GRAHAM — With a second trip to the 3A Division II state title game in the past four years on the line Friday, Graham is squarely focused on its semifinal opponent Gilmer.
However this season ends for the 13-1 Steers, the long-term outlook is also very bright thanks to the production of several underclassmen.
The 2009 Graham state finalists were a senior-heavy squad that depended on only a few juniors and one sophomore.
Not so with the 2012 Steers, who will be returning their top three skill position players and have utilized seven sophomores.
"There's an old adage that for every sophomore you have on varsity, that's a loss. I've heard that said at a lot of places," Graham coach Kenny Davidson said. "I think we did better than seven losses." Davidson said he isn't worried about what grade a player is in, only whether they can makes the plays needed to be successful. And he pointed out that 14 games into the season, there isn't such a thing as a young player anymore.
But it's still impressive — and scary for the rest of 5-3A — that quarterback Ben Davis (3,124 yards, 26 TDs), tailback Dillon Gonzales (1,865 total yards, 28 TDs) and receiver Bryce Reeves (67-995-9) will all be back in 2013.
"I didn't play a lot, but last year helped a little bit. I saw Errik Ortiz run and I just got better and learned a lot," Gonzales said. "We're one game away from Cowboys Stadium and that's been our goal since last November."
Although they'll miss leaders Jerrod Mahan and Hunter Walls, the Steers' defense will have seven returning starters next season, including leading tackler Spur Hearne (124 tackles) and nose guard Husky Melendez (80 tackles).
"I know that next year we'll be good for sure, which is nice to know. But I'm right now just looking forward to this year," Reeves said. "I think our team is more close together and bonded. Last year we had a lot of fighting going on."
Currently, Graham is starting four sophomores — offensive lineman Kenny Dixon, defensive end Dustin McWhorter, cornerback Landon Gonzales and outside linebacker Mike Freeze. Backups Hagan Hughes at tailback and Colton Langley at linebacker have also contributed.
"All those kids showed up this year and they've played some of the biggest roles on the team," said senior Hunter Jones, who along with Reeves are the team's only two-way starters. "They say senior leadership is what you need. We have the senior leadership and we also have the underclassmen that give it their all every game."
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Much has been written about the Graham defense's penchant for turning turnovers into touchdowns — mostly returning interceptions for scores.
When Jones jumped a rout and picked off Gatesville quarterback Cole Edmiston in the first half, he had 54 yards of open turf in front of him. But Edmiston ran him down after 32 yards, denying Jones Graham's 10th defensive score of 2012.
"I got that pick and I was running down the sidelines and I saw him there and was like, 'Dadgum it,'" Jones said. "He's a stud. They told me I should have hurdled him or gone around him, and I was like, 'That's crazy.'"
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The last Graham team that played this deep into the season had a prominent coaching father and son behind it.
While the McCoys have moved on, senior wideout Braden Lang is enjoying this playoff ride with his father, assistant coach Brad Lang.
"Being with my dad, having him as a coach and going through a state run, it's just been a really fun year," said Lang, who has 23 catches for 308 yards.
Assistant coach Robert Sides has had a sophomore son on varsity both three years ago and now. Derek Sides is a backup quarterback and receiver, while his older brother Brian was the only sophomore who played in 2009.
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Usually Fox Sports Southwest sideline reporter and postgame show host Emily Jones can be found near the Rangers dugout or in front of the camera after the Mavericks play.
But Jones was in Stephenville last week watching the Steers' exciting 40-35 victory over Gatesville.
The reason? She is the aunt of Graham linebacker Hunter Hughes and his younger brother Hagen, who is a tailback.
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In the past decade, an area 3A program has won the region four times. The first three went 1-2 in the state semifinals.
In 2009, Graham defeated Pittsburg 27-20. Vernon lost to Atlanta in 2003 (32-14) and to Celina in 2006 (30-13).