When Jamie Driskell took over as coach at Malakoff in 2009, the Tigers were coming off a 0-10 season. The program had a .482 all-time winning percentage and had never been past the third round of the playoffs.
On Friday, Malakoff will play Yoakum for a spot in the Class 3A Division I state title game. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. at UT's Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin.
The Tigers (14-0) have set the school record for wins and are farther than any prior team has advanced in the playoffs. Malakoff is 64-18 (.780 winning percentage) under Driskell and have as many eight-win seasons in the last eight years as the school did from 1925-2008.
"It's been a lot of hard work from a lot of people," Driskell said of the transformation. "When we first got here the kids had a totally different mindset than it is now."
Last year the Tigers went 10-2, falling to eventual state runner-up Cameron Yoe 45-44 in the second round of the playoffs.
Despite the early playoff exit, Malakoff learned it could compete with the state's best, giving the Yoemen a run for their money. Yoe won three state titles from 2012-2014.
Last week in the Region III finals, the Tigers again faced the Yoemen.
Malakoff led 20-13 at halftime, but trailed 27-20 and 34-26 before rallying. The Tigers tied the game on a 14-yard pass from quarterback Judd Miller to receiver Tyler Russell, who then connected on a two-point conversion to make it 34-34.
"Our kids had a lot of grit, a lot of fight," Driskell said. "For them to come back and tie it and put us in a situation with a chance to win it was big."
In overtime, Malakoff won the toss and elected to go on defense first. The stop unit, which allows 14.7 points per game, pushed back Yoe for a loss on first down to help set up a turnover on downs.
"We've leaned on our defense all year," Driskell said. "They're flying around to the ball and they're coming up with big stops in the game."
Then with the game on the line, sophomore kicker Everado Garcia was sent out to kick a 30-yard field goal on fourth down.
Last year as a freshman, Garcia pulled a quad muscle in the one-point loss to Yoe. This year his kick was true as Malakoff won 37-34.
"He felt guilty, felt like he lost the game (last year)," Driskell said. "He didn't, but he felt that way. This year he's been awesome for us.
"I had all the faith in the world in him. We weren't worried about him not kicking it well ... we were more concerned about them blocking it."
Garcia was in third grade when Driskell became the Malakoff coach and his kick lifted the Tigers to their first state semifinal.
But the kicker wasn't the only star of the game. Russell made two interceptions while Bre'shawn Williams had an interception and 42-yard scoring jaunt.
The star for most of the season has been the defense.
Chase Busch is the leader at middle linebacker, getting everyone lined up. Danyal Littleton and Larry Coker are long, rangy defensive ends who set the tone for a strong front four. Outside linebacker Jack Patton leads the team in tackles. All four are seniors.
"For pretty much most the year we've been good tacklers," Driskell said. "We've played more physical than we have in recent years."
Offensively, Miller gives the Tigers a running and passing threat while Williams has more than 1,200 yards rushing. Overall Malakoff tries to stay balanced between running and passing.
"The offensive line has probably been the reason for that and we can do different things," Driskell said.
Yoakum (10-4) comes into the game against Malakoff on an eight-game winning streak after losing four of its first six games.
The Bulldogs run 77 percent of the time, averaging 262.1 yards per game on the ground. Senior Henry Enoch leads Yoakum with 1,071 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing.
The game will be played at the 100,000-seat home of the Texas Longhorns, which should create lasting memories for the players win or lose.
"Our goal was to let them play in a place where they can really remember it," Driskell said. "It's kind of a long trip for us but I think the kids will be really excited. They'll be in awe there for a while but it's going to be a fun experience for them."
And if they win once more, they'll be playing at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium for a chance at the state title against either Mineola or Wall.
"The kids have some fight in them," Driskell said. "They set a goal and they're trying to reach it and it's starting to become real and in sight."