NACOGDOCHES - For some schools, a two-year span without a district title is hardly a drought.
But for a program that has played deep into the playoffs five of the last six seasons, it's an eternity.
As John Tyler heads south to take on Nacogdoches in the District 16-5A finale at 7:30 p.m. Friday from Dragon Stadium, the Lions have one thing in mind.
"For the last two years we lost one game each year in a district game to not win the title," JT coach Ricklan Holmes said. "To make sure we take care of business Friday means a lot to us.
"By any means necessary we must win Friday to make sure that we are the true district champions of 16-5A."
The Lions (6-3, 6-0 in 16-5A) are on the cusp of their first league title since 2012, the second of consecutive trips to the state semifinals, a feat repeated in 2014. The last two years JT lost to Whitehouse (2013) and Ennis (2014) to lose out on the title.
Standing in the way is a Dragons (4-5, 3-3) team that is desperate for a win to get back to the playoffs for a third straight season.
John Tyler has clinched the No. 1 seed in the Class 5A Division I playoffs, where the matchup will likely send the Lions to Shreveport to play Texas High at Independence Stadium on Nov. 13. A Longview loss to Hallsville could change that, however.
With Lufkin (6-3, 5-1) ensured the No. 2 seed in Division I thanks to its coin-flip win over Ennis, Nacogdoches is left fighting with three other teams for the final two spots, both going to Division II.
The Ennis Lions (5-4, 4-2) are in the best position of the four, simply needing to win at Corsicana (6-3, 3-3) to grab the No. 1 seed in Division II. Corsicana could take that spot with a win over Ennis, which would put Ennis at No. 2 as the fourth-place team.
Because the Dragons lost to the Tigers, Nacogdoches needs to beat JT and for Ennis to beat Corsicana to reach the postseason. However, if Corsicana and Nacogdoches both lose, Lindale (4-5, 2-4) could swoop in and reach the playoffs with a win over Whitehouse (2-7, 0-6).
As for the game itself, John Tyler is looking for its seventh straight win after starting 0-3, following a pattern set in 2011 when the Lions reached the state semifinals via an 11-game winning streak.
Against Nacogdoches, JT will have to face a strong QB-RB combo in Noah Hildebrand and Phillip Jones. Hildebrand, a junior, has thrown for 1,544 yards while Jones, a senior, has rushed for 1,163 yards.
"You've got to watch out for the quarterback," Holmes said. "He's good, athletic and he knows how to throw the ball. He's got some good receivers to throw the ball to. Their running back is very explosive."
The Lions have allowed two 200-yard passers all year and have held opponents to 302.7 total yards per game over the last three weeks.
On the other side of the ball is perhaps the Dragons' biggest playmaker, Brandon Jones, a 6-0, 192-pound senior free safety who is coveted by just about every college football program in the nation.
It might take more time to list the schools that haven't offered Jones, one of (if not the) top ranked safeties in the nation in the class of 2016, who is also Nacogdoches' leading tackler.
"Anytime you go against a talent like Brandon Jones, you have to know where he is on the field because that's going to determine what we're going to be able to do and how we're going to be able to do it," Holmes said.
Brandon Jones will have his pick of big-time universities on National Signing Day in February, but first he'll try to pick off JT quarterback Bryson Smith.
John Tyler averages 393.2 yards per game, with Smith accounting for 339.4 yards with 27 total touchdowns and five interceptions. The junior needs 39 yards to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the season and 246 yards to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark passing.
Holmes said he's looking for another big game from running back James Allen, who is averaging 82 yards last three games, and for other receivers to step up to help the top duo of Duntayviun Gross (49-660) and Damion Miller (30-656).
Last year JT used a 44-14 win over Nacogdoches as a springboard to a playoff run that reached to the state semifinals. With the district title on the line Friday night, the Lions are seeking more than momentum - they want the golden ball.
"First of all we want to make sure we're the outright champion for the district championship," Holmes said. "But then to go into the playoffs with a win under your belt is even better."
John Tyler Lions at Nacogdoches Lions
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Dragon Stadium, Nacogdoches
Radio: KTBB NewsTalk 97.5-FM, Tyler
Records: John Tyler - 6-3 (6-0 District 16-5A); Nacogdoches - 4-5 (3-3)
Last Week's Results: John Tyler 57, Jacksonville 21; Nacogdoches 51, Whitehouse 21
2014 Result: John Tyler 44, Nacogdoches 14
All-Time Series: John Tyler leads 32-3-1.
Players to Watch: John Tyler - CB Javontavius Mosley (6-2, 170 Jr.), CB Kieran Freeman (5-8, 160, Jr.), QB Bryson Smith (6-0, 160, Jr.). Nacogdoches - FS Brandon Jones (6-0, 192, Sr.), QB Noah Hildebrand (6-1, 180, Jr.), RB Phillip Jones (5-9, 172, Sr.).
Quick Slant: It's been a while since John Tyler's secondary has truly been tested, having seen 38 passes the last three weeks, 12 of which were completed. Hildebrand (1,544 yards) is one of the better passers in 16-5A, with the speedy Alex Gregory his primary target along with Jaylon Maxie, both of whom will give Mosley and Freeman their best test since Lufkin threw 30 times. Hildebrand can also hand it off to either Jones, with Phillip Jones (1,163 yards) one of the top runners in the district. Smith meanwhile is a top passer and runner, averaging 339.4 total yards of offense per game. He's thrown for 14 touchdowns with five interceptions while adding a team-high 13 touchdowns on the ground. The Dragons need a win to ensure a playoff berth as a loss could create a three-way tie with Lindale and Corsicana for fourth place. The Eagles own the tie-breaker and would earn the final postseason spot in that scenario. Should Nacogdoches win, the Dragons also need Corsicana to lose to Ennis to reach the playoffs. The Lions are ensured the No. 1 seed in Division I, but with a win will claim the 16-5A title out right.
Quotable: "It's going to be tough. Nac is a very tough and talented team. They play hard. Coach (Bobby) Reyes is doing a great job with his kids. As you can see every year they're getting better and better." - JT coach Ricklan Holmes.
Stadium Address: Dragon Stadium (8,000) - 4310 Appleby Sand Road, Nacogdoches.
Next Up: John Tyler in playoffs, TBD; Nacogdoches TBD.
District 16-5A Playoff Scenarios
John Tyler: Clinched No. 1 in D-I
Lufkin: Clinched No. 2 in D-I
Ennis: No. 1 in D-II with win, No. 2 in D-II with loss
Corsicana: No. 1 in D-II with win, No. 2 in D-II with loss and Nacogdoches and Lindale losses
Nacogdoches: No. 2 in D-II with win and Corsicana loss
Lindale: No. 2 in D-II with win and Corsicana and Lindale losses