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Worth the wait: Bearcats, Jackets finally get to square off

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Sherman's Jacoby Hunt and Denison's Asa Osbourn are two of the seniors playing in their final Battle of the Ax, which is at Denison tonight to open the season for both teams.

It’s a date everyone has been waiting for and the Sherman Bearcats and Denison Yellow Jackets are ready to go.

Of course, when it comes to the Battle of the Ax these two rivals have been ready since last season ended.

“They’re excited about playing. How could they not be?” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “The fact that we’ve gotten to this point is a blessing. I think it’ll be a great game.”

A lot has changed in the year-plus since the last meeting — including having the game pushed back by almost a month. But the wait has been worth it and Sherman and Denison are happy they will get the chance to square off for the 122nd version of the Battle of the Ax at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Dr. Rene and Eva Gerard Field at Munson Stadium.

"It doesn't change the approach. The feeling is the same," Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said. "I appreciate the UIL giving us the time to build the team back after losing all that time in the spring. You're relieved and thankful we're here."

The match-up was moved from its traditional Friday night spot — the last time it was held other than a Friday was Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24) in 1955 in an era when it usually was on a Thursday, like every year from 1941-51 — so that it could abide by University Interscholastic League rules regarding televised broadcasts for the first 5A and 6A games of the season.

When the UIL relaxed the live broadcast regulations in 2020 as a result of limited stadium capacities due to COVID-19, the first week of the 5A/6A schedule was the only Friday where games could not be on television outside of the Fox Sports Southwest doubleheader at A&T Stadium.

So in order to be available to as many fans as possible since Munson Stadium’s capacity was capped near 3,000, the schools moved the game to Thursday and it will be shown on KXII’s MyTexoma station (Channel 32 on Sparklight) and KXII.com/livestream2.

The season for the Bearcats and Yellow Jackets was delayed by a month when the UIL decided to stagger starts based on enrollment. While Class 1A through 4A teams started as normal with their first games on August 28, the 5A and 6A programs had to wait until this week to get going in a UIL decision as part of COVID-19 measures.

Both schools participated in scrimmages last week — Sherman against Princeton and Denison against Denton — to fine-tune things.

“It’s the best weather I’ve ever had for an opening game. I never had a scrimmage before where I thought I needed a jacket,” Rogers said. “There’s a lot at stake. The kids are looking forward to playing and I know the communities are.”

While there is the usual turnover due to graduation, both offenses have a majority of their skill players back. The Bearcats will rely again on Tate Bethel, Benji Omayebu, Jacoby Hunt and Sean Husband while the Jackets count on Caleb Heavner, Asa Osbourn, Jadarian Price and Keleon Vaughn.

“We’ve got to account for those guys,” Rogers said about Sherman’s skill positions. “They’re always athletic but I think we’ve got some athletic guys in our secondary.”

If there is an area to watch it will be the offensive lines — Denison replaces all five starters and Sherman has three newcomers on its unit.

"It's kinda funny we're both in the same boat," Martinez said. "We've both got some really great skill kids. Our lines are a work in progress. We're progressing in the right direction."

On defense the Jackets lost just three starters, bringing back the likes of Vaughn, Javonte Briscoe, Keebler Wagoner and Landon Ellis while Sherman has more wholesale changes with only three starters returning. Brandon Bonilla, Mathias Coleman and Jeff Banks will lead the newcomers to the group.

Denison extended its winning streak in the series to seven with a 29-13 victory at Bearcat Stadium last fall. Zaelin Wimbish finished with 25 carries for 152 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 111 yards, Osbourn totaled 21 carries for 116 yards and the capping TD and Price was at 18 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown to pace the Jackets.

Bethel completed 16-of-28 passes for 209 yards and a TD while Hunt totaled four catches for 76 yards and a score and Mike Brown finished with 16 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown for the Bearcats.

The winning streak is the longest by Denison over its rivals and matched the Jackets’ longest unbeaten stretch in Ax lore, which is a run from 1942-48 that included five victories and two ties.

"We don't talk about a streak or anything like that," Martinez said. "We walk about the great opportunity to play a game you love. It's going to be a great, great game."

It is the third-longest winning streak in Ax history, behind Sherman’s nine straight wins across 1911-20 and the record 11-game winning streak from 1969-79 that was part of an overall 13-year unbeaten stretch (12 wins, one tie).

“In rivalry games, you have to stay hungry. You put it on the senior class going out,” Rogers said. “There’s a reason they put cheese on a mousetrap. Don’t fall for the cheese.”

Both schools are coming off seasons where they missed out on the playoffs due to tie-breakers.

Sherman was going for a third consecutive playoff appearance but the Bearcats ended up on the wrong side of a third-place tie breaker in District 7-5A (I).

The Bearcats, Tyler and Texas High all went 3-3, with Sherman getting there after an 0-3 start. And while the Cats finished 6-4, they didn’t have the right point differential to advance while Tyler and Texas High moved on.

Denison also had a 6-4 record last fall and the Jackets were kept out of the postseason for a second straight season due to a tie-breaker. This time they were in fourth place with a 5-3 district mark alongside Frisco Reedy and Reedy had the head-to-head advantage. It was the same scenario as in 2019, when Lake Dallas had the upper hand.

122nd Battle of the Ax

What: Sherman at Denison

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV / Radio: MyTexoma / KXII.com/livestream2 / KMAD 102.5 FM / KMKT 93.1 FM