By Brian Besch
Precipitation and Pirate points rained down on the District 10-3A champion Kirbyville Wildcats Thursday in Lufkin’s Abe Martin Stadium, as Shepherd football made history with a 42-28 bi-district victory.
Record-setting performances, an offensive line that cleared massive holes, along with a defense that got after the quarterback and forced turnovers paced the win. The postseason triumph is Shepherd’s first competing in 11-man football. The last time the school could celebrate a playoff win was 1967.
After a promising first drive that was stopped with a fumble on the Kirbyville 2-yard line, the Pirate offense went back to work. The driving rainstorm did not slow the ground attack of Shepherd. They would run the ball 21 times for 208 yards in the half, with Preston Stephens and quarterback Landen Dellinger leading the way.
On three consecutive drives, Shepherd marched to the end zone without a pass. Stephens collected 147 yards and a score on just seven totes through two quarters.
The Bucs’ defense was just as dominant. They forced two punts, a turnover on downs and a fumble. Up 22-0 at halftime, the Pirates more resembled the team that had just claimed a district title a week before.
After the game, Coach Miles Robison said that he never could have expected to hold such a large lead.
“I didn’t, but I never want to doubt my kids. Our kids have been underdogs in a lot of games this year and maybe we’re not the most talented team that takes the field every week, but we have so much heart. Our kids play with a lot of passion and they do what we ask them to do. I’m just so proud of these kids right now. It is just the grit that they play with. We came into the season and we weren’t even predicted to make the playoffs. We just find a way each week. It is just a bunch of fighters. We had three kids return on offense and three kids on defense (from last year). Our young kids are growing and we have a ton of freshmen that are helping out. These kids surprise me every week.”
Keeping the pressure on out of the band break, a 10-play drive of 50 yards ended on a 27-yard touchdown from Stephens. Late in the third, he would get in again, this time from 45 yards out. Shepherd established a 34-point buffer before the Wildcats could get on the board.
Yet, Stephens would answer again. A 50-yard touchdown put the Pirates back up by 34 at 42-8. For the night, the junior running back piled up 288 yards and four touchdowns on 21 carries.
“He is special,” Robison said of Stephens. “I’m not sure anybody at Shepherd has had that kind of game, and if they have, it has been a while. We knew he was special in middle school. He was a contributor as a freshman and was banged up a little bit last year. He is a horse and a special kid.”
Kirbyville added three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the score closer than the contest had been.
The historic night started along the lines of scrimmage, where Shepherd won both sides. The Wildcat offense was hurried on most of its 30 passing attempts, completing less than half.
“We take a lot of pride in winning the battle up front,” Robison said. “Overall team speed we lack, compared to some of the teams that we play. We preach to our kids that we have to be the most physical team that they play this year. They have bought in to that and they love the weight room. They love to be coached hard and are just good kids. They play with a lot of class and we just want to play a clean, physical football game. At the end of the night, we want to be on top. It takes a team and that is what we preach. We are only as strong as our weakest link, but our kids refuse to be that weak link. That is what it’s going to take next week, other kids stepping up. I’m proud of these coaches and proud of these kids.”
The Pirates (6-5) will face Franklin (10-1) in the area round 7 p.m. Friday at Willis’ Yates Stadium.