Many players on the Stephenville football team have childhood memories of the school's last state title in 1999.
In fact, senior running back Witt Westbrook was a ball boy at that game. For Westbrook and most of his teammates, a victory against El Campo in tonight's Class 3A Division I state championship game would validate the Yellow Jackets' ascent back to the peak of the Texas high school football mountain.
1988: A sophomore when Art Briles arrives as head coach.
1989: Yellow Jackets snap a 37-year postseason absence.
1994: Hired as a junior high coach in Kennedale.
1995: Hired as Stephenville defensive line coach.
1999: Stephenville goes 16-0, wins second straight state championship. Briles goes to Texas Tech as assistant, Gillespie named co-defensive coordinator.
2008: Gillespie named head coach. Team makes playoffs in each of Gillespie's five seasons, wins three district titles.Class 3A Division I championship
Stephenville (12-1) vs. El Campo (14-0)
7:30 tonight, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington
But for coach Joseph Gillespie, it would complete a journey decades in the making.
Few people can claim to be as familiar with Stephenville football as Gillespie. He's a hometown guy who suited up for the Yellow Jackets. As a player, he was part of the program's renaissance, and as an assistant coach he helped Stephenville win state titles and become one of the most successful teams in the state.
"It's certainly been a journey for me," Gillespie said. "I've been a player when it was at its lowest; I was a player when it was making a transition. I got to come on staff when it was beginning to peak, and have been blessed enough to remain on staff through a great deal of success."
Gillespie was a sophomore when current Baylor coach Art Briles arrived to coach Stephenville in 1988. The next season, the Yellow Jackets qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1952. Since then, Stephenville has missed the playoffs only once and racked up four state championships. Gillespie has witnessed much of that firsthand.
In 1995, Briles brought Gillespie on as defensive line coach. He rose through the ranks, ultimately taking over as head coach in 2008.
"It's one journey to get there, and it's a different journey to remain there, to try to continue that tradition of success year after year," he said. "It's gone on for a couple of decades now and it's not a simple thing. It certainly isn't easy."
But Gillespie was blessed with an opportunity to learn as a player and a young coach under Briles.
"The No. 1 thing I learned from him is the level that he would breed confidence and success," Gillespie recalls of Briles. "I know he bred a lot of confidence in me. The things that he instilled, young men were achieving things that were maybe more than they thought they were capable of."
Briles still keeps an interested eye on his former protégé.
"I'm really proud of coach Gillespie and the Yellow Jackets on their fine season." Briles said. "Now, it's time to bring home the state trophy."
Gillespie was part of two state championships as an assistant with Briles, but now he has the opportunity to stake claim to one as the head man. Still, he's quick to recognize how important his staff is to what the Jackets have accomplished.
"I think it's special regardless, but this isn't about me, it's about us," he said. "I'm not coaching it alone by any means. What I've been able to do is surround myself with a great staff and those guys are doing all the work.
"I think it's the ultimate goal for every coach and it'd be unbelievable; it'd be awesome. It's an exciting time and it would be something that obviously could never be taken away from you and you'll always cherish it. But ultimately it's about these kids, and I certainly want it a whole lot more for them than I do for me right now."
The players certainly want it, and they want it for their coach as much as for themselves.
Senior offensive lineman Bryan Manley moved to Stephenville only a few years back, but it didn't take long for Gillespie to make an impression on him.
"He was a very intense coach," Manley said. "But he's been a very positive influence on my life. From the time I got here, he was a really big inspiration for me."
Westbrook, a homegrown Yellow Jacket, feels the coach is as close to him as any of his friends and teammates.
"I think it's great because he's there football-wise and for anything else in life," Westbrook said.
"He's been an anchor for us," Manley said.
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