The seniors walk by the trophy case outside of the main office at Denison High School and might not even notice the spot that has been empty for all but the first six weeks they have walked those halls.
It can be hard to notice what’s missing when you barely saw it there in the first place.
What had been a daily ritual for the Jackets — put the Ax on display in the morning and lock it away after the final bell — predates those about to finish their time at Denison.
“There are pictures outside the office and each senior class has the Ax. ’11, ’12, ’13 it’s missing,” senior defensive end Sergio Orona said. “I never noticed that before. Everyone feels it. People are feeling change in Denison. Friday’s taking forever to get here.”
There is hope the final months will see the return of a much-coveted rivalry trophy as Denison (2-2, 1-0) faces Sherman (2-2, 1-0) in the 115th Battle of the Ax at Bearcat Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night.
“The senior class, they don’t want to go out without the Ax,” senior Jaleel Dade said. “I’m going to treat it like the last two weeks and how we’ve been preparing.”
After Denison won three straight and six of seven in the series, the Bearcats have taken the last three meetings — and none of them have been close. Sherman has outscored the Yellow Jackets by a combined 130-45 in that span, including 42-21 a year ago, and is trying for something that hasn’t been done since 1987-90, when it kept the Ax for four straight years.
“It’s going to come down to who wants it more,” Orona said. “I have confidence in my defense and our seniors to get the job done.”
Both teams started District 13-4A action with an offensively-charged victory last week and the winner is guaranteed to stay in first place along with annual bragging rights.
“I’ve been really proud of the way our kids are preparing,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “There’s a lot more confidence. We’re obviously better that we were this time last year.”
The Jackets pulled out a 47-46 victory against Wylie East for a second straight victory, needing to survive in the final minute after almost giving away a 13-point lead with just over three minutes remaining.
But Quashawn Carrell blocked two extra points in that span, the last coming with 27 seconds left to keep the Raiders from forcing overtime.
Three Yellow Jackets went over 100 rushing yards and scored at least two touchdowns as Denison ran the ball 61 times for 524 yards. Quarterback Devon Blanton had 192 yards, running back Denard Whitfield finished with 178 yards and fullback Colton Henslee added 117 yards.
“It helps you play action,” Rogers said about the diversity of the running game. “There’s more options. If those safeties have to make more decisions, it can change things.”
Wylie East scored 32 of its points in the second half and used several big plays to mount a comeback that fell just one point short.
“We’ve got to be better at the little things. You can’t do the little things and have success,” Rogers said. “Pressure’s something you feel when you can’t do something. Do your job. Do it to the best of your ability.”
The Bearcats opened the season with a win against Little Elm before losses against Sulphur Springs and Highland Park. Sherman then opened district with a 55-44 victory against McKinney North last Friday, relying heavily on senior running back Tre’ Mask.
Mask has been the Bearcats’ go-to weapon all season and had a monster effort against the Bulldogs — 253 yards and seven touchdowns on 27 carries.
“We’ve got to contain him,” Orona said. “You’ve got to respect him. At the same time you can’t look at Sherman as a one-man team.”
It was a welcome sight for Sherman, which rolled up 463 yards against North compared to the 493 yards combined in the previous three games. The issue has been the passing game as quarterbacks Case Rolen and Dalton Felder split time to determine who was going to lead the offense.
Rolen got the nod last weekend and had his best effort of the season but is still completing just 45 percent of his passes, averaging 58 yards per contest and has just one TD throw this season.
Mask also leads the team in receiving with 12 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown — he is the only Bearcat with double-digit receptions and over 100 yards — but Sherman does return first-team all-district tight end Ja’Quay Pough.
“He’s as good a receiver as he is a running back,” Rogers said. “He’s very talented. And our kids know that.”
After allowing 245 yards per game in non-district play, the Bearcat defense gave up 419 to McKinney North. The Bulldogs got a majority of that through the air but Denison has struggled in the passing game since Blanton took over at quarterback with a total of 64 yards in two games.
Jordan Hume was an all-district first-team pick at safety last season as a junior while Chadd Perry and Dakota Denney have interception returns for touchdowns this year.
“They’re the best team we’ve played so far,” Rogers said. “I think this one will be interesting.”