The Denton County Rhinos did it again.
Just one week after shocking the developmental football world by ending the Texas Bullets 24-game winning streak with a 55-51 road win, they put up 35 unanswered points late in the second half in Midland on Saturday to knock off the previously unbeaten, No. 1 seed West Texas Pride, 35-32.
“It was a completely freaking crazy game,” Rhinos head coach Jim Mundy told Developmental Football USA. “That’s two weeks in a row. In 17 years, I’ve never experienced this game either. We came out and it was so hot, it was 116 degrees on the turf and we were on the west side blazing in that sun. We wore all black, so that didn’t help. We went out in the first half and the offense was just as flat as can be, no air in it whatsoever. We couldn’t move the ball, we couldn’t do anything right.”
Led by veteran quarterback Chris Ware, the Pride, on the other hand, put up score after score in the first half and built a 25-0 lead going into halftime.
“The West Texas Pride, they’re one of those teams where they don’t have a lot of flash to them, offensively, but man are they fundamentally sound and disciplined,” Mundy said. “That was one of the best offensive lines I’ve seen in a while and those running backs are tough, tough, tough. They ran the ball with regularity in the first half, with ease, everything was five, six, seven yards.
“We went down at halftime 25-0. Emotions are flaring, everyone is riled up, ticked off, but we thought there was still a chance if we could come together.”
Mid-way through the third quarter, the Pride scored again to go up 32-0 with 6:55 left in the quarter. At that point, it looked like West Texas would just run the football, get some back-ups some playing time, walk out with a comfortable win and get ready to play for the Minor Professional Football League Championship.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this can’t be happening. We can’t go out this way’” Mundy said.
“We went down in the first half and we were down on each other. Everything was going wrong. We went to the locker room, regrouped and remembered what we were fighting for and who we were fighting for. We’re fighting for each other. We came back out and started clicking and when we’re clicking, we’re pretty hard to stop.”
The Rhinos finally got on the board to make it a 32-6 game with 2:35 left in the third quarter.
“At that point, the emotions changed,” Mundy said. “We got a score, then we got a stop. I turned around and told the team, ‘Just one more score, one more stop. Simple as that.”
Moments later a Rhinos interception led to points and a two-point conversion made it 32-14 with 14:05 left in the ball game.
“I don’t remember the exact scenario, but there were two or three turnovers by the Pride that allowed us to get the ball back quickly,” Mundy said.
The Rhinos got the ball back and scored again to cut the lead to 32-20 with 11:18 left in the game, then pulled within five, 32-27, with 7:18 to go.
“The players on the field – especially in those conditions, in over 100-degree heat, 115, actually, and still making that kind of effort in the last 22 minutes of the game – it’s not one or two players, it’s everybody,” Mundy said. “Everybody did their job inside and out, top to bottom. They stepped up and realized what was on the line and without each other they don’t get anywhere. They all stepped up and left it all on the field.”
With 2:12 remaining, Denton County got their first lead of the game and completed a two-point attempt to take a 35-32 lead.
“We made a decision to go for the two-point conversion because they have a good kicker,” Mundy said. “Our defense went out with about two minutes left in the game and shut them down, three and out. I think we ended their fourth down on a sack.
“It was pretty crazy. I’ve never been on either side of a comeback like that in 17 years. Thirty-five points in 22 minutes was something I’ve never seen and I can’t believe I witnessed it. It was just incredible.”
The Rhinos started out the season 0-3 before winning five straight to improve to 5-3. Then, they dropped two in a row to finish the regular season 5-5.
The way the MPFL Metro Division standings shook out, Denton County stumbled into a wildcard playoff spot against the Dallas Vikings, which they won 34-14 before making national headlines and becoming a fan favorite, inheriting some fans from other teams who are no longer in contention.
“The thing is, we know what losing feels like,” Mundy said. “We know what getting blown out feels like. We know every angle. We’ve won close games. We’ve lost close games. We know the feeling of every angle of the game, so now, none of it affects our attitude.”
Austin (10-2 in MPFL) is coming off a 24-17 win against the North Texas Stampede (11-4, 8-4 in MPFL). So far this season, the Bullets are the only team to beat the Vipers, which they did twice.
“I was hoping we would be able to carry the enthusiasm and the emotion over from the Bullets to the Pride and it took us two and a half quarters, but we finally got there and it worked out for us,” Mundy said. “We’re hoping we can start off better this week, that’s my whole goal now. I firmly believe if we can keep the game close, we will win.”
A Vipers win would give them their third league title in five years – their fourth in seven years – and their fifth consecutive 11-win season. Austin has been to six conference championships in the last seven years and won five of them. A win Saturday would also make them the first ever two-time MPFL Champion, which would give them the best resume in Texas for a developmental football team since 2011.
“Their defense is their hallmark and their run game is their offensive hallmark,” Mundy said. “We’re going to have to get down and dirty and play some old school football, with sound defense and a strong run game, and see what happens. This is going to be as tough, or tougher, than the last two games, no doubt.”
On the outside, looking in, it looks like 2017 could be the year of the Rhinos, with the way things have shaken out in the MPFL playoffs – going from a .500 team, barely making the playoffs to being one of the hottest names in developmental football around the country.
However, Mundy and his team are not buying into all that.
“We’ve heard the destiny line, we’ve heard the Cinderella line, we’ve heard we’re the King Slayers and that’s all great and feels good and everything,” Mundy said. “First, Austin is a perennial power, they’ve got trophies all over the place. They know what they’re doing. They’re tested, they’re battled probed. They’re not going to shirk under pressure. The thing that’s impressed me the most, when I’ve seen them play, is how fundamentally sound and disciplined and poised they are. They don’t care how you’re playing, they’re going to play their game and they’re not going to be shaken by the big stage at all.”
A championship trophy would be the icing on the cake for Mundy’s 17-year career at the developmental level and would put an exclamation point at the end of the Rhinos unforgettable playoff run.
“That’s the ultimate,” Mundy said. “I don’t think there’s any other way to describe than just the ultimate.”
In 2001, Mundy won a league championship as a player for the Denton Blast. Then, he became a coach in his second year at this level and lost in a championship game by three points. The following year, the Texas United Football League was formed and Mundy won his first championship as a coach.
“To start three years and play in three championship games, it would mean everything to me to close it out with a trophy and it’s not just so much for me honestly,” Mundy said. “I’ve held up some championship trophies and know how that feels and it’s great, but there are a lot of guys on my team that haven’t and I see it in their eyes how bad they want it. That’s something that’s there for life and that brotherhood, that’s there for life.
“Those bonds aren’t built by accident, they’re built by hard work and blood, sweat and tears. Some of these guys are retiring with me, players and coaches, and I would love to ride off into the sunset with those guys as champions. It would mean the world to be with those guys and raise the trophy at the end of the game.”
Shanklin Bowl VI will kick off at 7:00 Saturday night at East View High School in Georgetown.
“This is it,” Mundy said. “This is what we do this for. This is the whole reason. We got ourselves to the dance, now it’s time to show up and show out or go home. All the clichés, they’re there and they’re clichés for a reason.”