Arlington Grace Prep’s long-awaited return to the TAPPS state football championship sphere will be much different from the days long ago when opponents were fed to the Lions.
Unlike when the Lions won consecutive championships in 1998-99 during a run of advancing to the semifinals in seven of eight seasons, Grace Prep (9-4) will be the underdog in its TAPPS Division IV title game with Shiner St. Paul (10-3) at noon Friday at Waco Midway High School.
Two other area teams are also in TAPPS title games at Midway: Division II Grapevine Faith (11-2) vs. Austin Regents (13-0), at 7 p.m. Friday, and Division III Colleyville Covenant (12-1) vs. Houston Northland (13-0) at noon Saturday.
Unlike those halcyon Grace Prep days of yore – when the fighting Lions were carrying standards and setting the air reverberating, and whatever else might be in a school song – this version of a Grace Prep championship-caliber team, which won its first playoff game in 12 years two weeks ago, is without the burdensome shadow of doubt.
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“Here’s the difference: Back in the Mike Barber (football) and Ray Forsett (boys basketball) days, they brought in elite athletes from all over,” said Mike Helmer, Grace Prep’s first-year coach. “We’re not doing that. That’s not my philosophy, that’s not the school’s philosophy. We’re not looking for the elite athlete to come in and win championships.”
Grace Prep has always been an institution that demanded high character and even-tempered students, whose learning was based in Christian values. There was a time, however, when being an elite athlete was at the top of the list.
Grace Prep, like every private or parochial school, is uninhibited by enrollment boundaries. The Lions have been accused of taking liberties with that in the past.
So egregious were the efforts to recruit elite football players that TAPPS banned the Lions from the postseason in 2001. At issue were rules violations regarding inducements to some student-athletes under a former coach. It should be noted that the school emphatically denied wrongdoing at the time.
More recently, the Lions basketball program, under Forsett, assembled a roster with four NCAA Division I recruits, including two future NBA players. That doesn’t count McDonald’s All-American Isaiah Austin, who would almost certainly be playing in the world’s best basketball league if not for a health issue.
That collection of talent – not surprisingly, TAPPS state champions – didn’t escape the suspicion of knowing eyes.
“Their players are recruited like the University of Kentucky,” said former Dunbar coach Robert Hughes at the time, in 2012. “These guys come from everywhere.”
Three arrived from the Mansfield school district and a third from Richardson.
Every private school attracts transfers every year for a variety of reasons. That will never change.
What is different is Grace Prep isn’t going looking for them.
The football resurgence at Grace Prep is organic. Helmer said he counted five players – all starters – on his 22-man roster who have been at the school 10 or more years. Quarterback Jeremiah Tucker has completed about 60 percent of his passes and spreads his passes out to four receivers, including Taelor Hawkins, Jay Sedwick and Matthew Tucker.
“Underdog” is a term the Lions have become accustomed to, and they’re liking it. Helmer said, on paper, quarterfinals opponent Muenster Sacred Heart was better than his squad, yet the Lions rolled, 45-13.
Often undersized offensive and defensive lines will again be put to the test against run-first St. Paul. Those guys are “gritty kids,” said Helmer, who added that they succeeded against players 100 pounds heavier simply by better technique.
“No one expected us to be here,” said Helmer, who has been to state-title games the past two seasons with Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill. “They’re a fun group to motivate. I’ve had teams in the past that you asked them to run through a brick wall, they would run right up to it and try to jump over it or go around it.
“These kids at Grace Prep, they’ll run right through the brick wall.”
Winning is great and all that, but winning like this is always more fun.
Saginaw Boswell running back Damon Williams is the Star-Telegram’s high school sports website offensive Player of the Week for Week 3 of the playoffs, and Mansfield Legacy free safety Jalen Catalon is the defensive Player of the Week. A total of 8,198 votes were cast.
Reach John Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.