On Thursday, the Lake Ridge Eagles will load up the football team, the marching band, the cheerleaders and a perfect record for a trip to Houston where they’ll put it all on the line for a state championship.
The Eagles will take on another undefeated team, Richmond George Ranch, at NRG Stadium at 8 p.m. Friday.
Just reaching the state title game marks an historic moment—the Eagles (15-0, 7-0) are the first Mansfield football team to do so. The Eagles got there by soundly defeating the Aledo Bearcats 42-21 in the semi-final game Friday at Birdville FAAC.
Longtime athletic director Debbie Weems said she finally started to relax when quarterback Jett Duffey connected with wide receiver Tyler Robinson for a 29-yard touchdown pass with 1 second left in the first half to give the Eagles a 28-7 lead going into halftime.
“It just drops in your hands and you score a touchdown and you realize things are going your way,” Weems said. “I feel our team dominated from start to finish.”
The George Ranch Longhorns (15-0, 5-0), located southwest of Houston, will be a tough opponent. The Longhorns trounced Vista Ridge 42-23 in the semi-final round and defeated Temple 59-46 the week before that.
The Mansfield Tigers’ (12-3, 6-0) season ended Saturday in a 49-21 loss to Austin Lake Travis at Waco ISD Stadium. But the Tigers also made history, reaching the semi-finals for the first time in the school’s 100-plus-year history.
The Tigers struggled with a 1-2 record to start the 2015 campaign before going on an undefeated streak that carried the Tigers to the semifinal round. Head coach Jeff Hulme doesn’t want his players to let that loss define the season.
“We made it to the final four, so to speak, and that’s a major accomplishment,” Hulme said. “I want them to know that they’ve reset the bar for Mansfield High School football and the teams after them will be looking up to them to meet the new standard.”
Mayor David Cook, a Mansfield native, said he was proud to see the community rally for both teams and enjoy the ride.
“There’s not been a whole lot of success in the Mansfield football program over the years,” said Cook, who played cornerback for the Tigers in 1987 and 1988. “I am very happy for the city, the school district, the coaches and most of all the kids who are working so hard to make it happen.”
For the Lake Ridge Eagles, the freshmen that opened the school four years ago and went 2-8 their sophomore year are undefeated in 2015 under the leadership of Coach Kirk Thor.
These players have never played this deep into the playoffs in their lives.
But don’t be fooled.
Thor coaches his players to focus on what they can control so they don’t get overwhelmed by the playoff pressure.
“You can’t control your opponent. You can’t control the venue. You can’t control the weather,” Thor said. “You control how you practice. You control how you act. You control your attitude. We preach that every single day.”
Just as the players and coaches enjoyed practicing through the Thanksgiving holiday, they are savoring the joy of hearing Christmas music while still playing football, Thor said.
“We’re thankful for where we are,” Thor said. “It’s been great to see the kids’ faces and excitement.”
Since Friday’s win, Weems has been busy with the logistics of getting the football team, the coaches and trainers and everything they need for the trip to Houston. Not to mention ticket sales and making sure school board trustees and staff can get into the game.
“Getting everybody taken care of, it’s a lot of administrative details,” Weems said. “Hotel rooms for your team, charter buses. Everybody just comes out of the woodwork and wants to be a part of it. You want to take care of people who have been supportive.”
Players and coaches rooted hard for their fellow Mansfield teams. Nowhere was this more evident than at AT&T Stadium on Nov. 28. First, the Mansfield Tigers defeated Arlington Lamar 34-29 in front of a huge crowd. Then the Eagles trounced Mesquite Poteet 69-40 on the same field.
“We dwarfed both teams that we were playing size-wise with our crowd,” Hulme said. “There were a lot of green and black shirts. It didn’t matter if you were Lake Ridge High or Mansfield. You were there to support Mansfield.”
After the Tigers win, Thor, the former coach at Mansfield, said he was talking to the game officials trying to prepare for Lake Ridge’s game when he was constantly interrupted.
“Every 10 seconds a Mansfield coach or assistant coach came up and said ‘Good luck, Coach. Go get them, Coach!’ They were fired up. Our staff were fired up,” Thor said.
The support has been amazing as the two teams went on their playoff runs, checking scores through social media.
Weems said it’s hard to even put this experience into words.
“The thrill of victory. The excitement. The adrenaline rush that you get in sports, particularly with big games,” Weems said.
Weems has been with Mansfield district since the 1980s and became athletic director in 1996. The district has had 11 teams make it to the final four in various sports over the years.
She credits Hulme and Thor for never compromising.
“They’re still the same guys that they were when we hired them but they stayed the course,” Weems said.
Cook said he looks forward to having a large crowd at the state title game in Houston.
“This experience will be a lifetime memory that they will never forget and they will always treasure,” Cook said.