David vs. Goliath: Forney Jackrabbits set to face Aledo in the UIL Class 5A D1 State Semifinal
The Forney Jackrabbits have created a team culture that continues to rock North Texas this season. After a five-year playoff drought, head coach Jeffrey Fleener joined the program in 2021, took control of the ship, and turned it right around. Since taking over, the team has seen a 27-9 record and playoff appearances. Embarking on an incredible journey this season, the team is headed to the UIL Class 5A Division I State Semifinals against a giant in the state: the Aledo Bearcats. VYPE DFW talked to coach Fleener about exactly what fans can expect out of the Jackrabbits this week.
This season, Forney has outscored their opponents by a combined 413 points. Having lost only one game all season-- a 13-7 battle against Longview in district play-- the team has showcased their ability to defy odds, put hard work to the test, and come out on top week after week since summer practice began.
As the team prepares to take on fan-proclaimed "Title Town" Aledo, VYPE DFW caught up with coach Fleener regarding the Jackrabbits' success this season. "This team has created a standard to play for each other instead of playing for personal glory," said Fleener. "We are in the state semi-finals because we have a team of young men that don't care who gets the credit. Not only that, we do whatever it takes to win the game. This team does not ride the roller coaster of highs and lows throughout the game - they trust each other to DYJ (Do Your Job) and that will lead us to victories."
Trusting each other to do their jobs came in handy last week as Forney traveled just up the road from their own stadium to face a tough Lancaster team at Rockwall's Wilkerson Sanders stadium in the quarterfinals. In a thrilling come-from-behind, double-overtime victory, Forney defeated Lancaster with a 43-41 victory. Led by Javian Osborne, Kyle Crawford, Alijah Merkson, Kofi Eduful, and others, the team powered through a battle to put up one of the most incredible games of the season. Osborne, who is just a sophomore, recorded three rushing touchdowns on 23 carries for 99 yards in the victory while Crawford connected with Imari Jehiel for another score in the game. Merkson also scored on a 75-yard kick return for the Jackrabbits and Austin Flowers recorded a 35-yard pick-six for a Forney score.
An electric crowd that never once showed doubt in their team, the Jackrabbit fans showed up and showed out throughout the entire game as the team continued their battle. With immense support throughout the season, the community surrounding the team has been more than appreciated by Fleener and his squad. "We are not where we are this week without the support of our community-- not just this year, but also with their support the last three years to help us build the program into what it is today. We take it very seriously that we are playing for them for everything they do for us and that we are blessed to represent Forney."
Aledo, the winningest team in state title history with 11 to their legacy, is undefeated on the season (14-0, 8-0). Athletes like Trace Clarkson, Raycine Guillory Jr (who averages about 112 rushing yards per game), Hauss Hejny, Hawk Patrick-Daniels, Davhon Keys, Ben McElree, and others have outplayed their opponents all season long outscoring them by a combined nearly 500 points this season. "Fans will see a matchup of two very similar teams that are built on playing physical, sound defense and offensively find ways to get their playmakers the ball in favorable matchups," started Fleener. "We have to play mistake-free football and not give Aledo any extra help by beating ourselves."
Athletes like Osborne (who has averaged roughly 154 rushing yards per game), Eduful, Merkson, Ben Perin, Cameron Carter, Landry Hopkins, Tristan Bennett, and others can be expected to remain determined, focused, and ready to get their jobs done as they suit up and take the field on Friday night. "The message to our team all week has been that great teams like Aledo were all in our situation at one time. They had to beat the best to start their streak of competing for state championships year in and year out," said Fleener. The team might be considered underdogs on paper, but they show no doubt or fear as they prepare to take on the giant in the biggest game that they have played in 23 years.
Kick-off is set for 7:30 on Friday at Midlothian ISD Multi-Purpose Stadium.