District 12-6A

District 12-6A’s Hewitt Midway, Temple, Belton and Copperas Cove trudged into the Class 6A playoffs last November with a combined regular–season record of 30-9.

Neither of the four had more than three losses, even though the climb to reach the postseason wasn’t easy. Each had at least one league outcome decided by a touchdown or less. They played meaningful games and were tested throughout, in one way or another.

Awaiting the Central Texas programs were representatives from District 11-6A, a mixture of North and East Texas teams at a combined 26-13, including one squad four games below .500 and another just above that mark. The other two together were 17-2.

But all those records, as coaches warn over and over again, don’t necessarily mean much when round one rolls around. Just a bunch of numbers to ignore.

It’s wise advice. Quite prophetic in 12-6A’s case, too, confirmed by the following.

Division II bi-district playoffs: Mesquite Horn, 45, Temple 38; Longview 70, Copperas Cove 22.

Division I: Rockwall 50, Belton 14.

Horn happened to be the team under .500, carrying a misleading 3-7 mark when it entered Wildcat Stadium and shocked Temple, which hadn’t been eliminated in the opening week since 2013, the first year of what currently is a streak of six straight playoff appearances.

The seven-point loss was a rude welcome back to the state’s highest classification and against the grain of recent big-time playoff victories for the blue front, white back among its rich postseason pedigree.

“We’re not used to getting beat in the first round lately. The lessons from there are something we talk about, if not daily than almost,” said fourth-year Temple head coach Scott Stewart, who is 8-3 in the playoffs while in charge, including a run to the 5A-I state championship game in 2016.

“These kids that we have now, all they have seen is (playoff) success. All they have seen is December — until last year. I think there was some expectancy. I think there was maybe some of, ‘Well, let’s get to December and see who we are going to play in December.’

“There’s a difference between 6A football and 5A football. Let’s be honest,” Stewart continued. “The top of 5A is just as good as any team in 6A, but the breadth is just not even close. Temple kids will play against anybody, but there was an adjustment there that we did not make well last year, and I think there was some premature anticipation of some stuff because those guys were just used to it. And I think there is a realization now that there are no freebies in this world.”

Longview went on to win the 6A-II state championship at 16-0, and Horn wound up in the division’s regional semifinals. In the second round, Rockwall encountered and lost to Allen, which then beat Midway — the only team to provide 12-6A some bragging rights with a fourth-round showing one season after advancing to the 6A-II state final.

“Playoff-wise, it just depends on matchups in 6A football,” Belton head coach Sam Skidmore said, whose Tigers are 2-5 in the postseason over the last five years. “There are no cupcakes in the first round, and especially not in the second.”

Fair enough. That’ll likely never change, at least not in the next few years for these area teams. The next district re-alignment is in February, and a drop in competition is far-fetched. Take the alignment prior to this current setup. In 2016-17, when it was District 8-6A, the playoff teams crossed first-round paths with then-7-6A’s contingent of Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Duncanville, Grand Prairie, South Grand Prairie, Irving, Irving MacArthur and Irving Nimitz.

“Any time you go up there, it’s a good brand of football,” Skidmore added.

But last season, three of four 12-6A teams fell short. That didn’t sit well, and not much will send a coach into the depths of his thoughts more than the end of a season, especially if that season concluded sooner than expected. Really, it doesn’t matter when the end arrives. If it’s before the bus pulls away from AT&T Stadium in Arlington a few days before Christmas, the inner wheels spin with haste.

What needs to be done? Mental? Physical? Major overhaul or minor adjustments?

The breaks for coaches are minimal. Soon it was back to the drawing board.

“What we do works. What we’ve done in the past works. We believe in the program. We’ve tweaked a couple things but that happens every year,” Stewart said. “But the mantra, if you will, for the offseason was don’t take anything for granted. Nothing. Nothing.”

After self-diagnosis, analysis and the decompression session that is the few weeks before the cycle starts up again, Stewart and Skidmore didn’t use excuses but merely faced reality, approached their new teams with messages long effective while adding emphasis on certain points, and geared their players for another crack at making extended journeys.

As Skidmore said and what many coaches utter as well about the playoffs, it’s all about matchups, who’s hot and who’s not in November and December, and travel distance.

Taking care of business in the regular season helps with those matchups, can cut down on first-round travel and certainly provides a boost into playoffs. Essentially, progress and peak.

However, a strong district showing doesn’t always guarantee a positive matchup. Midway head coach Jeff Hulme recalled his first season with the Panthers in 2016, a district championship year that ended with a 52-17 defeat against Cedar Hill in the first round.

“I think a lot of it is favorable matchups and being on a roll at the end of the year. That’s what everybody looks for,” Hulme said. “We say all the time that the season is divided in three seasons. With us, we usually don’t start out very fast. You obviously want to do your best and win, but non-district is a learning tool. When district starts, you hope to get on a roll and that takes you into what you want to do in the playoffs.”

Skidmore mentioned much of the same when looking back at his team’s loss to Rockwall and offered some antidotes for contending with what always will be a stout opponent.

“It all depends on what’s going on at that time. You have to be healthy, have to be hot and the ball has to bounce your way a couple of times. Sports are funny. They can reveal a lot,” he said. “For us, I think a lot of it is we have to find ways to get stops at crucial times on defense. On offense, we have to find ways to put teams away and impose our will on people.”

That same year in which Midway bowed to Cedar Hill, Belton hosted and defeated South Grand Prairie in the opening round before battling Allen in the second round, and Temple advanced to the 5A-I title tilt.

Variables aside, collective success in the playoffs is something 12-6A coaches wouldn’t mind seeing.

“If we’re going to be the district we want, we’re going to have to go out there and try to get these (playoff) wins. Let’s go 4-0 or 3-1. But that’s a pretty tough task. Those guys play some good football,” Stewart said. “I think if you got the nine head coaches in here, they’d say let’s go. I’ll get after those guys one night a year but then I want them to go win (in the playoffs) because it makes all of us look better.”

Hulme said he thinks the playoff teams from a year ago are again built to contend for one of the district’s four spots, and he didn’t stop with that quartet while pointing out strengths of each team in the league.

“It’s going to be interesting to see. I’ve got so much respect for our head coaches in our district. I don’t think there is going to be an easy game or anything,” he said. “We try to approach every game as a big game. We don’t look at it as a ‘circle this game because it’s a rival.’”

Consensus is to expect another tight race for the four playoff spots up for grabs. Every week has at least one crucial contest.

“(Before last season), every year that I’ve been here, we had a game or two where we didn’t have to finish,” Stewart said. “And there is a big difference between playing 87 plays and 52 plays on a Friday night and it being a physical deal the whole time.”

Added Skidmore: “I think it’s going to be very competitive. I think there are going to be some down teams but middle to top is going to be very competitive week in and week out.

“One thing this district does do is when you get to the playoffs and play teams with a lot of speed, you’ve seen teams with a lot of speed.”

And the hope for 12-6A’s playoff teams this year is that speed doesn’t lead to quick exits.