WAXAHACHIE — Storylines are plentiful for the Southwestern Assemblies of God University football team as the Lions head into their final home game of the season.
After all, history is on the line Saturday at Stuart B. Lumpkins Stadium in Waxahachie.
The Lions will enter as the 16th-ranked team in the NAIA coaches poll to face No. 8 (8-0) Langston University. Both sides are undefeated in the Central States Football League (6-0), meaning the winner of the NAIA Game of the Week will clinch the conference championship along with the CSFL’s automatic berth into the 2017 NAIA Football Championship Series.
SAGU has never won a conference title, nor appeared in a playoff game, in program history. In 13 head-to-head matchups, the Lions of Waxahachie have also never defeated the Lions of Langston, Oklahoma.
None of which deter the confidence of SAGU head football coach Frank Tristan.
SAGU has won six-straight after dropping a non-conference game to Division III East Texas Baptist University in early September. Since then, the Lions have picked up a long-awaited signature win over then-No. 10 Arizona Christian (43-6) and roads victories against Texas College (52-7), Texas Wesleyan (42-7) and Oklahoma Panhandle State (29-21).
“The big thing for our guys is they had never really had a signature win,” Tristan said. “Beating Arizona Christian when they were No. 10 was kind of a signature win for our guys. It kind of got that monkey off our back, and now the guys are just really excited.”
“They are confident but definitely are not arrogant by any stretch of the imagination. They are just hungry. I’m really excited to get the kickoff going and to let the kids play. They have worked hard for it.”
Tristan, who took over the reins of the SAGU football program in 2015 after first joining the coaching staff as the offensive coordinator in 2012, credits a significant portion of this season’s successes to the SAGU roster that boasts a large helping of upperclassmen.
Donovan Jeanne (WR), Matt Lighter (DL), Toras Hill (WR), Elijah Pruitt (DB), Carl Morgan (DB), Ricky Bickham Jr (RB), JP Lowery (RB), Matt Williams (DB), Paul Garcia (LB), Zach Erwin (OL), Devo McNeal (OL), Paul Ellis (DL), Devon Petty (OL), and Stephen Lawson (WR) are all seniors who will be honored on the field prior to Saturday’s 2 p.m. kickoff.
Though the senior class might be small for some programs, Tristan said the senior class has provided the leadership on and off the field that has put the Lions in the position to make a little history.
“All of them have been in the program for three or more years. It has always been a challenge at SAGU to keep good players around after recruiting them as freshman.,” Tristan explained. “Kind of what I tell the guys is that you have sewn the seed the last three or four years and now you are reaping all of your hard work.”
He added, “Just like in high school, if you have to play a bunch of sophomores or freshmen on your varsity, then you’re not going to be very good. Now we are playing juniors and seniors and they have just really worked hard. It’s fun. It is really enjoyable to see good kids have success.”
Of course, the Lions also have a new, not-so-secret ace in the hole: offensive coordinator Sam Harrell.
The longtime Ennis High School football coach and offensive guru has the Lions on pace to shatter several offensive records.
SAGU enters having already scored 339 points in their eight games this season, which is already more than 2016 and just 21 points shy of the 360 points tallied in 2015. That year the Lions played in the program’s first, and only, bowl game. IT was also the most a Lion team has light up the scoreboard over the last 13 seasons.
“Coach Harrell has really simplified some things and the guys have really bought into what he is trying to do,” Tristan said. “Upfront we have three senior offensive linemen and two senior running backs, also. That combined with coach Harrell’s offensive mind and, really, his attention to detail has benefitted them. He also demands for them to be better, so with their seniority and their experience it has just made for a good combination.”
The Lion defense, which Tristan calls the plays for, has been extremely opportunistic this season, recording 21 sacks and intercepting seven passes while having surrendered just 178 points. For comparison, SAGU has allowed opponents to score 270 or more points nine times since 2004, including 413 points last season.
“We only start one freshman, so we have had a lot of retention on the defensive side with a lot of upperclassmen on the defense,” Tristan said. “They can make all of the checks without lining up wrong, which has really helped. We have also gotten a little faster on defense.”
Come Saturday afternoon, though, all of the past successes or failures, accolades, upsets, records or shortcomings can be thrown out. At 2 p.m., either No. 8 Langston University or No. 16 Southwestern Assemblies of God University will kick off in the unofficial 2017 Central States Football Conference championship game.
Senior Day festivities will commence prior to kickoff. There will also be a special performance by peewee cheerleaders who participated in the annual SAGU cheer camp, as well as the Langston marching band, during halftime. Admission is free for kindergarten through high school students. Those who cannot make it to Stuart B. Lumpkins Stadium can visit livestream.com/sagulive to watch from any device.
“For NAIA football it should be a cool atmosphere,” Tristan added.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith