The Buckeyes were coming off their second title game appearance in four years, while the Eagles had enjoyed three consecutive trips to the state championship game. The two schools had met six times this decade, with every game carrying a lot on the line.
There was 2000 and 2001 when the two teams battled for district championships. There was 2003 and 2004 when the two teams met deep in the playoffs. There was 2006 and 2007 when the two teams' regular season contests featured statewide media coverage.
The 2008 game promised to be more of the same. Then the Eagles stumbled to a 4-5 record, limping into the regular season finale needing a win just to secure a playoff berth.
“They're still Tatum, so we're concerned about them,” promised Gilmer head coach Jeff Traylor. “It always worries you when the other team has a lot to play for. Their backs are against the wall; so that's a concern.”
“Ordinarily I would say that was maybe a little bit of an advantage,” agreed Tatum head coach Andy Evans. “But not against Gilmer because they play so well every week. They don't ever seem to have a bad game. Jeff and his coaches do such a great job of preparing the kids that they just don't ever play bad.”
“The Tatum and Gilmer game has always been a pretty big ball game,” said Evans, who admitted that this season has been difficult. “We've struggled this year. It's hard when you go through a season like this.” said Evans, whose six previous losses before this season included three to the Buckeyes.
“Beating Gilmer would be a huge victory for your program in itself,” Evans said. “We told our kids that even if we don't make the playoffs and we're able to pull off an upset against Gilmer, that makes our season successful.”
Traylor remembers 2000, his first season as Gilmer's head coach, when the roles were reversed. The Buckeyes hadn't been to the playoffs since 1991, while the Eagles had been playoff regulars for seven straight seasons. Gilmer lost 14-6 in a driving rain, but Traylor recalls feeling good about his team.
“It was a huge loss,” said Traylor. “But it was also good because we knew Tatum was very good and we played them tough. We knew that we were not far away. We were excited about the future. We had a young team and we knew we had a bunch of those kids back, so we thought we were going to be pretty good the next year.”
While the Buckeyes proved Traylor right with an undefeated district championship the following season, Traylor had no idea that his Buckeyes would not lose to another district foe after that game at Tatum's Eagle Stadium.
“Those kids that started it are now 26 years old, married, and have children,” said Traylor, who reminds his players about the team that started the streak. “They know; we told them about it,” Traylor said. “But sometimes it's hard for these kids to relate since most of them were in third and fourth grade at the time.”
But senior Josh Thompson said the players got the message. “We've always been rivals with Tatum,” said Thompson. “It's going to be a big game because it's going to seal the deal in the championship. I feel that the team is going to be ready, and the seniors especially since this is our last regular season game and I think we are going to leave it all out on the field.”
The Buckeyes will be playing for a school record eighth consecutive undefeated district championship, while keeping intact their district winning streak which currently stands at 38 games. To accomplish this, Gilmer must return to the site of their last district loss.
“Playing them at home, that makes it more difficult,” said Traylor, who has won the last five games against the Eagles by an average margin of 25 points, and warned Buckeyes' fans to not look past the Eagles.
“If they eliminate their turnovers their record would be much better. They played a tough schedule too,” Traylor said.
Evans agreed. “We've had two ball games where we've fumbled six times, and you're not going to win any ball game when you turn the ball over six times,” said Evans, who is 57-11 in five years at Tatum.
“When anybody goes into a game against Gilmer they're going to try and do one of two things,” explained Evans. “They're either going to try to score with them or they try to hold onto the ball against them. And the fact that Gilmer's defense is playing so well is going to limit both of those options for a lot of people.”
“They're giving the ball to their offensive team in really good field position,” Evans continued. “I think that's the key to great defense. When you're a great defensive team it makes you a really good offensive team, so they go together.”
Traylor admits that the Buckeyes' offense has needed the help this season. “We've just got to not turn it over, take care of the football, and score when we have our opportunities,” Traylor said.
Evans believes that he has learned from his three lopsided defeats to the Buckeyes. “We have not won that battle of trying to match up with them scoring,” said Evans. “The key for us would be to keep it close instead of playing from behind. So that's our goal, to try to keep the ball game close and be in the hunt at the end. Then you make one or two plays and you've got a chance.”
Traylor said the Eagles have the players to do just that. “They've got talent; it's just young talent. Everybody in their backfield is a sophomore,” Traylor said.
“Desmond Fite is a very athletic quarterback,” said Traylor, about the 6-1, 185 pounder who starts along side running backs Brandon Woodward (5-11, 190), who Traylor called, “a great back”, and B.J. Allen (6-1, 180), who Traylor praised as, “one of the most impressive sophomores that I've seen.” Allen and Woodward combined for 261 yards and two touchdowns last week against Spring Hill.
Traylor expects the Eagles to benefit from playing so many underclassmen this season. “I think they will return eight starters back on both sides of the ball, so they'll probably be a team picked in our district to do very well.”
As for this year, Traylor just wants to win one more district ball game to keep the memory of his young 2000 team alive.
• Gilmer's 38 game district win streak is tied for 6th-best all-time in Class 3A with Gladewater (source: Joe Lee Smith).
• Gilmer's 38 game district win streak is currently the 3rd best behind Class 5A Galena Park North Shore (51) and Class 4A Highland Park (45) (source: Joe Lee Smith).
• Gilmer has outscored their opponents 1,695-358 (44.6-9.4) during their 38-game district winning streak.
• Gilmer averages 229 yards per game passing (50 percent) and 229 yards per game rushing (50 percent).
• Gilmer quarterback Stump Godfrey needs 62 passing yards to give him 2,000 for the season.
• Gilmer quarterback Stump Godfrey needs 179 total yards to pass Derek Mckenzie for 2nd place in school history.
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