Three title games plus ten semifinals equals a weekend of great small-school action.
Tonight, the first public school champion of 2012 will be crowned at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Tomorrow, two more champs in the six-man ranks will hoist the hardware. By the end of this weekend, every ticket to Cowboys Stadium will be punched.
It's a fun time to be a Texas high school football fan.
Once again, we're lucky enough to have Leman Saunders of the incomparable SixManFootball.com previewing the six-man action, as he previews both the state championship games this weekend in Abilene. Click here to read Leman's terrific previews.
Without further ado, here are your Class 3A, 2A and 1A previews for the state semifinals (and, in the case of our first game, state finals).
3A Division I State Championship
Stephenville vs. El Campo, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Cowboys Stadium
Our first public school state championship game comes tonight at Cowboys Stadium, and it’s a battle of 4A dropdowns. Both Stephenville and El Campo downsized from Class 4A last year, and have run roughshod over 3A all year long, with El Campo mounting a fantastic unbeaten season and Stephenville toppling every team they’ve faced since their stunning Week Zero loss to Monterrey Prepa Tec out of Mexico. But while they’ve ended up at Cowboys Stadium, they’ve taken different routes to get here. For Stephenville, while the defense has been good, it’s all about the offense, with QB Tyler Jones, WR Brice Gunter and RB Witt Westbrook hitting a different gear in the playoffs to turn the Yellowjackets from “contender” into “juggernaut.” For El Campo, it’s almost the opposite. While the offense has been strong – especially QB Bryce Brandl, one of 3A’s more underappreciated signal-callers, and that big Trey Martin-led offensive line – the reason the Ricebirds are in their first title game since 1967 is defense. Between Cole Hunt and Brett Prihoda, El Campo doesn’t give you much room to breathe, let alone operate. And that’s the tasty matchup here: strength on strength, Stephenville’s offense against El Campo’s defense. I think the Ricebirds will be able to get their share of points, but ultimately, I think this one comes down to whether or not Stephenville can continue their incredible offensive run. If Stephenville gets to 35 points, I think they win; if not, it’s anybody’s ballgame. Regardless, this is a fitting end to what has been an exceptional playoffs in this bracket.
Tepper’s pick: Stephenville 36, El Campo 27
Class 3A Division II State Semifinals
Graham vs. Gilmer, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Mansfield
A while back, I stopped underestimating Gilmer. Probably around the time they beat Kilgore to grab the District 16-3A crown. But if there’s any team in the state that knows about being underestimated, it’s Graham. The Steers are, on a statewide level, largely unknown, despite the fact that they harbor one of Texas’ most extraordinary quarterbacks in Ben Davis. Couple that with a strong running game thanks to Dillon Gonzales and a defense, anchored by Spur Hearne and Hunter Walls, that is holding opponents to fewer than 15 points per game, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re here. But now they face Gilmer, a team riding a 12-game winning streak, and that can score in bunches with QB Tanner Barr and RB Kris Boyd (both underclassmen, mind you). It’s a matter of which team gets stops, and while the numbers may point to Graham, I feel like Gilmer’s run a tougher gauntlet. That puts them over the top in my mind.
Tepper’s pick: Gilmer 38, Graham 31
Navasota vs. Bellville, 7 p.m. Friday, Waller
On the Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Radio Hour (check your local radio listings for air times in your neck of the woods!), managing editor Travis Stewart totally called me out on one of my idiosyncrasies: when I start off saying really nice things about a team, that means I’m going to pick against them. So, let me say some nice things about Bellville. This defense is really…really…really good. With Chance Riden, Cal Wood and Kamm Coker, this Brahmas defense can fly around and make plays. The offense ain’t bad, either, not when QB Kyle Fuchs is going right. But right now, there may not be a team peaking more than Navasota. QB Kadarius Baker, along with his wide receivers Solomon McGinty and Austin Collins, are making me run out of adjectives. Need proof? Last week, they hung 38 points on a West Orange-Stark team that had given up 42 points all season. How do you describe that? It boggles the mind. Right now, it’s going to take a super-special effort to slow down this Rattlers offense. I’m not saying Bellville can’t do it – they certainly have the talent – but at this point, my pick is with Navasota.
Tepper’s pick: Navasota 42, Bellville 24
Class 2A Division I State Semifinals
Wall vs. Daingerfield, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Waco ISD Stadium
I mean…somebody’s got to stop one of these offenses, right? At some point? Maybe? Wall’s running game, led by RB Grant Eubank and QB Luke Dacy (but enabled by a monstrous offensive line), has been a boulder rolling downhill for a while now. See: 48 points hung on Eastland last week. But Daingerfield…well, they’ve got weapons, too. Coach Aric Sardinea’s squad pulled off a thrilling win over New Boston, thanks to Edwin Mims’ 70-yard punt return for a touchdown with a minute left, and that’s just the beginning, what with QB Keris Alexander and Cordarius Anderson providing ample support. This one, as it usually is in the playoffs, is about who plays the better defense. Right now, I think Daingerfield has the momentum and that should win the day, but this is truly a razor’s edge-type game.
Tepper’s pick: Daingerfield 38, Wall 35
Newton vs. Cameron Yoe, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Shenandoah’s Woodforest Stadium
To call this a clash of the titans is, I think, appropriate. Cameron Yoe has been our wire-to-wire No. 1 team in 2A Division I, and with QB Jason Kopriva and a stifling defense anchored by NG Edgar Luna and LB Somari Wright, they’ve given no reason to relinquish that top spot. But Newton is a team that has come closest to forcing its way into the No. 1 discussion, and since the playoffs hit, it seems like they’ve been taking it personally. Get this: the Eagles have scored 199 points in their first three playoff games. That’s a whopping 66 points per contest. And they’re doing it primarily on the ground with Kevin Shorter and Brandon Johnson (though having D.J. Dean, their outstanding quarterback, as a secondary option is an embarrassment of riches). Can Yoe, which features one of the finest front sevens in 2A, slow down Newton? Moreover, can Newton slow down Yoe? You could argue that Kopriva, WR Colton Shuffield and RB Keaton Denio represent the finest offensive unit Newton has faced in a long while. And there’s a reason why Yoe is undefeated and ranked No. 1; they’re the team to beat. There are so many moving parts in this game, so many things that can go so many different ways, that I fear that as soon as I write a prediction, I’ll want to take back the words. But I must predict, now mustn’t I?
Tepper’s pick: Newton 34, Cameron Yoe 33
Class 2A Division II State Semifinals
Sonora vs. Corsicana Mildred, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Marble Falls
This is a sneaky-fun matchup for small-school nerds like myself. Sonora, a team that has always defined itself by its defense, is at it again, with tackling machine Chance Campbell, edge-rusher Damon Evans and ballhawk Brett Castillo helping the Broncos allow a mere 15.5 points per game. But Corsicana Mildred? Oh boy, you’d better strap up defensively, because QB Nic Shimonek and RB Draylon Sterling can be up 21 points before you blink. That matchup – Sonora’s defense trying to shut down Mildred’s offense – will be the intrigue. Unfortunately for Sonora, Mildred’s defense, led by Sterling and the incredible Jeremy Ballard (who has eleven interceptions on the year), should provide enough cushion in case the offense should sputter.
Tepper’s pick: Corsicana Mildred 36, Sonora 24
Elysian Fields vs. East Bernard, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Waco’s Floyd Casey Stadium
So here’s Hughes Springs taking on Refugio…wait, what? Believe it: these two upstarts helped to stun the 2A world and take out heavy favorites last year with – what else? – defense. Sure, East Bernard piling 50+ on Refugio last week, thanks in large part to the sensational QB Ty Slanina (a name you should remember), but what impressed me most was the defense, more or less shutting down the Bobcats offense after halftime. But while it lacked the statewide jaw-drop appeal, Elysian Fields’ win over Hughes Springs last week was just as impressive, holding the Mustangs almost 200 yards under their season average while QB Trevor Spear and the offense did the rest in a 21-14 win. Now a clash of the surprises, and you have to think that a slight edge lies with East Bernard and their explosive offense. That’s the biggest advantage that exists in this game, but then again, LB Tanner Norman and Elysian Fields are used to facing explosive offenses. If EF can neutralize Slanina and the Brahmas offense, the rest of the game becomes a toss-up. But slowing down the TCU commit is easier said than done.
Tepper’s pick: East Bernard 32, Elysian Fields 21
Class 1A Division I State Semifinals
Stamford vs. Italy, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Mineral Wells
For the most part, you could say that three of the four 1A DI state semifinalists were predictable. The exception to that: Italy. You can’t say enough about the job that Hank Hollywood has done with the Gladiators, but even more importantly than the coaching has been their peaking at the right time. The defense is a veritable brick wall right now, holding Goldthwaite to just 150 total yards during last week’s 14-3 slobberknocker. It also helps to have QB Marvin Cox and RB Ryheem Walker to guide the offense. Does the Gladiators’ defense have another lights-out performance in them? They’ll need it, because Class 1A Division I’s best overall player – Stamford QB/DB Hagen Hutchinson – looms. For those unfamiliar with Hutchinson’s work, consider: 2,607 yards, 41 TDs passing against just 5 interceptions; 1,358 yards, 22 TDs rushing; 90 tackles, which ranks sixth on the team; a forced fumble; and a 43.5 yard punting average to boot. He’s among Texas’ most complete threats, and that’s not even to mention WR James Washington, a big play threat of the highest order, or Daniel Medina and Ty McLemore, the leaders of a defense allowing just 13 points per game despite taking on the likes of Munday, Merkel, Colorado City, Cisco, Quanah and Tahoka. With Mason making an exit, the door is wide open for someone to establish themselves as the new 1A DI favorite. Both of these teams have that chance. And let’s put it this way: if Italy beats Stamford – a sincere possibility – the phrase “team of destiny” will need to enter our lexicon in heavy rotation.
Tepper’s pick: Stamford 31, Italy 24
Mart vs. Shiner, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Round Rock
In order to get to this point, I believe that every team has to have at least one unit that they feel is elite, that can stake a claim to being one of the best in their classification. The reason I’m writing that is because Mart’s offense is off the charts, and Shiner’s defense is remarkable. Let’s start with Mart, as coach Rusty Nail’s Panthers hung 62 on Alto last week thanks to a record night from QB De’Nerian Thomas, carrying 18 times for 285 yards and seven touchdowns – seven touchdowns – in the win last week. And Shiner’s defense might have been even more impressive, putting the clamps to defending champ Mason to the tune of 221 total yards, and just 106 yards rushing (not just a season-low, but far, far below the previous season-low). So, there’s that aspect of the game. But what about the other side? Mart’s defense certainly looked beatable last week, allowing 406 yards and 42 points to Alto last week. And Shiner’s offense wasn’t much to write home about, despite getting touchdown runs from Evel Jones and Trevion Flowers to salt the game away. More than anything, whoever can get their non-elite unit in gear first will have the upper hand here. A game that could truly go either way.
Tepper’s pick: Mart 34, Shiner 30
Class 1A Division II
Wellington vs. Munday, 7 p.m. Friday, Mineral Wells
I already previewed this game in Tepper’s Take, but let’s dive a little bit deeper into this one, shall we? All eyes are on the offensive weapons in this matchup – Dee Paul for Munday, Klark Ashmore and Terry Gilbreath for Wellington – but what about the defenses? The Moguls’ defense has been lights-out, holding the likes of Stamford, Albany (twice!) and Holliday below their season averages, and Ryder Cude and Dewayne Castorena are a big reason why. For Wellington, well, it’s much the same way. Edgar Tellez and Corey Black have been phenomenal for the Skyrockets, and while its numbers aren’t as jaw-dropping as Munday’s, it’s a very solid unit. Both defenses will have its hands full, but to me, Munday holds a very slight edge on both offense and defense. In the cumulative, I think that will result in a Moguls victory.
Tepper’s pick: Munday 49, Wellington 34
Tenaha vs. Falls City, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Cypress’ Berry Center
If there’s a game this week that I’ve hemmed and hawed, gone back and forth on the most, it’s this one, simply because there appear to be an infinite amount of plausible outcomes. The last two state champions tangle in a game that, I think, will ultimately be determined by pace. Falls City is going to try to slow the game down. That’s not to say that dual-threat QB Cameron Soto can’t hurt you – quite the contrary – but the Beavers are at their best when they’re grinding out opponents, leaning on the defense of Eric Wiatrek and Colton Beam instead of needing to outscore opponents. For Tenaha, fast ain’t fast enough for them. The Tigers are going to try to get out in space with RB Chavis Gregory, hit the Beavers over the top with QB Junior Hill to Keontas Davis, and use their terrific speed to their advantage. It’s not quite this simple, but if this game’s in the 30s, you have to like Tenaha’s chances, as that means they’ll have broken through the Falls City defense. If it’s below that, Falls City’s defensive firewall will have held, and the Beavers hold the advantage. Tons of intrigue here.
Tepper’s pick: Tenaha 31, Falls City 28
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.