By BRAD KEITH
Photos by RUSSELL HUFFMAN
(December 1, 2014) — Strangers will meet on the gridiron Friday, but that wasn’t always the case for state powers Stephenville and Graham.
The 4A Division I Region I championship and state quarterfinal kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Ram Stadium in Mineral Wells. The winner faces Argyle or Texarkana Liberty-Eylau in next week’s semifinals.
Though they haven’t met since a district contest in 1997, Stephenville and Graham once had a longstanding back-and-forth rivalry. The schools have met in football 32 times dating back to 1924 and even played 20 consecutive years from 1970 to 1989.
Seventh-year Stephenville head coach Joe Gillespie played in the 1988 and 1989 games when current Baylor head coach and Maxwell Award finalist Art Briles was in his first two years at SHS. Graham defeated the Jackets and Gillespie 9-7 in 1988, but Stephenville got its revenge with a 31-0 rout in 1989.
“Even back then, the communities and the kids were so similar that we were naturally pretty evenly matched,” said Gillespie, a linebacker at Stephenville, then Angelo State. “I remember the game in 1988 because it was one of Coach Briles’ first games, and it was a defensive struggle. We got the best of them the next year, though.”
The schools are still quite familiar with one another based on proximity – it’s 82.4 miles from SHS to GHS, according to Google Driving Maps – and competitions in other sports. The schools share a volleyball district, have met in girls basketball and had recent playoff confrontations in boys basketball and baseball. The 7-on-7 teams have had run-ins, and Graham quarterback Landry Turner lost in the area round to Stephenville when he played for Springtown last year.
But none of that has helped to bring the full football teams back together. Such a measure took an act by the UIL, dividing 4A into two pre-determined divisions.
“We’ve always talked to Graham and to Coach (Kenny) Davidson about playing, but there were always so many circumstances in the way. We were so close to the 3A-4A line for so long, we didn’t know if we would be in the same district, so that kept us from ever really making concrete plans for an early season game until it was too late,” Gillespie explained. “We talked about playing opening week this year, but we both knew in advance we were going to be 4A Division I and we both knew it was only a matter of time before we crossed paths in the playoffs so we kind of shied away from it.”
Many anticipated a Division I playoff meeting between the successful programs last season. But because Wichita Falls Hirschi and Burkburnett both made the playoffs and had a larger enrollment than Graham, the Steers entered the Division II bracket and the old foes avoided each other for the 16th consecutive season. They each reached the semifinals in their respective brackets.
It’s not as if anyone planned for the once robust rivalry to fade away. Graham slipped to 3A long before Stephenville, which dropped from the old 4A in the 2012-13 realignment. The Jackets won their fifth state title without seeing Graham in 2012.
So evenly matched were the programs in the 1970s and 80s that Graham won 10 times, Stephenville nine and there was one tie during a stretch of 20 straight meetings. The overall series is dead even – Graham 16 wins, Stephenville 16 and the lone tie.
“Of course our biggest rivalry game every year was Brownwood, but Graham was the team we played every year that we were the most competitive with,” Gillespie said. “It was always so back and forth with them, and I imagine it would be similar to that if we played every year now.”
Stephenville won the last three meetings by wide margins – 31-0 in 1989, 41-18 in 1996 and 37-13 in 1997. But Graham owns the longest winning streak in the series – six straight from 1953-1970 – and the widest margin of victory – 54-0 in 1955.
The teams have met just once in the playoffs, and it was a rematch of a regular season game. Stephenville swept Graham in 1952, winning 20-13 in the regular season and 25-13 in the playoffs. That Yellow Jacket team lost only to Terrell, 28-6. Terrell won the 2A state championship, defeating Yoakum 61-13 in the final.
There was one forfeit in the series by Graham in 1951.
Graham has never captured a state title. The Steers did reach the 3A Division II final in 2009, dropping a 13-12 nail biter to Carthage. The Steers lost in bi-district to Snyder in 2010 and 2011 before reaching the Division II semifinals in 2012 and 2013.
Stephenville is in the quarterfinals for the sixth time in seven seasons under Gillespie, who is 22-5 in the playoffs.
Gillespie believes the programs are just as evenly matched entering Friday’s all-important showdown.
“We have similar communities, similar schools, great kids and great coaching staffs,” he said. “It’s going to be a great night of Texas high school football Friday.”
Here is the history between Stephenville and Graham:
1924: Stephenville 17-0
1946: Graham 26-12
1950: Stephenville 15-13
1951: Stphenville 1-0 (forfeit)
1952: Stephenville 20-13
*1952: Stephenville 25-13
1953: Graham 28-7
1954: Graham 12-6
1955: Graham 54-0
1962: Graham 34-8
1963: Graham 17-0
1970: Graham 31-17
1971: Stephenville 18-7
1972: Graham: 24-12
1973: Stephenville 21-15
1974: Graham 21-13
1975: Graham 40-2
1976: Stephenville 14-12
1977: Stephenville 17-14
1978: Graham 40-6
1979: Stephenville 36-34
1980: Stephenville 29-7
1981: Graham 14-7
1982: Stephenville 30-8
1983: Graham 12-0
1984: Graham 6-0
1985: Tie 0-0
1986: Graham 32-6
1987: Stephenville 21-7
1988: Graham 9-7
1989: Stephenville 31-0
1996: Stephenville 41-18
1997: Stephenville 31-13
*-Indicates playoff game
Source: Cody Derrick, StephenvilleYellowJackets.com