beating them because, again, there’s those intangibles that sink in, like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. Enough’s enough.’
“I think that’s as real as team chemistry and all that other stuff that you can’t measure but that I truly believe in. So I’d have rather played somebody else, not because of anything (other than) I like our kids being able to play other people.”
A year ago, Temple found itself in a 14-14 deadlock with Waxahachie early in the fourth quarter before the Wildcats got two rushing touchdowns from then-senior star Samari Howard and made a spirited resurgence on defense to earn a 28-14 victory, one year after they overwhelmed the Indians 38-0.
Knowing that most of Waxahachie’s best players now are seniors, Stewart said that extra experience has been evident when he’s studied the Indians on video.
“We’re a little more familiar with them. I turned on last year’s game film and there’s a bunch of kids on this year’s (Waxahachie) team who played here last year,” said Stewart, whose team finished 5-1 in 12-6A with a 69-7 home thrashing of last-place Copperas Cove last Thursday. “You see the same kids a year later. Don’t tell me seniors play like juniors, because they just don’t.
“I don’t know that (Temple senior linebacker) Taurean York’s gotten a whole lot bigger and stronger and faster or whatever, but I will tell you he’s a better football player right now than he was a year ago. It becomes second-nature and instinctive.”
Tolleson is confident that his Waxahachie group comes into this matchup as a stronger, more mature team than the one that challenged Temple deep into the fourth quarter a year ago.
“Well, it’s the same two teams playing in the same round, but I think it’s two different-looking teams. I think Temple’s a little different, and we’re a little different,” Tolleson said Thursday. “For us it’s maturity. We have an older team now with a lot of seniors. And the No. 1 thing I know about Temple is that Scott Stewart does an amazing job with his kids and they’re always sound in what they do.”
IN THE ZONE: Temple senior wide receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot (7) catches an 18-yard touchdown pass from Reese Rumfield during the first quarter of the Wildcats' 69-7 win over Copperas Cove in last Thursday's District 12-6A finale at Wildcat Stadium. Harrison-Pilot also ran for a 21-yard touchdown, threw a 45-yard TD pass to Christian Tutson and caught a 75-yard scoring pass from Rumfield. On Friday night Harrison-Pilot aims to help Temple earn its third straight bi-district playoff victory against Waxahachie. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Waxahachie seeks its first playoff win since 2017, when an Indians team coached by former NFL quarterback Jon Kitna finished 8-5.
Competing in the playoffs for the 10th straight year, the Wildcats are set for their 13th home game in the last two seasons. Temple is 30-9 at Wildcat Stadium in Stewart’s seven years as head coach.
Tolleson said he didn’t have any problem with Waxahachie having to travel to Temple for last season’s bi-district duel because the Wildcats were district champions and his first Indians team was seeded fourth.
But now that Temple is a league runner-up and Waxahachie placed third in one of the state’s premier districts, Tolleson expressed displeasure with the University Interscholastic League policy that gives all higher-seeded teams an opportunity to host first-round playoff games in 6A and 5A.
“I’ve got to be honest. If you’re playing the district champs, you just have to tip your hat. But if you’re playing a team that was second in district and you have to go to their place, I’m not a fan of that rule,” Tolleson said. “But if you’re going to advance in the playoffs you’re eventually going to have to win in hostile territory, so there’s no complaining on our end. We just want the Indians to be on top after 48 minutes.”
Stewart and Tolleson have known each other since just after the 2016 season, when Stewart guided Temple to a berth in the 5A Division I state championship game against Dallas Highland Park in his head coaching debut following two successful seasons with eight playoff wins as the defensive coordinator for then-Wildcats head coach Mike Spradlin.
Tolleson was the defensive coordinator at powerful Denton Ryan from 2014-20, but the Raiders’ playoff nemesis was Highland Park. After watching Temple’s defense limit the high-scoring Scots to 14 points in the Wildcats’ 16-7 loss at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, Tolleson contacted Stewart – they didn’t know each other previously – to pick his brain about how to defend Highland Park.
Ryan still lost to the Scots in the 5A Division I state semifinals in 2017 and 2018, but finally in 2020 the Raiders’ Tolleson-guided defense – employing some principles that Stewart had shared with Tolleson and Ryan's staff – shut down Highland Park 17-7 in a regional final and Ryan went on to capture the state championship at 15-0.
That success led to Tolleson getting his first head coaching opportunity at Waxahachie last year, and Tolleson and fellow defensive mind Stewart have formed a close friendship during the last five years.
“Scott is a solid human, and as a coach it’s always a tough time to go against (a friend),” Tolleson said. “Obviously you’re trying to win for your school, your program and your community, but we’re both competitive as all get-out and we have a lot of mutual respect for each other.”
Because of their friendship, Stewart felt comfortable giving Tolleson some good-natured guff when Waxahachie's coach voiced displeasure about his Indians having to return to Wildcat Stadium again this year.
“He’s like, ‘I understand the district championship thing, but that’s bullcrap that if you don’t win the district championship you still get to host just because you’re the higher seed,’” Stewart said, grinning. “And I said, ‘You weren’t saying that when you were at Denton Ryan hosting all those games.’ And he goes, ‘No, I wasn’t.’”
The Temple-Waxahachie winner will advance to the area round to battle the victor of Friday’s bi-district game between No. 18-ranked Rockwall (9-1) and Garland Sachse (4-6). The second-round game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Arlington’s Choctaw Stadium, the former Texas Rangers ballpark known as Globe Life Park.
With 799 all-time wins, two-time state champion Temple seeks to join Highland Park, Amarillo and Mart as the only Texas high schools to reach the 800-victory plateau.
Waxahachie has outscored opponents 373-196 this season, wrapping a pair of four-game winning streaks around back-to-back district road losses to 13th-ranked DeSoto and No. 3 Duncanville and No. 13 DeSoto by scores of 42-24 and 24-7, respectively. Waxahachie led Duncanville 7-0 at halftime and was tied 7-7 into fourth quarter before the Indians’ turnover-plagued final period helped the Panthers overtake them and pull away.
Waxahachie blasted last-place Dallas Skyline 49-21 last Thursday and averaged 37.5 points in its final four 11-6A games to secure third place.
Sparked by productive then-junior running backs Iverson Young (170 yards, one touchdown) and Jayden Becks (89 yards), Waxahachie rushed for 280 yards against Temple in last year’s playoff clash but passed for only 83 yards. Then-junior quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. missed several possessions after absorbing a forceful tackle in the first quarter from then-junior defensive end Jaylon Jackson and the hard-hitting Wildcats.
The Indians have maintained a similar approach this season, rushing for 197.7 yards per game while relying on the hard running of 5-foot-10, 190-pound seniors Becks (632 yards, eight touchdowns on 91 carries) and Young (482 yards, six TDs on 78 carries). Young is verbally committed to Louisiana Tech and Becks is a Houston Christian commitment.
“They’re almost exactly the same human being,” Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox said about Becks and Young. “They’re thick, they’re strong, they run well and run hard. We’re going to run our feet on contact. It was a physical game – one of our most physical games last year. We held on tight."
Jackson said the Wildcats’ defenders must be disciplined and sure tacklers against Waxahachie’s talented backfield, which has a propensity to cut back against the grain on outside stretch plays.
“They’ve got some good running backs, so we’ve got to hit low and play hard the whole game. Those boys are not going to let up,” said Jackson, who sacked Hartsfield for a 14-yard loss to seal Temple’s win. “I was just watching film (from last year), and we messed up two plays and those boys hit it for like 50 yards. Any time I messed up and went inside, he ran it outside and they hit it for big yards. So you’ve got to do everything right against them or they’re going to find a way to make some big runs if you mess up.”
The 6-2, 210-pound Hartsfield, an Alcorn State commitment, is an experienced dual-threat quarterback who’s passed for 939 yards and 10 TDs on 56-of-101 accuracy with six interceptions along with rushing for 331 yards and nine TDs.
“They hang their hat on the run and they’re going to live by the run. They do a pretty good job,” Stewart said. “Hartsfield is much improved. He slings the ball around and he’s a good quarterback. He got hurt pretty early in the game (last year) and it’s hard to be an effective passer when you’re hurt.”
Waxahachie has a dynamic alternative weapon in junior QB Ramon McKinney Jr., who’s passed for 248 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 274 yards and three TDs.
Utah State commitment Keith Abney II (19 catches, 396 yards, six touchdowns) and fellow fleet-footed senior De'Tyrian McCoy (24-355-2), a Northwestern State commitment, are the Indians’ big-play receivers whom Knox described as being dangerous in open space.
From Temple’s defensive perspective, Knox said the issue is not as much figuring out what Waxahachie wants to do as it is finding a way to play smart, solid football and limit the effectiveness of the Indians’ playmakers.
“They’re all there. It’s about the same thing from what they did last year. They don’t try to trick you a whole lot,” said Knox, whose defense allowed 301.3 total yards per game this regular season. “They’re going to try to control the ball, take care of the ball, control the clock and let their defense win the game. That’s the formula. Going through most of the games, they usually get a touchdown from their defense and/or special teams. They just try to play really, really good defense and don’t make many mistakes.”
Senior tackle Devionte Fuller-Dennis (6-1, 250) leads Waxahachie’s offensive line.
Stewart said Temple’s defense should have Jackson and fellow senior end Kevin Stockton back in the starting lineup after they missed recent time with injuries.
The Wildcats offense did what it wanted on the ground and through the air against overmatched Copperas Cove, but Temple is bracing for a much more strenuous test against Waxahachie’s tough-to-crack defensive unit. The Indians permitted a combined 16 points in their first three games and contained talent-laden Duncanville to seven points through three quarters.
Setting the tone for Waxahachie’s physical defense are its two senior cornerbacks in Abney – the only 6A two-way starter in the Metroplex, according to Tolleson – and Ohio State commitment Calvin Simpson-Hunt, a four-star recruit nicknamed “The Raptor” because of his size (6-0, 190) and aggressive style.
“They’re freakishly good. They’ve got a couple of 6-foot corners and I think all four secondary guys are back,” Stewart said. “‘The Raptor’ absolutely gets after it and he’s fun to watch. They do a lot of press (coverage) with their corners.”
Waxahachie’s top cornerbacks will be tested by Temple’s tandem of fast, big-play wide receivers in senior Mikal Harrison-Pilot (41 receptions, 838 yards, eight touchdowns) and sophomore Christian Tutson (23-594-8), who made two TD catches apiece last week against Cove. Harrison-Pilot also rushed for a touchdown and passed for one of Tutson's scores.
Temple junior quarterback Reese Rumfield has passed for 2,038 yards and 18 touchdowns in his second year as a starter, and rugged senior running back Deshaun Brundage eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the year a week ago.
Waxahachie’s defense also features two savvy senior inside linebackers in LaMarkus Reed (61 tackles, four sacks) and Corey King (61 tackles, five sacks), highly athletic junior end Jermy Jackson Jr. (36 tackles, 10 sacks) – who’s received six NCAA FBS offers – and a massive tackle in 6-foot, 280-pound sophomore Jacob Ervin (25 tackles, four forced fumbles).
Said Tolleson: “LaMarkus Reed and Corey King have been tremendous for us all year.”
Temple first-year offensive coordinator Robby Case said the Wildcats must execute their gameplan efficiently and avoid making costly mistakes in their win-or-go-home matchup against the skilled, well-balanced Waxahachie defense.
“They returned just about everybody and they’ve all improved. Their corners are two of the better corners we’ve played all season, and we’ve seen some good ones,” said Case, whose offense produced 373.4 yards per game for the regular season. “They’re physical. They try to keep everything in front of them, just like our defense does. They do a good job of that.
“Their D-line is really good. No. 0 (Ervin) is a big kid and reminds me of a bigger (version of former Temple end) Eric Shorter – high motor and quick twitch. And the two defensive ends (Jackson and junior Garren Mason Jr.) are long and fast.”
Case said Temple plans to utilize the versatile Harrison-Pilot in a multitude of ways – out wide, in the slot and in the backfield as well as on defense – in most likely the final career home game for him and fellow four-year starter York (team-leading 113 tackles).
“We’ll do whatever we’ve got to do, and we practice that. Mikal’s got some legs on him. We’re going to try to put these boys in the best chance to be successful, whatever that looks like,” said Stewart, who pointed out that Temple has the smallest enrollment of the 64 teams in the 6A Division I playoff bracket.
As Waxahachie aims to finally take down Temple in the Indians' third straight trek to Wildcat Stadium, Tolleson said the challenge facing his team Friday night certainly includes the Wildcats’ talent but also involves the fashion in which Temple plays the game.
“No. 5 (York) and No. 7 (Harrison-Pilot) are obviously playmakers,” Tolleson said, “but I would say what jumps out is how hard Coach Stewart gets his players to play.”
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