After months of preparation and five years of watching their team fall short, the Mavericks stepped out onto Rice Stadium with resolve, ready to play the Kinkaid Falcons in a game that meant more to them than any other game this season. Their determination translated into a 27-21 defeat of their rivals.
“I knew a beat-down was coming,” Coach Alan Paul said.
“Everything I’ve done since 7th grade, as far as football goes, has all been for this game,” said Senior Captain Nathan Avery.
Fellow Senior Captain Jake Horowitz agreed, “Definitely the biggest thing for me is that we’ve all been thinking about this game for a year. Personally, I feel all of last year was building up to [Friday] night.”
With the creation of the new playoff system, Kinkaid (considered a large school and therefore D1) no longer belongs to the same division as SJS (considered a small school and therefore D2), so the game did not have as many SPC implications. The importance of this game for the Mavericks, however, has not changed–the game, for them, has never been just about SPC.
“Coach Paul talked to us before the game and said the coaches had a meeting with the Kinkaid coaches, and their coaches said the game was just a ‘friendly game,’” Senior Captain Jonathan Newar said. “That’s just not how it is.”
“This game–it’s about pride,” Horowitz said.
For seniors especially, the game represented one last chance to prevail against the rivals that have continuously triumphed over them throughout their high school and middle school careers.
“I thought it was just as important [despite the changes to SPC] because the last four years we haven’t beaten Kinkaid,” said senior Will Griffin. “I have never beaten Kinkaid in football.”
Newar added, “It does matter. It matters to the team that we beat Kinkaid, it matters to the guys before who had lost to Kinkaid–who had never had the chance to beat them. It couldn’t have possibly meant more to us.”
Part of the importance of the game stems from the hype surrounding it; the week leading up to the game consists of a proliferation of spirited activities. From decorations, to Homecoming, to pep rallies, to the themed out-of-uniform days, the idea of “Beat Kinkaid” seemed to predominate throughout the school. The excitement, while a welcome release for most students, can add pressure and distraction to the team.
“We try to shut it out as much as possible,” Avery said.
With such unique circumstances affecting their players, the coaches must put in special effort to ensure that the team remains concentrated on their goal.
“The best thing to do to combat this situation is to make sure you keep everything you have control over as normal as possible and make sure you stress to the players the importance of enjoying all the hoopla and hype but also the importance of keeping the focus on what we are really here for, to put our best effort into playing our best game and not letting anything distract us from that goal,” said Head Coach Steve Gleaves.
In order to get away from some of the hype, the team went to the wrestling room after watching the Kinkaid Video during the final pep rally and immediately got quiet, thinking ahead to what they would have to do later that evening.
“We handled the pressure well—it’s definitely a much bigger stage than anything we’ve ever done before,” said Newar.
In addition to the activities of Kinkaid Week and the string of losses that they hoped to end, the Mavericks were further motivated by letters from members of the SJS community that Coach Gleaves read to them before the game.
“That makes such a huge difference because they’re so heartfelt,” Avery said. “It really gets me going.”
As the 7:30 pm kickoff approached, the Mavericks felt confident about the game ahead.
“I was thinking, this is the last time we’re going to be out there, we have to make this one count,” said Avery. “I had a better feeling about that game than any other game.”
From the start of the game, the defense put their motto–“fight or die”–into action, with Jonathan and his brother, sophomore Michael Newar, picking up two interceptions in the first half. The defense also managed to hold Kinkaid to three touchdowns–their lowest this year in an SPC game.
“[In terms of defense] we didn’t run too many stunts. We just ran our base coverage and made plays,” Newar said. “We were way more physical than they were.”
“It was by far the most complete defensive game. We stopped them multiple times in the first half,” said senior Logan Smith.
The Mavericks faced a disappointment when Smith’s touchdown run in the first quarter was not counted. The run did have one benefit, though: “After my long touchdown run that was called back, Kinkaid was flying to the outside,” Smith said. “It opened up the middle for [Senior Captain] Ben [Griffin] and Nathan.” Ben and Avery delivered, scoring two touchdowns apiece.
With Ben’s 34-yard touchdown run, Avery’s 40-yard touchdown run, and a total of over 300 yards of rushing, the offensive line was a major factor in the game.
“It was the offensive line’s best game of the season,” Senior Steven Lukens said.
The true test of the Mavericks’ ability to remain strong and unified under pressure, however, came with less than three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, when the Falcons tied the score to 21-21.
“Our victory was less apparent then,” said senior Eric Hobby, “but when Risher [Randall] returned the kickoff, I had a pretty good idea we would score.”
Randall’s __ yard return set the stage for Avery’s final touchdown of the evening, bringing the score to 27-21. With only 1:34 remaining in the game, the ball returned to Kinkaid hands. As the Falcons pressed forward with __, the Mavericks’ were no longer sure if their 6-point touchdown was enough to win the game.
“We needed someone to step up,” said Will, “and Carl [Bernicker] did.”
“Our defense had been playing great all night, and we had been shutting down their pass in a lot of other areas, so I knew my turn was about to come,” Bernicker said.
Bernicker, with 46 seconds left on the clock, picked up a game-changing interception.
“It was slow-motion for everybody watching,” said Avery.
Added Hobby, “When Carl got that interception, it sealed the deal.”
As the crowd erupted in cheers and the team began celebrating, one person remained nervous: Avery.
“After that play was over and the offense came out on the field, I was sure we had to get a first down,” Avery said. “Then Ben comes on the field with tears running down his face, he can’t see, and he’s saying, ‘We’re taking a knee, Nathan.’”
With the team running the clock out, the Mavericks finally achieved what they had been dreaming about for years: victory.
“There is not a better feeling in the world,” Avery said.
The emotion proved overwhelming for some; Horowitz said, “Ben and I couldn’t make it over when everyone was lining up to shake hands. We were lying on the field, crying.”
For others, exhaustion prevailed: “I get emotional, so I thought I would be bawling all over the place, but I was too tired to even do that,” said Jonathan.
What the players can agree on is that this game was their best of the season.
“We had a complete game. Special teams, offense, and defense all played well,” said senior Harry Elkins.
While the Kinkaid game did not mark the end of the season for the Mavericks this year–meaning they had to quickly get back to work to prepare for their playoff game on Saturday–the shock, awe, and excitement of the game has yet to wear off.
Horowitz said, “It hasn’t even sunk in. It was surreal–that’s how I would describe it. It was such an out-of-body experience.”
Avery agreed, “I feel like I’m going to wake up any minute.”
And–as Baker gleefully told Coach Gleaves–the football team has one more honor to look forward to pertaining to their win: “Hey, Coach,” yelled Baker, “We’re going to be in the paper.”