Every season there are plenty of eyes on the Battle of the Ax. It is the most anticipated game on the schedule for both Sherman and Denison, whether it comes in the last week or to open the year.
This year, however, the longest running rivalry in the state will have its biggest audience yet.
The stands will be packed like they always are but the Bearcats and Yellow Jackets will put on a show for football fans across Texas, and the region, as the featured contest of Fox Sports Southwest’s opening week coverage.
While the match-up has been given live look-in treatment and highlight packages before, this is a full-game broadcast that can be seen from Houston to the Panhandle and El Paso to Texarkana.
“The game itself is big enough. It’s already great the way it is. It has enough tradition and honor,” Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said. “We’re excited that this is a little extra for those who don’t know what it’s all about.”
This added dimension to the history of the rivalry only provides more fuel and hype as Sherman hosts Denison for the 121st Battle of the Ax at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Bearcat Stadium.
“This is why they play football, to play in games like this, for us to be able to coach in games like this,” Yellow Jacket head coach Chad Rogers said.
Those tuning in or watching up close and in person will either see Sherman take back in the Ax for the first time since 2012 or watch Denison extend its record winning streak in the rivalry to seven and matching its longest unbeaten streak against the Bearcats. The Yellow Jackets had five victories and two ties from 1942-48.
“We’ve had six senior classes graduate with the Ax. You don’t want to be that class,” Rogers said — putting the emphasis on the last two words. “You want to be the class that keeps it going.”
The win would also give Denison the third-longest overall winning streak in the series, behind Sherman’s 11 consecutive from 1969-79 and 10 straight from 1911-1921.
“Our message is pretty clear. We have high expectations and strong goals,” Martinez said. “We’re not happy just playing in this game. We want to win it. We want more. Our community wants more.”
This is the third straight year Fox Sports Southwest will host its Texas Football Days as a celebration of another season opening. Normally the University Interscholastic League does not allow live broadcasts of regular season games but has allowed exceptions for a couple of openers to be showcased. Mason and Wall will be televised at 7 p.m. on Thursday night before Sherman and Denison take center stage on Friday. The pregame show will start at 6:30 p.m.
Both sides were eager to be chosen to showcase a rivalry that has stretched back more than a century.
“I think what’s really cool about that is we know how special it is and this gives a window into our communities. It’s a glimpse of this rich heritage,” Rogers said. “You can’t say it’s just a game. No one believes that.”
Denison won last season, 41-16, as Jadarian Price had 14 carries for 141 yards and two touchdowns, DeCurious Smith scored twice and Javonte Briscoe recovered a punt in the end zone for a TD.
Mike Brown paced Sherman with 25 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns as the Bearcats were down just 14-10 entering the third quarter — the second straight meeting where Sherman was right there at half-time before the Jackets broke the game open before the fourth quarter arrived.
“Unfortunately the third quarter the last two games hasn’t turned out well for us. They’ve been pretty bad,” Martinez said. “The task at hand — the word this whole week is focus. Concentrate all your effort on the task at hand.”
The offenses may have garnered more of the attention thanks to Brown and Price but the defensive units on each side bring back several starters and how they force the issue might turn the contest’s momentum.
“Both offensive lines and both running backs are very, very good,” Martinez said. “Who’s going to make the big play? Who’s going to complete a pass on third-and-six? Who’s going to keep things moving on third down?
“I’m a firm believer in taking what they give you and make them change. If they’re going to keep giving it to you, you’ve got to take it.”
Both teams have a change at quarterback. Denison is starting Zaelin Wimbish, who was the back-up last season as a junior wide receiver, while Sherman has had a battle for the job to replace Blaise Bentsen, a two-year starter.
Juniors Tate Bethel, who was Bentsen’s back-up while also serving as a starting receiver last year, and Irving MacArthur transfer Trenton Hardin got equal time during the Bearcats’ scrimmages against Sanger and Princeton but a clear-cut starter has yet to emerge.
“I think we’ve got an idea. Both are still competing for the job,” Martinez said. “They did well in the scrimmages. Let’s hope they continue to play well. We might play both of them.”
Whether that is a bit of gamesmanship for a game where plenty of that can be found or an honest statement about a key position, it doesn’t change what’s at stake when both teams take the field.
“I think they’re both outstanding athletes and manage the game well,” Rogers said. “The game plan will be the game plan, regardless of who they start. I feel good about our scrimmages and Sherman should feel good about theirs.”
Sounds like the Bearcats and Jackets are ready for their close-ups.