The Yellow Jackets who head south on Friday will be in a position only two other Denison teams have been before. By the time they head back north later in the evening, they hope to be in a spot which sees them as makers of history.
All of the bragging rights and trash talking that come about on a yearly basis normally boil down to a single fact — who holds the Ax? If you don’t have it, then the focus is on trying to get it back. For Denison, they have had it. And had it. And had it. And had it.
All of that winning by the Yellow Jackets has made Sherman had enough. But if the rivalry trophy stays in place for another season, it means Denison will have won five straight against its rivals, something that has not happened through the course of this historic rivalry.
“We talked about how there’s a lot of responsibility to be able to do something that’s never been done and it’s special,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “How important is it to you to make history?”
The playoff spots for both sides have been locked up but that doesn’t mean anything has changed as Denison (7-2, 4-1) visits Sherman (5-4, 3-2) in the District 5-5A finale at 7 p.m. on Friday at Bearcat Stadium.
“You don’t have to talk about it. Everyone else takes care of that for you,” Rogers said. “It’s a good crazy. The whole week has been a playoff-type week. I like the way we’re preparing for it.”
While the Jackets still are looking to wrap up the top seed for the Division II bracket, and would do so with a victory and a Rider loss against first-place Denton Ryan, the fact that an unprecedented winning streak would come as a result is not lost.
“It’s the big week. It’s going to be a really fun game. I’m super pumped. I think everybody is,” senior receiver Dalton Souther said. “It’s been a habit to win it and we’re going to try and keep it going.”
Sherman held the upper hand in the early part of the series with more than its share of long runs with the Ax. Denison’s current run of four victories is just the third time the Jackets have had that many, matching streaks from 1963-66 and 1945-49.
The Jackets will be looking to bounce back from their only district loss, a 56-16 setback against state-ranked Ryan. Denison had a chance to earn at least a share of the 5-5A title with a win and led, 2-0, after the first quarter. The Raiders then scored on seven consecutive drives and finished with 550 yards to blow the game open.
Ty McFail had 122 yards on 19 carries, Kenny Gaffney added a rushing touchdown and Austin Emery threw a TD pass to D.J. Gray for Denison, which had three drives reach the Ryan five-yard line and come away with no points. Early in the third quarter the Jackets had a chance to score and make it a 28-16 game but an interception return for a score negated any momentum.
The Bearcats enter the game with plenty of momentum. Sherman clinched its playoff spot last week and then went on to beat Wichita Falls, 51-26, coming into the contest. It is the first playoff appearance for the Bearcats since 2012 and a win over Denison would also guarantee them a winning record for the first time since then as well.
Against the Coyotes, Nathaniel Omayebu had 20 carries for 97 yards and four touchdowns while Blaise Bentsen ran for 117 yards and a TD on 11 carries and was 15-of-21 passing for 187 yards and a touchdown pass to Jeremy Norvell, who finished with three catches for 92 yards.
The Bearcats did give up 422 yards and 396 of it was in the air. Wichita Falls managed just 26 yards on 28 carries.
Bentsen transferred from Texoma Christian and the junior won the job as the starting QB. He has completed 101-of-181 passes for 1,304 yards and 11 touchdowns with five interceptions as well as running 74 times for 386 yards and four scores. The dramatic jump from the lower level of TAPPS competition to a 5A program hasn’t been a handicap for him.
“I definitely thinks he helps them,” Rogers said. “They’re doing a good job with him. They have some RPOs (run-pass options) that he does really well.”
For the second straight season Omayebu has been the focal point of the running attack. He has 1,175 yards and 17 touchdowns on 183 carries.
“He’s very talented,” Rogers said. “It’s not like he snuck up on anyone. I don’t think he sneaks anywhere.”
Back-up Michael Wallace has contributed 384 yards and four TDs on 61 carries.
Four receivers have double-digit catches, at least 155 yards and multiple touchdowns. Tylor Jones leads the way with 34 receptions for 538 yards and four scores, Ladarren Sewell has 11 catches for 243 yards and three touchdowns, Jaylyn Cleamons is at 13 catches for 181 yards and two scores and Norvell has 247 yards and two touchdowns on 25 catches.
Defensively, the Bearcats are allowing 375.4 yards per game and allowed more passing yards than rushing yards. Only three opponents — Ryan and Sulphur Springs in wins and Mount Pleasant in a loss — have scored more than 30 points against the unit.
“The main focus is hard work in practice. We’re going to come out with the same mentality we always do,” junior defensive back Cade Gordy said. “It’s going to be a big crowd. There’s a lot of people who are counting on us.”