By BRAD KEITH
MANSFIELD (December 1, 2017) — Winning in December is special.
So Stephenville called on its special teams.
Cole Pettit preserved a 31-28 Region I-4A Division I semifinal victory with his second deflected Argyle field goal attempt. A lower than usual delivery was all the advantage the senior defensive back needed to lay and get his finger tips on a ball that fluttered away just low and right.
He blocked one in the first half, too, and Chase Carrillo blocked a punt. As explosive as the Argyle punt return unit looked at times, the Eagles also lost a muffed punt when Gage Graham pounced on a ball the Eagle return specialist touched but did not gather in.
“On plays like that it’s just whatever it takes,” said Pettit. “That’s the attitude of our whole team right now. We’re going to go all out doing whatever it takes to keep winning and keep moving on.”
Pettit said before the playoffs began Stephenville was out to make a statement after two down seasons in which they were 7-15 and could not make it past the area round.
Now they’re on their way to a regional final and state quarterfinal.
“It’s just Yellow Jacket football. We have great coaches who prepare us for each game and we just go out there and play as hard as we can do what ever it takes, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.
Head coach Greg Winder said his team never acted like underdogs at any point in their preparation for the big game. Their confidence was boosted by scoring first.
“That was huge, because that’s a great football team we just beat, and it’s not one you want to play from behind against because they just seem to really pile it on in a hurry once they get going,” said Winder, who after a rugged first two years as head coach is now 18-17 overall. “I’m just so proud of our kids for the way they have worked all year, the way they have prepared for every phase of the game and for the way they are representing our school. Hopefully we can keep it going again next week.”
Derron Williams scored all four Eagle touchdowns, but was run down on a nice pursuit angle by Pettit when it appeared he may go the distance with a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute.
Besides the game-saving tackle and blocked field goals, Pettit also snared his sixth interception of the season in the end zone to prevent an Eagle touchdown. Pettit took up to 13 Argyle points right out of the sky before they ever made it to the giant scoreboard and jumbotron towering above the south end zone at beautiful Vernon Newsom Stadium on a crisp, clear and beautiful night for high school football.
Especially for the Stephenville faithful, whose team never looked overmatched by the undefeated and highly-rated Eagles. Just one week prior, Argyle was beating Levelland 59-0 at halftime. It was just two years ago Levelland beat Stephenville in an area playoff.
But the Jackets sent set the tone with a defensive three-and-out to begin the game and a series of punishing runs off left tackle on their initial possession. Once the Eagles adjusted, sliding a linebacker over to add bodies on that side, the Yellow Jackets pitched one wide the other way and Nowak broke off a big gain to set up the first of his two touchdowns.
The junior galloped 156 yards and didn’t just begin the Stephenville scoring, but ended it, too. The big bodies on the Stephenville offensive line stood up most the night against the quickness of an Argyle defensive line that boasted of jaw-dropping tackle for loss counts entering the round three matchup, and just past the midway point of the fourth quarter, the line gave Nowak a hole right up the middle on a trap play. The slight misdirection took the linebackers out of position and the safeties couldn’t converge in the middle of the field fast enough.
A 64-yard sprint to the end zone put an exclamation point on the second-highest scoring performance against the Eagles. Celina scored 34 against them, but Celina didn’t win. Stephenville did, and it could been worse. Easton Jones was 16-27 for 260 yards and two touchdowns to Blake Aragon. Kyle Lindsey caught what he thought was a TD on what everyone assumed was the final play of the first half.
A penalty for illegal man downfield wiped out the touchdown, and Stephenville went into the locker room up 14-7 instead or even 24-7, as Carrillo did miss a first-half field goal before making one in the second half.
The Jackets didn’t let the negated TD take away their momentum, coming out of the locker room confident and ready to shine light on a glaring mismatch. Jones, who is 48-65 passing in the playoffs, went to Aragon for 22 yards and then for 36 and a score. Just like that, after only two plays, Stephenville finally could officially enjoy the two-touchdown lead the Jackets thought they had taken 30 minutes prior.
“There is no doubt those guys are playing at the highest level they have ever played, and they aren’t the only ones. Our guys up front are playing the best they’ve played, our skill guys on offense are doing a great job, our linebackers, you don’t want to mess with those guys and then in the secondary, special teams, everywhere,” he said. “I mean, this was a total team win, and it took us starting to peak here at the right time to do that.”
Aragon had already scored the second Jacket touchdown in the first half, and later in the second he continued exposing his big size advantage as a frustrated Eagle defensive back was flagged on back-to—back plays for interference, and appeared to even more-clearly deserve a penalty on the very nexst play but officials elected not to give Argyle three consecutive calls.
Not for long, though.
Williams got his turn and scored, answering Stephenville’s memo that the Eagles were about to be tested like never before, with one saying the Eagles wouldn’t give up their perfect record or season so easily.
And so both pressed on.
Carillo was good on his second field goal attempt to restore the two-possession lead, but Argyle sent Williams to the end zone again. He scored three times on the ground and once after catching a pass out of the backfield. The Eagles were limited to 326 total yards, about 160 less than their season average.
Aragon’s big run made it 31-21 after Carrillo’s fourth PAT, but Williams by this point knew the way to the end zone all too well and was soon visiting there once more.
For Argyle, it was still once too few.
Stephenville drove to the Argyle 30 and needed just one more first down to end the game. But a bit of indecision then an incomplete pass play on fourth down gave it back to the Eagles.
Two pass plays moved Argyle to midfield and the Eagles suddenly looked like the offensive juggernaut that had been scoring at will all season. Even more so moments later when Williams broke loose sprinting down the Eagle sideline. But Pettit and Gage Graham took the right angles to get there, and the Jackets were all over the talented Eagle back on the ensuing first and goal play.
Pettit almost ended the game on second down, but a receiver managed to get just enough of the ball to keep the lockdown ace from pulling his second pick.
Instead, he got a second block.
And just like that, a team many had penciled in as their favorite in 4A Division I is gone. And a traditional powerhouse eager to continue to prove they have put two disappointing seaons behind them is moving on with what their head coach calls their Gold Ball Huntin’ Tour.
That tour’s next stop is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, December 8, at Rangers Stadium on the campus of Fort Worth Chisholm Trail High School. Meeting them there will be Wichita Falls Hirschi, the runner up behind Argyle in District-4A, which had three of the four semifinalists in the region. Hirschi beat Decatur for a second time, winning 58-28 in Denton.
It was the first-ever meeting between the two programs, both widely acknowledged as titans in the sport. Stephenville has five state championships and is heading to the quarterfinals for the 16th time since 1990. Argyle, meanwhile, lost heartbreakers in the 2014 and 2015 4A Division I championships, 42-35 after a second overtime against Navasota then 33-31 to Waco La Vega. The Eagles won a 3A Division II championship in 2013, the year after Stephenville captured its fifth title in 3A Division I in 2012. The Eagles’ lost to Wimberley in the 2011 3A Division I final, but they were just beginning to soar, reaching the championship four times in five years.
The pursuit of a fifth trip there in seven years is done in Argyle. But in Stephenville, the Yellow Jackets are still gold ball huntin’, with two more left to get before playing for a sixth state title.