Unbeaten Texas teams set for showdown

Preparation has been a major factor in the football powerhouse that David Aymond has built at North Shore High School on the east side of Houston soon after he arrived in 1994.

And his Mustangs have delivered, qualifying for the Class 5A playoffs all 15 seasons, winning a state championship in 2003 and now owning a state-record regular-season winning streak of 78 games that dates to November 2000.

The Mustangs, ranked No. 17 in the FAB 50 national football poll and No. 2 in the final Class 5A state poll, will face Fort Bend Hightower in a battle of unbeatens Friday night in the second round of the Division I playoffs at nearby Pasadena, Texas.

But this past season presented Aymond and numerous other coaches on or near Texas' gulf coast with circumstances that threw their seasons and very lives into turmoil.

Hurricane Ike hit during the second weekend of September. While North Shore suffered minimal damage, the immediate area was without power for weeks. Classes didn't resume until Sept. 29, and three non-district games were cancelled.

"You can't prepare for something like that," Aymond said.

About half of the football players' homes were still without power after school resumed. Ed Warken, athletic director for North Shore's Galena Park school district, said 11 Mustangs had yet to be located at that time.

Warken said 75 percent of the student body participates in a program that provides breakfast and lunch at school. So no school and no power at home meant many students went without regular meals for almost three weeks.

"When we finally came together, you could tell some weren't getting three meals a day," Aymond said. "It was a test of resiliency. Football provided some structure to everyone's life. And hope."

North Shore had just tied the state record for consecutive regular-season wins at 72, set by Southlake Carroll, when the season was placed on hold. Ironically, Carroll was the third of North Shore's cancelled games. The Saturday night date at Southlake, near Dallas, would have attracted attention from across Texas.

Efforts to reschedule the Carroll game for the following week, which had been an open week for both schools, fell through when Carroll filled that date on its own with a different opponent. Aymond was able to add a game at against state-ranked Lufkin, but only if the Mustangs would travel to East Texas.

Warken, in his 18th year as athletic director for the Galena Park district, said the players were back in a conditioning phase after not playing a game in 28 days.

"It was like starting over," Warken said. "They worked out for three days before even putting pads back on."

North Shore picked up where it left off, with a 28-21 victory at Lufkin, and finished the regular season at 8-0. All three non-district wins came against schools that also qualified for the playoffs. The Mustangs opened postseason play with a 30-10 victory over Deer Park to set up Friday night's meeting with Hightower (9-0).

"Hightower will be the most talented team that we play this year," Aymond said. "They have great defensive speed and can be explosive on offense."

It was North Shore's explosive offense that settled the issue early last week against Deer Park. The Mustangs received the ball first after Deer Park won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. It took North Shore only four plays to take a 7-0 lead. By halftime, the lead had grown to 17-3 and the Mustangs had outgained the Deer, 226 yards to 35.

Senior quarterback Alex Tillman passed for 209 yards and two touchdowns against the Deer, raising his totals for the year to 1,338 yards and 14 TDs. The running game was paced by junior Tracy Woods, who gained 109 yards.

Aymond, a Louisiana native, arrived at North Shore in 1994 following four years at Aldine Nimitz in North Houston. North Shore was built in the 1960s as the second high school in the Galena Park district.

While the older Galena Park High has a current enrollment of about 1,800, North Shore has grown into one of the largest high schools in the state, with about 4,500 students. In the five seasons before Aymond's hiring, the Mustangs collected a total of 10 wins. In his 15 seasons, the Mustangs have never had a losing regular season.

The second week of the playoffs has proved to be the most problematic for North Shore during the time period that coincides with the regular-season streak. The Mustangs have lost in the second round four times in the past six years. Last year, they reached the Division I semifinals before losing to Converse Judson 28-7.

Early in the decade, North Shore's playoff defeats were close calls: by one point to Aldine Eisenhower in 2002, two points to Alief Elsik in 2000 and three points in 2001 to Houston Madison in one of the most memorable games in Texas playoff history. North Shore lost to Madison 61-58 at the Astrodome despite gaining 605 yards.

"You see a score like that and say, 'How many overtimes?' None," Aymond recalled with a laugh. "We found out the same thing that USC found out; we couldn't tackle Vince Young."

The future star of the University of Texas' 2005 national championship team gained 192 yards rushing, 177 yards passing and scored six touchdowns.

Aymond says the streak doesn't become a burden to the players during the postseason.

"We don't talk about it," he said. "The next game is all you think about. If you devote all of your time, effort and focus to that, at the end of the season you can look back and see what you accomplished."

The Mustangs have overwhelmed opponents since playing the extra game at Lufkin in early October and winning 28-21. In the five District 21-5A games and the playoff opener, North Shore outscored its opponents 140-40.

And what does Aymond remember most about his 2003 title team? Well, how they dominated opponents. Even with a relatively close 23-7 championship win over The Woodlands, North Shore won its 15 games by an average of 40.9 points.

"You don't realize that until you look back," he said.

By Aymond's decree, the 2008 Mustangs aren't ready to do so just yet.

Jeff Miller recently left The Dallas Morning News after 21 years. He can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.