The streak is the second longest in the state behind Lincoln County, but with some youth and inexperience, this year’s team is more focused and determined. After a trip to the Class AAA state title game in 2010, the Trojans might have been looking ahead when they were knocked out in the quarterfinals last year. Without anyone on this year’s roster with significant playing time in the team’s state runner-up season, looking ahead shouldn’t be a problem this time around.
“There’s no substitute for tradition. The fact that the program has been successful for so many years breeds success. The kids’ expectations are high, their dedication is high and those two things go a long, long way in making you successful,” Carrollton coach Rayvan Teague said.
“I don’t think this year it’s an issue. I think last year it was kind of tough because we played for it all [in 2010] and had so many coming back, and the focus was getting back. This year’s bunch, I think they started out with some low expectations and I still don’t know how confident they are in their ultimate ability. I think they’ll be more focused on one at a time than we have the past two years.”
Stephens County (8-2) enters Grisham Stadium as a team trying to make it to the second round for the second straight year. Two years ago, the Trojans blasted the Indians, 63-20, in the first round. Teague doesn’t expect a repeat performance this time around.
The Indians are led by a pair of seniors in running back Chaz Thornton and receiver T’omas Colbert. Shutting them down will be a key for the Carrollton defense.
“The tailback, Chaz Thornton, is a gifted athlete and is a lot bigger and stronger than the last time we played them. He runs a lot harder, breaks more tackles. So I think that stopping him is going to be a challenge. Then the confidence [Colbert] has, he scored on us twice [two] years ago. He just has tremendous speed and tremendous ball skills. They’re going to try to go deep and we’re going to have to make a play,” Teague said.
Defensively, the Indians come in with the same strong fundamentals, but are now better equipped as the team has gotten older, stronger and faster.
Coming into the season, the 11th-ranked and second-seeded Trojans (7-3) were tabbed high in preseason polls, but have been overlooked by several to compete for a state title this year. Senior linebacker Armani Phillips is fine with the underdog role this postseason. The key is fixing the mistakes that cost Carrollton in its three losses this year.
“I would say right now we’re still underrated. People really don’t expect us to get that far. I said at the beginning of the year that we were going to shock people and we have shocked some people. We’ve won a lot of games, but we lost a couple,” Phillips said. “I don’t want us to beat ourselves like we have in the three games that we’ve lost.”
At this point of the season, the youth excuse has lost its steam.
“I think the fact that we’ve played in some big games this year is definitely going to help. I told them [after Thursday’s practice], ‘After 10 games, you can’t blame it on inexperience now. Now it’s what can you do?’ They’re prepared, they’ve got plenty of playing experience, they’ve played against real good folks. Now it’s are you the best?” Teague said.
Going into the final regular-season game against LaGrange, the Trojan coach noted that getting a win was more for gaining momentum going into the playoffs than to secure home field for the first round. But history shows playoff games at Grisham are hard for any visitor, especially in the first round.
The Trojans haven’t lost a first-round playoff game at home since 2005. In the 14 home playoff games since then, Carrollton is 11-3. For the visiting Indians, they haven’t won a road playoff game since 2002 and are 0-6 since.
“Home-field advantage is such a huge part of the playoffs. I know we can’t be beaten at home. This field has seen my brother, my granddad, a bunch of family members that go back. We have some of the best fans in the state. It’s a privilege to play here,” senior fullback/long snapper Dan Harris said.
While the coaches see more of the logistical side to playing at home — not having to travel, usual pre-game routines, an extra practice — for the seniors, it means something a little more.
“It’s just an awesome feeling being able to play at home in this stadium that you’ve grown to love. It’s a great feeling to have the home crowd behind you,” senior center Travis Joyce said. “There’s something special about Grisham Stadium.”