The week of the Battle of the Ax brings out so many emotions, the way it has for decades upon decades. There was a different sort of feeling at Denison this week, one a high school should never have to go through.
By the time the student body arrived on campus Monday morning, almost all of them knew their classmate and friend, Zachary Alvarez, had passed away after a months-long battle bigger than any the Yellow Jackets would face come Friday night. Alvarez died Sunday due to complications from Acute T-Cell Lymphocytic Leukemia.
There was a candlelight service at the high school on Thursday. His fellow freshmen made a gesture in their game against Sherman that night, running an extra point without a kicker — his position — to honor him.
Under normal circumstances Alvarez would have been like any other Denison student by the end of the 119th Battle of the Ax. He would have been cheering and smiling and celebrating as the Yellow Jackets did something no DHS squad before them could pull off, a fifth straight victory against the Sherman Bearcats with their 49-24 win.
Denison wore decals on their helmets with the letter 'Z' in the font of Superman's logo. There was a moment of silence before the game. Then the announcement came over the P.A. late in the first quarter with a simple tidbit of information. Sophomore Cayden Earnhart, listed as No. 33 like always in the program, was wearing No. 24.
“I didn't know Zach but God gave me the calling that this is what I should do,” Earnhart said. “It's the one game he dreamed of playing in and he didn't get that chance. Going out there for the first play of the game, I felt an energy the whole time. Zach was with me and all of us.”
The start was something no one would have liked on the Denison side. The Jackets trailed, 3-0, after the first quarter in another one of their patented slow beginnings. Then the teams started trading touchdowns.
Austin Emery put Denison up before Tyler Jones had Sherman back in front.
Bubba Roberts scored right before the half as the Jackets led 14-10 at the break, only to see the Bearcats open the third quarter with a 12-play touchdown drive capped by a Blaise Bentsen keeper.
It was 17-14 Sherman with 6:57 remaining. And the Denison took over. The Jackets scored four times in the final five minutes of the frame and suddenly the deficit was a 42-21 advantage.
On the drive that Denison opened a double-digit lead, Earnhart had the big play. Already with a couple of catches, he went 52 yards on this one. Earnhart hauled it in right at the line of scrimmage and headed for the left sideline, got a block from D.J. Gray at the 42 and somehow stayed inbounds against a defender as he approached the 50 and then again at the Sherman 35 before ultimately getting knocked out at the 12. Three plays later the team was in the end zone.
“I felt he needed the opportunity to experience this. This is his number,” said Earnhart, who had a career-best four catches for 95 yards. “He got to experience the Battle of the Ax in some way.”
The record-setting win was truly a team effort. On offense three Jackets had double-digit carries and all of them found the end zone. Senior Bubba Roberts had a career game with 21 carries for 147 yards and three touchdowns, the icing on the cake being a 56-yarder with 3:08 remaining.
Classmate Ty McFail totaled 126 yards on 11 carries and scored three times — all in a two-minute span and the last on back-to-back runs of 50 and 47 yards.
“We have to thank the line and the h-backs because we couldn't do what we do without them,” McFail said. “When we have each others' backs we can do great things.”
Another of those senior ball-carriers, Kenny Gaffney, had the first run of the game. He never touched the ball on offense again because the defense needed him more. Starting linebacker Nate Maulsby was out with an injury. The domino effect that pushed McFail from safety into Maulsby's spot was working until defensive back Zaelin Wimbish was knocked out of the game early in the second quarter.
Gaffney was the next man up and played his part.
“I practiced there early in the week and I told them I'd be ready,” he said. “I'm used to running the ball more than having to make a tackle. It had been a minute since I'd played defense but we just had to get the job done.”
The third-quarter flourish was more than enough to get the job done. It was the most points Denison had scored against Sherman since 59 in 2003 and tied 1956 as its second-highest total ever in the rivalry. And the defense made four straight stops as the gap widened.
There were a lot of reasons for the Jackets to be hanging their heads after missing out on a chance to earn the District 5-5A title. Denton Ryan handed them a lopsided loss the week prior and the Jackets needed to regroup. Just days later they found out what that word would really mean. The reason behind the winning had changed. It's the reason why when the Ax made its appearance, everyone gathered around and chanted “Fivepeat for Zach!”
“Once we heard about what happened to Zach Alvarez, it was all for him,” McFail said. “History followed.”