Just over one year removed from one of the more thrilling installments of the rivalry’s 20-plus years on the gridiron, Plano West head coach Tyler Soukup admits plenty has changed since the last time his Wolves squared off with Plano East.
That last encounter, which took place Nov. 1, 2019, saw West erase a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit to surprise the Panthers, 36-35. The win snapped a 34-game losing streak that dated back to September 2016 and doubled as the first win of Soukup’s head coaching career. The Wolves and Panthers will reconvene at Kimbrough Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday in a meeting between two programs hungry for a return to the playoffs.
“In talking to the kids, so much has transpired since then,” Soukup said. “It’s an important rivalry game, but moreover than any of that, we’re talking about playoff positioning and trying to establish ourselves at 2-1 in the district. That’s ultimately our focus and outweighs any other variables that can play into the game.”
The rivalry’s significance isn’t lost on Soukup, though. He said he learned fairly early last season about the uptick in energy that comes with preparing for one of Plano ISD’s rivalry games. He saw his kids channel that enthusiasm into two of the Wolves’ best showings last season, including one that came at the expense of an East team that West by 18 points in the fourth quarter before falling at the wire, 36-35.
“There were a lot of lost opportunities in the last couple minutes of that game,” said Joey McCullough, East head coach. “There were a lot of emotions near the end of that game. It’s definitely one of those things that I think about and how it shouldn’t have happened. We know the mistakes we made and we’ve got make sure that we learned from them.”
McCullough hopes it’s enough to nudge his Panthers into the win column amid an 0-5 start. The schedule has been daunting — East’s five opponents have a combined record of 16-6 and all five qualified for the playoffs last year — but despite the competition, McCullough said that consistency remains the team’s biggest hurdle.
“The scheme works, it’s about execution. It’s not that we’re not executing — we’re just not executing consistently enough,” he said. “We have to execute at a higher level. We’ve got to protect the football and tackle better.”
East struggled with both last week, surrendering a season-high 56 points to Lewisville in a game where the Panthers lost two fumbles and committed 11 penalties. It was enough to undo a career night out of the backfield for junior Ismail Mahdi, who ran for 339 yards and five touchdowns in the latest chapter of his breakout year.
“They find so many creative ways to get [Mahdi] the football. They’ve moved him around and he’s played running back and receiver for them,” Soukup said. “Just getting a plan to slow him down is going to be big — I don’t know if you can stop him, because he’s as talented a skill player as anyone we’ll see this season.”
Mahdi’s big night wasn’t enough to overtake a Lewisville team that had dropped its district opener to West the week prior, 27-17. Where Friday’s 56-point showing against East is a bit more in line with what the Farmers are capable of most nights, the Wolves kept Lewisville’s high-powered attack in check — a showing that has been consistent with the team’s efforts on defense this season.
“Plano West has a great football team — one of the best I’ve seen this year. They are the best defensive team I’ve seen at Plano West in some time. (Senior) Jacob Stephens is one of the most exceptional linebackers that I’ve seen,” McCullough said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us this week, but we can’t worry about other people so much as we’ve got to focus on ourselves. We need to have good practices and rep, rep, rep. Our kids and coaches are still positive — we’ve just to go put it all together.”
Although both sides have battled injuries and absences so far, Soukup expects senior running back Tabren Yates to return to action after a quad injury suffered in the first half against Lewisville. The malady forced the Wolves’ leading rusher to miss last week’s game against Coppell game, although the backfield still hummed with a 100-plus-yard effort from sophomore Dermot White. With Yates on his way back, Soukup still expects White to have a role in the run game.
“As we start rushing and rolling, it’s good to know one of them won’t have to carry a consistent burden,” Soukup said. “Looking at those first couple weeks, there were series where Tabren carried the ball four or five consecutive times and we don’t have to do that. We can keep both guys fresh. It won’t be a 50-50 thing, but we know that a fresh Tabren is better than a tired Tabren and the same goes for Dermot.”
Yates’ return gives West another option to work the ball control offense that has kept the team on pace with Lewisville and Coppell to begin district play. Soukup said that a combination of points left on the field early on against Cowboys, coupled with an uptick in physicality by Coppell in the fourth quarter, contributed to the Wolves’ 31-20 loss on Friday.