By JUSTIN RAINS
It hasn’t been all that pretty, but in the end, the Palestine football team is right where it needs to be.
Sitting unbeaten in district, a win away from locking up its second-straight playoff spot.
The Wildcats (6-2, 2-) can do that Friday, when they welcome in winless Mexia (0-8, 0-2) to Wildcat Stadium (1600 S. Loop 256, Palestine, Texas 75801) Friday for Senior Night. Kick-off is set for 7:30 p.m.
Despite the fact that the Blackcats come in winless, PHS coach Lance Angel said his team is focused on the task at hand.
“It’s still Mexia and they still have the name Mexia. Our kids are fired up,” he said. “For our seniors, it’s their last night on this field. Talking of next week or playoffs haven’t even come up with our kids.”
Palestine hasn’t looked crisp since before the bye week, but have managed to get wins against Rusk (35-28) and Groesbeck (30-23) to open district play.
The biggest issue has been the Wildcats inability to hold onto the football in those two games. Combined, the Wildcats have turned it over six times in those two games.
“For us, we’ve still got a lot of areas to improve on. The biggest one is to not turn the ball over,” Angel said. “It’s become a contagious disease that we’re going to fix this week. We’ve spent more time this week working on ball security.”
Because of those turnovers, the Wildcats have found themselves facing deficits they probably didn’t expect to face. With that comes a sense of urgency, which has led to Palestine being mainly a running team.
In the last two weeks, the Wildcats have attempted only 12 passes, four of which have been intercepted.
Angel said that the team wants balance and still believes the growth of quarterback Gee Clark, but that at some point, the need to win the game takes over.
“We want to be balanced, but there’s some point in a game where it comes down to what do we have to do to win the game,” he said. “Obviously we want to throw the ball around and be confident in doing it and we’re still very confident in what Gee can do. He’s still progressing each week and getting better.”
While the offense has struggled and given opposing offenses plenty of chances, the Palestine defense has mostly been up to the task.
The Wildcats are allowing less than 20 points a game, and the Palestine defense again earned its stripes against Groesbeck, stopping the Goats on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line late in the game Friday.
“If our defense wasn’t as good as they were, I’m not sure — with the turnovers we’ve had — that we would’ve won the last two games,” Angel said. “The defense has bailed us out numerous times. We want to take some pressure off the defense this week and the rest of the season by hanging on to the ball and not having turnovers be a factor.”
Mexia comes facing a bit of an identity crisis. During their bye week — prior to last week’s loss to Fairfield — the Blackcats completely changed their offense, going to the wing-T.
So far this season, Mexia has shown offensive looks from the spread, the I-formation and now the wing-T.
“The dilemma that gives us is we don’t know if they’re going to be in the shotgun, I-formation or slot-T. So, we have to prepare for all three which limits what you can show the kids,” Angel said. “We don’t know. We’re trying to prepare for all and then make the game-time adjustments.”
On the year, Mexia is averaging just over 14 points per game, while giving up a staggering 52 per game.
The Wildcat offense was boosted by the return of running back Jarrell Owens against Groesbeck. The big junior ran for 105 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown, adding another dimension to the dynamic Palestine rushing attack.
“He did a great job when he was in there fresh, but then he got tired,” Angel said. “We still need a game or two for him to get himself in condition...it’s a deal for him where he knows he’s got to get some extra conditioning in.”
Ben Luckett, who left the Groesbeck game early with an injury, will be a game-time decision. Angel said the team is playing it safe with a possible district-title game next week and then the playoffs.
Friday will also be Student Night at Wildcat Stadium, with all Palestine ISD students getting into the game for $1.
Students in 12th through seventh grade get in for a $1 with a student ID, while students in sixth grade and below get in for a $1 with a parent.
Sports editor Justin Rains can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org