Stamford Practice Monday Afternoon
It was a very busy day for me. I woke up in Abilene, went over to Abilene High to meet with Coach Warren, then drive up to Throckmorton to say hi to Greyhound coach Mike Reed, Then back over to Stamford to watch their practice.
Today’s practice reminded me of a big reason the Bulldogs are playing in their third straight championship Thursday. It’s one thing to hold an efficient, well-organized practice with 15 coaches, fill JV scout teams and an army of support personnel, it’s another to do it with five. Stamford just does so much with so few. Though only on the field around 90 minutes, almost every minute was well used.
It’s a fitting day to release my next excerpt, one detailing the Bulldogs championship run of 2012.
…In his final pre-game talk, Hutchinson tells his squad, “I am so proud to be back here, this is a special time for me, I’ve got two boys in this program…that live under my roof that I’m getting to enjoy this game with…but every one of you are my boys. I love every one of you the same because you have committed to this program and you have done everything we’ve asked you to do for seven years and you’ve bought into it and you’ve believed in us and we’ve believed in you, and you have done some great things for Stamford, Texas.”
His voice rising, Hutchinson reminds them of the fundamental skills they need to come out on top. He asks them to close their eyes and visualize carrying the ball correctly, reading keys, getting to their drops and throwing great blocks. Then he talks about toughness.
“Effort and desire, the guy that can endure the most pain, the one that has the most desire in his heart, is going to walk off that field State Champions tonight.” A major theme for the season was “No Regrets” and he finishes by telling his players that if they can walk off the field tonight without any regrets they will be champions.
Around 10,000 fans are in the lower two levels of the stadium as the game begins. Audra Arendall from the Stamford Star tells me that many of the Munday fans had stuck around, changing from their black Munday tee shirts into Blue Stamford ones to support their West Texas neighbor. Both teams had played the previous year in opposite order, and in 2011, Stamford fans had done the same thing. Regional pride means a lot in this state and the area is proud of having two teams among the 1A elite.
The game doesn’t go well for the Bulldogs early. Mart takes a 6-0 lead on their first offensive play, a 70 yard touchdown pass from D’Nerian Thomas to Quentin Bryant. The Bulldogs come right back on a beautiful pass to James Washington in the left corner of the end zone from nine yards out to go up 7-6. The lead’s short-lived; Mart goes back on top 14-7 when Thomas scores from four yards out after an 11 play drive. The Panthers extend their lead to 21-7 early in the second quarter on a six yard run by running back D’Marcus Cosby.
The first pivotal play of the game comes on the ensuing possession. After a sack and an incomplete pass, the Bulldogs face third and 22 from their own 25 yard line. It’s still early but the game is in danger of getting away from Stamford. Mart is outstanding on both sides of the ball, and despite having only 28 players, they’re a complete team with none of the weaknesses of Stamford’s earlier opponents. On offense, Thomas, Cosby and Bryant give the Panthers three tough weapons, and the Bulldog defense has its hands full. If the Bulldogs don’t find a way to convert and lengthen this drive they could be in big trouble.
Hutchinson lofts a nice touch pass to Isaiah Llewellyn for the first down. On the tackle, Mart’s safety grabs Llewellyn’s facemask tacking on an additional 15 and suddenly the Bulldogs have the ball with a fresh set of downs on Mart’s 34 yard line. Six plays later, Washington goes high in the air and makes a one handed grab in the left corner to close the score to 21-13 with 7:46 left in the half. Later that night, Washington’s circus catch is featured on ESPN’s Sportscenter.
The Bulldogs’ defense stiffens and the next two Panther drives falter. Stamford has a chance to score before the half but sloppy play stops the Bulldogs at the 10 and they go into the half trailing 21-13. Neither team has been in a battle like this for a long time; both are exhausted. Hutchinson spoke about enduring pain during pre-game, and by the half, its clear this ability will be a factor in the outcome.
The fire-everyone-up Knute Rockne halftime speech is mostly a myth. In most cases, halftime’s a time to rest, assess whatever happened in the first half, fix mistakes and make adjustments to the gameplan; any rah-rah stuff is probably a sign of desperation. The mood is calm and focused in the locker room during halftime and I leave the field feeling that the Bulldogs had dodged a bullet during the first half. There’s a confidence among players and coaches that they’ve weathered the storm and the game is right there for them; as long as they play as they’ve been coached. Coach McLemore tells the defense, “They couldn’t have scripted a better first half, it couldn’t have went any better for them and they’re still hanging by a thread…everybody wants a ring, everybody talks the talk but it’s another thing to beat a good football team at the state finals in Cowboy Stadium. We’re fixin’ to do that. You’re the better team, that’s the bottom line.”
Halfway through the third quarter, Hagen Hutchinson shows one of the reasons he was named 1A player of the year earlier this week. On a quarterback sweep to the right, he’s nearly brought down in the backfield, breaks the tackle and two more on a 43-yard touchdown run. A slant to Dalton Mathis on the two point conversion ties the game at 21.
It took a while but the crowd is finally getting into the game. 10,000 is a great crowd for a 1A game, but it’s swallowed up in an 80,000 seat stadium. Early on, the video board takes some of the focus away from the field.
The momentum has clearly switched sides and it feels like it’s now Stamford’s game. Mart is talented, but with so few players and so many playing both ways, they’re starting to look tired. Stamford has taken control, but the Panthers show they have a lot of fight left. The hitting is intense considering the fatigue. Both squads play very clean and show each other a lot of respect, usually helping their opponents up after hard hits. The Panthers burn most of the rest of the third quarter on a 12 play drive, retaking the lead, 28-21 with a one yard touchdown run by Thomas with 31 seconds remaining in the third.
The Bulldogs come back quickly. On the first play of the fourth quarter Hutchinson completes a 58 yard pass to Bo Wimberly, moving the ball to the Mart 14. Llewellyn scores on a jet sweep from the eight to tie the score at 28.
It is still anybody’s game, but both teams are exhausted. A 15 -game season is long for schools this size and it’s taking its toll tonight. Players are picking themselves off the ground more slowly and taking knees to catch their breath during any break. This kind of battle isn’t something seen in the bigger classifications, where personnel groups and separate offensive and defensive units guarantee fresh players. The outcome will come down to who can overcome fatigue and maintain their intensity and execute during the final 11 minutes…