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John Paul II junior Grayson James and the Cardinals are headed to the TAPPS state semifinals for the first time in program history.

It’s Thanksgiving week, and for the first time in its history, John Paul II is preparing for a football game in a couple of days.

Immersed in a season of firsts, the Cardinals added one more on Friday after defeating previously unbeaten Fort Worth Nolan, 49-15, to book the program’s first-ever trip to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools Division I state semifinals.

John Paul will next travel south for a 2 p.m. Saturday kickoff in Georgetown against San Antonio Antonian — a prospect that at one point seemed improbable for a team just over two years removed from snapping a 33-game losing streak.

That victory, which came on Sept. 8, 2017 against Frisco Legacy Christian, was the first of many milestones enjoyed by the Cardinals under head coach George Teague.

“The best part about all of this is that our administration and community have been behind us trying to build a good football program,” Teague said. “To start where we were, coming off three 0-10 seasons, to gradually progress to where we could compete with the Prestonwoods, the Dunnes and the Lynches, it’s very heart-warming to me as a coach.”

Now in his third year with the Cardinals, Teague has seen that growth firsthand — from 2-9 in 2017 to 4-6 in 2018 and now 9-3 heading into Saturday’s semifinal against Antonian. Along the way, John Paul has amassed a score a benchmark moments — a single-season program record in wins, the team’s first district victory in more than a decade, and John Paul’s first-ever playoff win in a 21-16 triumph over San Antonio Central Catholic on Nov. 15.

“It’s just about all of us coming together as a team,” said Dylan Harris, John Paul senior lineman. “We’ve been with each other during summer workouts, and when I came on the scene, they just took me in and helped me be a part of the program and made me feel part of the family. There’s never a dull moment here — it’s a brotherhood.”

An uptick in talent, one requisite to compete in a district that has produced the last five TAPPS Division I state champions, has helped level the playing field for the Cardinals. With that, a youthful Cardinal bunch showcased glimpses of potential in 2018 with a 4-1 run through non-district play but still took its lumps against the heavyweights of its district — collectively outscored, 221-42, over the final four games of the regular season.

Fittingly enough, it was John Paul’s 37-35 win over reigning state champion Bishop Dunne on Oct. 18 — the program’s first district victory since 2008 and a game that required a near-national-record 11 overtimes — that helped the program begin to realize its potential.

“I think that was the turning point. That just showed that we can play with anybody,” said Grayson James, junior quarterback. “That’s a talented team and being able to battle with them and finish like we did really changed everything.”

James is in his second campaign with John Paul after starting behind center as a sophomore. In one year’s time, the passer has enjoyed leaps in passing yardage (1,775 to 3,395), passing touchdowns (15 to 37) and ball security (13 interceptions thrown to six).

Having a deep receiving corps has helped with that progress, with John Paul juniors Jerand Bradley (1,136 yards and 18 touchdowns) and Myles Parker (952 yards and 11 touchdowns) among the top five most productive private school receivers in the area.

Senior Carson Collins and junior Grant Robinson have commandeered the rushing attack for a John Paul offense averaging 394.8 yards and 32.7 points per game.

“They’ve bought into what we asked them to do in the spring,” said Rusty Oglesby, John Paul offensive coordinator. “We started deviating from some of the things we did last year. I took over during the playoffs and we kept things pretty simple in that game, but we knew we had the ability to get down the field and do some different things. 

“When you’ve got guys like this to throw and with a quarterback that can spin it, we just had to keep things simple and keep the reads easy.”

Defensively, juniors Brandon Tucker, Kyle Taylor and Max Mazur have all submitted campaigns of at least 100 tackles, with Taylor adding 24 tackles for loss and 15 sacks to complement freshman Braxton Myers, senior Cam Peters, junior Trey Spann and sophomore Terrance Brooks in the secondary.

That unit’s growth was front and center in the state quarterfinals against Nolan, shutting out the high-powered Vikings over the final three quarters on Friday.

“There was a lack of confidence at the beginning of the year,” Harris said. “After knocking off a great team like Nolan Catholic, our confidence is here and we’re ready to keep going.”

“I put that all on the backs of our kids,” Teague added. “They’re motivated, they want it and they’re hungry. They decided that they were going to come out and play the game to the best of their abilities. When they play fast, physical and smart, they can reach new heights.”

The Cardinals have scaled plenty already, and have a chance on Saturday against Antonian to reach another.

“It’s an honor and a big accomplishment,” Harris said. “It feels amazing to be able to come out and help this school make history and help put a smile on the faces of the players and parents. It’s a fun experience to have.”

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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