Arlington, Texas–It all comes down to this.
At 8 p.m. Friday night in what many consider the grandest sporting venue in all the country, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, the Aledo Bearcats and La Marque Cougars will square off for a chance to add yet another championship trophy to their already crowded trophy cases in the UIL 4A Region III Division II State Championship Game in Texas high school football action.
“We’re extremely excited,” said Aledo head coach Tim Buchanan. “There’s nothing better than playing football in December, especially on December 17 [the date of the 4A D-II State Championship Game].”
For the Aledo (15-0), a school just west of Forth Worth, it’s a chance to smell the sweet success they concluded last year with, which finished as a 15-1 state championship season.
A tradition rich program, the Bearcats have had 17 straight winning seasons, 15 consecutive 8-win seasons and playoff appearances, have made 28 playoff appearances all time (58-25 in 83 games, 69.8%), had 13 10-win seasons in the last 15 years, advanced to the State Quarterfinals every year since 2002 except 2008 and have advanced to four state championship games (including this year).
But La Marque’s tradition is also not one to be easily dismissed. La Marque (11-3), located 45 minutes or so south of Downtown Houston and 15 minutes north of Galveston, has advanced to the State Quarterfinals 15 of the last 19 seasons, including six consecutive 4A state championship games from 1993-98 which featured the Cougars winning three straight titles from 1995-97. Aside from a 24-18 Area round (second round) upset loss to Forest Brook in 2001, any team hoping to win the 4A Region III (and as of 1996, Division II) championship had to go through La Marque to do so from 1992-2006.
La Marque head coach Darrell Jordan has sought to emulate what was done by head coaches before him since he became head coach of the program in 2007.
“I felt I wanted to accomplish the same thing Alan Weddell and Bryan Erwin accomplished and that’s to win a state championship,” he said.
The current Cougars are led by Tim Wright, a dynamic Dave Campbell’s Texas Football First Team 4A All-State running back who has overcome injuries to both of his ankles to rediscover his agility and elusiveness that made him among the more feared rushers in all of the state earlier in the season before the ailments nearly derailed what has turned out to be a 2,000-plus yard rushing season. He is the first La Marque back to accomplish the feat.
But with Wright breaking down toward the end of the regular season and into the early rounds of the playoffs, it required quarterback Mandy Williams and his receivers to step up and help carry the load. Williams has responded, throwing for 225, 244, and 244 yards and a combined 9 TD’s in games against Dayton, Manvel and Corpus Christi Calallen respectively in the last three rounds of the playoffs.
“Mandy came of age when Tim went down,” Jordan said after the State Semifinal win over Calallen. “It [was a blessing in disguise] because now Mandy is a leader–now we’re running and throwing the football and we’ve found that we’re a well balanced football team now.”
The Bearcats, who run a no huddle Spread offense, are led by Johnathan Gray, also a Dave Campbell’s First Team All-State running back who has rushed for 2,898 yards and 51 TD’s this season. Additionally, their quarterback is Matthew Bishop, who has thrown for 2,781 yards and 34 TD’s against only 7 interceptions.
“Gray is the best running back in the State of Texas,” said Jordan.
But none of it would be possible without the team’s offensive line, however.
Most prominent among them is Michael Wilson, a 6′ 5″ 245 Junior and yet another First Team All-State selection who is considered the best on the entire line.
“If the [offensive line doesn’t] have a good night, our quarterback and running backs won’t have a good night either,” Buchanan said.
He also felt that on offense, they must block well and hold onto their blocks as best possible at all positions because of La Marque’s speed and playmaking ability on defense.
Also crucial to their success will be starting defensive tackles Cody Brooks and Danny Edwards because they will be needed to disrupt La Marque’s offensive attack, which is almost identical to the Bearcats’ no huddle, Spread Offense.
“They have to put pressure on the middle of La Marque’s offensive line,” Buchanan said.
Jordan felt that the the Cougars need not stray from what they have been doing and continue to execute in order to have the best shot to win.
“We have to stay consistent on offense, defense and special teams,” he said.
The Cougars defense is paced by playmakers Antonio Wright of the defensive line and linebacker Ken Butler, who is known for making huge plays and smashing hits. The pair are the other First Team All-State selections on either team.
Buchanan feels that in order for Aledo to put itself in the best position to win from a defensive perspective, they must finish tackles on defense, not allow the Cougars to break them and create long gains with their speed. Last week, Wright scored touchdowns of 72 and 74 yards after nearly being taken down long before reaching the end zone.
“We have to get people to the football, try wrap them up, and hang on to them until we can get other people to help bring them down,” he said. “They’re very difficult ball carriers, whether they’re a wide receiver or running back.
“La Marque’s kids are very hard to get on the ground.”
He also felt that on offense, they must block well and hold onto their blocks as best possible because of La Marque’s speed on defense.
Aledo is 2-1 all time in state championship games and 1-0 in the 4A UIL classification. In 1974, they fell to Grapeland 19-18 as a 1A team. In 1998, they defeated Cuero 14-7 for their first state title as a 3A (Division I) team and did it again last year in a win 35-21 over Brenham as a 4A (Division II) team.
La Marque is 5-4 all-time in state championship games, including 5-3 as a 4A team. The Cougars lost to Plano 24-7 in 1986 as a 5A school, fell to Stephenville 26-13 and 32-17 from 1994-95; won 31-8, 34-3 and 17-0 over Denison from 1995-97, lost to Stephenville again 34-7 in 1998, won 43-35 (3 OT) over Denton Ryan in 2003 and denied Waco High School their first title since 1948 when La Marque beat them 34-14 in 2006. The first four listed happened before the UIL mandated a split of divisions for the playoffs in that particular classification while the rest happened in Division II of the 4A playoffs.
This will be the first meeting between the schools but not the first time that Buchanan has encountered the Cougars during a playoff run. Previously, he was a coach at College Station’s A&M Consolidated and his Tigers eliminated the Cougars from the 1992 Region III Finals 31-7, the year generally marked as the beginning of La Marque’s run as a dominant program, 1986 notwithstanding.
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