- Jeff Miller
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MANSFIELD, Texas -- Jeff Hulme, the first-year football coach at Mansfield High, says he wants to make this Friday as normal as possible for his Tigers. That might be his biggest challenge of the season, given how much school history the team has written in just the past few weeks.
Mansfield High, located on the southern edge of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, opened in 1909, and Texas high schools have played for state football championships since 1920. This year's Tigers returned to the playoffs for a second consecutive season for the first time. And Mansfield had never won a playoff game in seven previous tries before last week's 20-14 victory over Abilene, played in Stephenville, in the opening round of Class 5A Division II play.
The Tigers might never have been bigger postseason underdogs, taking a 6-4 record against an Abilene team that came in 10-0 and ranked No. 3 in the state in 5A.
"Doesn't take a genius to figure out who was the favorite," Hulme said. "I think our kids like being the underdog and try to prove people wrong. So far, it's worked pretty good."
So Hulme will try to maintain normalcy as much as possible as the Tigers board buses on Thursday afternoon for the five-hour ride out to Midland, where they will face El Paso Montwood (8-3) on Friday night.
"We're going to get 'em up Friday morning, have breakfast, probably go somewhere, walk around, get their blood flowing," Hulme said. "We're not going to sit around and watch TV all day."
Last Monday was far from routine, too -- it was the first school day that any Mansfield High football players ever came to school after a playoff win.
"Everyone was kind of hyped," junior quarterback Daniel Green said. "All of the teachers were smiling, having a good time. People were high-fivin'. It was a really good day."
Postseason play is nothing new for Hulme. Last year, he led Fort Bend Clements to its third playoff berth in his four seasons there. The Rangers went 13-1, losing in the fourth round of the 5A Division II playoffs to eventual champion Katy.
Hulme, who went 33-12 at Clements, said it was time for his family to move into a smaller school district with his daughter heading into the second grade. Fort Bend County, located on the southwest edge of Houston, is home to about half a million people and its own 5A district of 10 high schools.
But why leave for Mansfield and its modest football tradition?
"I'd always heard great things about Mansfield," Hulme said. "I thought they could be like a sleeping giant. I look forward to those challenges. We weren't very good at Fort Bend when we got there. We sort of turned that program around."
Kirk Thor led Mansfield to an 8-3 mark in 2007 before being promoted to a district administrative position. Debbie Weems, district athletic director, said Hulme was the obvious choice among the six candidates who interviewed, based both on his record at Clements and his personality.
"He was a fit for us," Weems said. "Fort Bend Clements mirrored the population at Mansfield High, the same type of kids."
Mansfield was the only high school in town through 2001-02 and now is one of four (with a fifth on the way) in a district that has been growing at about 11 percent annually. The district draws about 44 percent of its students from Mansfield, a city of about 50,000, and about 42 percent from Arlington, a city of about 366,000 located just to Mansfield's north.
The addition of Mansfield Summit in 2002 came with a curious caveat. Summit took over Mansfield High's facility at the far north end of the district, actually in the Arlington city limits. Mansfield High moved into the big, new school built near the middle of town and took with it the Tigers nickname and black-and-yellow school colors. Some coaches followed Mansfield High downtown; some stayed in the old building and began to build the blue-and-black Summit Jaguars.
Timberview followed in 2004, and Legacy opened in 2007. Mansfield and Summit compete in 5A. Timberview just dropped to 4A and joined Legacy, which fielded its first varsity football team this season.
For any culture changes that Hulme brought to the school and the program, his decision to scrap a spread offense for a Power I probably had the most direct and significant effect.
"I knew we had a good tailback, and this kind of offense can highlight him," Hulme said.
That would be senior Stepfan Taylor (his first name is pronounced Ste-FON). He rushed for 1,800 yards during the regular season and another 195 against Abilene.
"He's a great combination of power and speed," Hulme said. "I think a lot of people think he's just a power back. But if you watch his film, not many people have run him down from behind. He's deceptively fast. Once he gets out there, he's gone."
The Stanford-bound Taylor describes himself as just a tough back.
"Not really a power back or really a speed back," said Taylor, who is 6-foot and 200 pounds. "A back that's just determined to get in the end zone."
Taylor was naturally a big part of Mansfield's first milepost win of 2008, the Tigers' first-ever victory over Summit. Mansfield trailed 14-7 in the fourth quarter until Taylor caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Green. Senior defensive back Jordan Finch provided the winning points on a 16-yard interception return.
Finch also put the lid on last week's win over Abilene with an interception with 1:49 to play.
"I had to focus on the ball to make sure I caught it," Finch said. "It was a little nerve-wracking."
Said Hulme: "I was wanting him to get out of bounds faster than he did. I didn't want them to strip it. I knew they just had one timeout left. I tried to do the math real fast in my head: As long as we took a knee pretty slow, we'd be all right."
The Tigers will leave Thursday after lunch period for Midland, where Montwood held off Midland Lee last week for a 24-21 victory and its own little piece of history. That was the first playoff win by an El Paso team over a school from the famed Midland-Odessa Permian Basin since 1990.
"It's time for us to focus on the field," Taylor said. "The past game is over with. It's good that we won, but now we've got to move on to the next game."
Jeff Miller recently left The Dallas Morning News after 21 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.