Suddenly, the Mason Punchers' role has changed.
Mason vs. Shiner
What: Class 1A, Division I state quarterfinal
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Bernard Birklebach Field, Georgetown ISD Athletic Complex
Records: Mason is 12-0; Shiner is 8-5
Of note: The Punchers and Comanches meet for the second consecutive season, this time with a trio to the state semifinals on the line. Mason held off No. 1 Ganado 7-0 last week in a defensive slugfest. Shiner outclassed Masonís district-mate Winters 42-14 last week. The winner will play Lovelady or Garrison next week.
Mason no longer is just a top 10 team, a team trying to knock off No. 1 or an undefeated team seeking its first state championship in football. After last week's 7-0 win over Ganado, which had been ranked No. 1 all season, the Punchers suddenly have emerged as the favorite to win this year's Class 1A Division I state championship.
With all due respect to the other seven state quarterfinalists, Mason would be favored to beat Shiner, Stamford, Seymour, Muenster, Mart, Garrison or Lovelady.
First-year Mason head coach Kade Burns doesn't want to talk about rankings and favorites. He can't afford to. The history of the Texas schoolboy playoffs is littered with good teams that beat the favorite -- as Mason did last week -- then suffered a letdown and were eliminated the following week.
"Nothing changes as far as we're concerned," Burns said this week. "We don't look at polls and rankings. We look at the next opponent. Beating Ganado was a big win, no doubt. But this next week is another big game with a Shiner team that lost to Ganado by one point (earlier this season).
"At this point, they're all championship-level games."
While Burns is determined to keep his team focused on its next opponent, he also was smart enough back in August to set goals that looked ahead and matched his team's potential. The Punchers returned 15 starters, plus others with significant experience, from last year's 12-2 state quarterfinalist team.
A lot of coaches and their players set preseason goals to make the playoffs, win a postseason game or play December football. Once they reach that goal, players often become satisfied. They've exceeded expectations. They've lost a couple of two-way starters to injuries along the way. They're tired from a 12-game season, plus two scrimmages and two-a-day practices in the summer heat.
The weather has gotten cold for practice. They're expecting a blue norther to hit before this week's game. The next opponent is intimidating, hard-hitting and physical.
Teams that find themselves in this situation often lose their drive, their hunger, their will. They basically chalk it up as a good season and get whipped by a hungrier team with loftier goals.
"We always talk about staying hungry," Burns said. "It sounds simplistic, but when you get to this point, the teams that want to keep playing are the ones that show up and advance."
Burns walked into an unusual situation for a first-year coach. With the talent and experience he inherited, anything short of reaching the state championship game might be considered disappointing. So the coach set lofty goals.
"We wanted to win our first game, and we wanted to win our district and we wanted to play in December," Burns said. "But we made a little agreement that, once we started district, we wanted to go 10-0. We wanted to win our four district games and then win our six playoff games. We want to be playing on December 15th.
"Our kids understand that's our ultimate goal. They understand there's an opportunity here."
Actually, the Punchers could go 9-0 after district and still win state because they received a first-round playoff bye for winning district. But the goal doesn't change: Go undefeated from the time district starts through the Dec. 15 state championship game.
Mason proved it has a veteran team that realizes the bottom line come playoff time last week against Ganado. In the second half, the Indians ran 41 offensive plays, including 26 in the Punchers' half of the field, compared to 14 offensive plays for Mason. But the Punchers' defense understood the bottom line by keeping the Indians out of the end zone.
That maturity is why the Punchers aren't satisfied with beating the No. 1 team or winning 12 games or playing December football. Their experience allows them to understand that, without winning three more games, beating Ganado meant nothing.
Burns is correct in saying the opportunity is there -- perhaps the best opportunity the Punchers have ever had. Certainly their best opportunity since making two state semifinals appearances in the 1950s.
"You know," Burns said, "during two-a-days, it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But now, we've basically got three games and two weeks of practice left, if we keep winning. That light's getting bigger and bigger."
Mike Lee writes a high school football column on Fridays during the season. He can be contacted at email@example.com.