For the last 12 months, the Gilmer Buckeyes simultaneously represented success and failure for the Argyle Eagles.
The success stems from reaching a matchup against the Buckeyes, which is always after the Thanksgiving holiday. But for the last 12 months, the Eagles waited to face Gilmer again and avenge last November’s postseason loss.
In the last four years, a playoff matchup between Argyle and Gilmer wasn’t a mere possibility. It was almost inevitable.
And so for the fourth straight season, two of the state’s best Class 3A teams meet in the 3A Division II Region II semifinals at 6 p.m. today at Kincaide Stadium in Dallas. The winner advances to the regional final to face Gainesville or Gladewater.
Argyle head coach Todd Rodgers said, without reservation, that the winner of tonight’s game will have the inside track to the 3A Division II state championship game.
“It’s two teams that have been ranked No. 1 at different times throughout the year,” Rodgers said. “They had a slip-up against Kilgore. Is that indicative of their team? Not even close.”
The Buckeyes (11-1) were ranked as the top team in 3A by The Associated Press for most of the season before a loss to Kilgore in the final week of the regular season. Argyle was ranked No. 2 toward the end of the season, but Gilmer’s loss to Kilgore pushed the Eagles (12-0) to the top spot in the final regular-season rankings.
The last two seasons, the winner of the Argyle-Gilmer game has played in the 3A Division II state championship game. Last year, Argyle was without standout safety Connor Wilson, and Gilmer cruised to a 42-21 victory.
That was the last time Argyle lost.
Rodgers said the defeat stung more than any loss he’s ever suffered as a head coach. He said he failed to control situations he could have controlled and didn’t have solid backup plans after Wilson was injured the week before the Gilmer contest.
“I have that skeleton in my closet now,” Rodgers said. “I’m going to make sure it doesn’t jump back out at me again.”
So when senior linebacker and Kansas State-commit Sam Sizelove suffered a season-ending knee injury in a regular-season win over Aubrey, Rodgers was prepared.
If Aubrey made the playoffs, it would have pushed Argyle into the 3A Division I playoff bracket. But with Aubrey’s loss to Carrollton Ranchview, Argyle went into the Division II playoff bracket, setting up a potential rematch with Gilmer.
“Going Division I would have been fine with us, but we wanted to go D-II just so we could get after Gilmer,” Argyle senior wide receiver Ian Sadler said.
Sadler said last season’s loss to Gilmer has lingered on the team’s mind all year. Sadler was a sophomore when Argyle beat Gilmer in 2011 and the Eagles eventually lost to Wimberley in the 3A Division II state championship game.
Sadler, who has orally committed to Texas Tech, said the energy inside Kincaide Stadium tonight will be unlike a normal playoff contest.
“It’s just a different atmosphere,” Sadler said. “I would say it’s just like a state championship atmosphere.”
Argyle will have to contend with the Buckeyes’ speed on both sides of the football.
Quarterback Tanner Barr has thrown for more than 3,000 yards, while wide receiver Desmond Pollard has compiled 919 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.
The Gilmer defense, led by linebacker and Texas A&M commit Josh Walker, only allows an average of 250 yards per game and hasn’t allowed a point in two playoff wins against Mineola and Pittsburg.
“They’re an East Texas team and they always have speed,” senior defensive back Reese Thompson said. “We usually don’t see as much speed as we usually do when playing against them.”
Gilmer head coach Jeff Traylor said his team hasn’t faced an offense as talented as the one Argyle deploys, and Sadler may be the best player he’s ever faced.
“He’s quite possibly the best player I’ve ever coached against,” Traylor said. “I mean, LaMichael James [Texarkana Liberty-Eylau; Oregon; San Francisco 49ers] was really good. I think he’s in the league of LaMichael James. I think he’s that great of a player.”
Traylor and Rodgers both said it’s been about four or five years since the teams weren’t keeping tabs on one another. Gilmer’s won two state championships (2004, 2009), and Argyle is seeking its first football state championship.
“It’s always a great matchup between the two teams,” Sadler said. “Gilmer’s fast, obviously. They’ve got a great coaching staff. I think we match up well. It’s going to be a really good game.”
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Argyle DB Reese Thompson vs. Gilmer WR Desmond Pollard
Argyle head coach Todd Rodgers has historically placed defensive back Reese Thompson on the opposing team’s best receiver. Thompson will most likely see time defending Desmond Pollard, Gilmer’s most explosive receiver.
The junior receiver has compiled 919 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, both of which are team highs. He’s been the primary target for quarterback Tanner Barr, who has thrown for 3,057 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and six interceptions this season.
Pollard had four catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns in Gilmer’s 48-0 shutout against Pittsburg last week, and has been explosive for the Buckeyes all season.
Thompson has plenty of experience in matching up against Gilmer. He’s a three-year starter and is headed to Texas on a track and field scholarship.
Last week against Melissa, Thompson had one pass deflection and one forced fumble in Argyle’s win over the Cardinals.
This year, Thompson leads the team with 10 pass breakups and has also notched two interceptions. Thompson said Gilmer is the fastest team he’s ever played, a testament to the brand of football played in east Texas.
Thompson will have some help in the secondary from safety and Texas Tech-commit Connor Wilson.
Argyle’s offense vs. Gilmer’s defense
The Eagles’ offense has two key weapons — wide receiver Ian Sadler and running back Nick Ralston. Those two have helped Argyle average a shade under 400 yards of offense and 54.2 points per game.
Sadler has 15 rushing touchdowns, nine receiving touchdowns, a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown. Ralston has rushed for 1,343 yards and 26 touchdowns.
However, Gilmer’s defense has failed to yield a point this postseason. This season, the Buckeyes have only allowed 250 yards per game and 14.5 points a game. Gilmer is led by linebacker Josh Walker, who’s headed to Texas A&M. Walker has 72 tackles and a team-high 13 quarterback hurries.
The Buckeyes only allowed 126 total yards in last week’s win against Pittsburg. In last season’s win against Argyle, Gilmer held the Eagles to 249 total yards.
So far this season, nobody has been able to contain Argyle’s high-powered offense.
Argyle’s defense vs. Gilmer’s offense
Argyle’s defense suffered a huge loss when linebacker and Kansas State-bound senior Sam Sizelove went down for the season with a knee injury. Sizelove finished the year with 83 tackles and 11 tackles for loss.
But Argyle’s defense still has lineman Micah Capra, who leads the team with 106 tackles, including 18 for loss. The Eagles will also have senior defensive back Connor Wilson, the Texas Tech-commit who missed last season’s game against Gilmer with a hip injury.
But the Buckeyes’ offense has plenty of weapons, including quarterback Tanner Barr (3,057 passing yards, 36 TDs, 6 INTs), wide receiver Desmond Pollard (919 yards, 15 TDs) and running back Kris Boyd (1,167 yards, 19 TDs).
Gilmer is an East Texas team, a region known for producing speedy athletes. This Buckeyes squad is no different, and the Eagles’ defense will need to adjust to facing one of the fastest 3A teams in the state.