For El Campo and Stephenville, less ends up being more

Taylor Mitchell By Taylor Mitchell

Dec. 12, 2012 at 6:12 a.m.

EL CAMPO - In the spring two years ago, El Campo thought it would be moving from class 4A to 3A, but wound up staying right where it was because the school was just eight students over the limit.

In the following two football season, the Ricebirds were sent packing in the first round of the playoffs, losing to La Marque 28-21 in 2010 and to Manvel 35-21 last year.

"There was some disappointment then because we thought we had a chance to be 3A," said El Campo head coach bob Gillis. "We went 9-0 (in 2010) and got beat by La Marque."

This past spring the Ricebirds were moved to Class 3A and instantly the expectations for the football team were raised.

"When we were 3A people started talking about state championship and were definitely talking about a regional championship," Gillis said. "I think anything less than a regional championship would've been deemed a failure. Our kids handled it pretty well."

It wasn't just the fans' expectations that rose, but also the players expected more out of themselves.

"Our expectations were obviously higher," senior lineman Trey Martin said. "Everyone thought we would go further than before. But we've just prepared like we would if we were still in 4A."

The number of students in the 190 schools placed in Class 3A range from 450-1,004. The next round of realignment won't take place until the spring of 2014.

The realignment has worked in the Ricebirds' favor - they are the only undefeated team in Class 3A, Division I - this season as they won their first regional championship since 1967 and now have a chance to win the school's first ever state title.

However, their opponent at Cowboys Stadium on Friday night also took advantage of the realignment. In fact, many of the schools in the 3A playoffs played in Class 4A a year ago, including three of the final four teams.

Stephenville (13-1) also dropped to Class 3A this past spring after being one of the most successful programs in 4A, winning state championships in 1993, 1994, 1998 and 1999 under current Baylor head coach Art Briles.

In moving from Class 4A to Class 3A, the Yellowjackets were just glad to be away from Aledo, which knocked them out of the last two playoffs. Both times Stephenville met Aledo in the quarterfinals, losing 18-10 in 2010 and 33-0 a year ago.

"There's no doubt that it helped us," Gillis said about the realignment. "And it helped them too."

The teams El Campo faced this past season in 3A weren't much different than the teams the Ricebirds faced in 4A over the past years. However, they did benefit from not having to play powerhouse teams in the first round of the playoffs.

"I think our early round playoff games in 4A were tougher because we always played La Marque or Manvel," Gillis said. "I'm not saying these teams aren't tough, but Manvel went to the state championship last year."

In February when it was announced El Campo would play in Class 3A for the next two seasons, Gillis spoke with his players. His message was clear: things weren't going to be any easier.

"We probably worked them harder than they ever worked that day. That whole week actually," Gillis said. "I told them that football is football. I coached in 3A when I was at Columbus and we had some really good teams there.

"There's going to be some good teams in 3A. All I had to mention was La Marque came down too. I mentioned Stephenville and we talked about Kilgore, who beat us in 2004 in the third round and went on to win it all. We talked about all that stuff. Just because you're in 3A doesn't mean things get any easier."

Friday night in Arlington certainly won't be easy for El Campo or Stephenville. But when it's all said and done, one of the newcomers to Class 3A will finally accomplish what they were blocked from doing in 4A.



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