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One team is no stranger to playing football Thanksgiving week.

Fort Bend Marshall has been to this regional semifinal round six times in the last seven seasons, including the state final twice since 2018.

The other team had never advanced past the first round of the playoffs before this season, though it is only in its fifth year of varsity play.

Lake Creek is on a historic run, arguably the most feel-good story out of Region III-5A thanks to a breakout, dominant, out-of-nowhere campaign.

And now here they are, the upstart Lions versus the stalwart Buffs. Lake Creek and Marshall tango in the Region III-5A Division II semifinals at 1 p.m. Friday at Delmar Stadium.

Undefeated at 12-0, Lake Creek, averaging 56 points per game, is enjoying a year of firsts.

Its first district championship. Its first playoff win.

“I thought back in the offseason, looking at our depth chart, that if I could get them to buy in to what we were doing, we could be really, really good,” Lake Creek coach Pat Kennedy said. “Then we beat Angleton pretty early, and Angleton turned out to be much better than what everybody thought they’d be. We beat Elkins, and then it wasn’t until we played Waller in the third week, after playing from behind the first two weeks, that we played pretty solid. I thought then that we really had a chance, and we just started rolling.”

Marshall, 11-1 and victorious 83 times since 2015, is on a 10-game win streak, buoyed by a ferocious defense allowing just 6.3 points per game.

“This defense is playing better defense than what’s ever been at Marshall,” Buffs coach James Williams said.

That’s quite a statement for a reputable program that has made its name on that side of the ball.

Simply put, Lake Creek-Marshall, on paper, looks to be a classic in the making. The Lions are outscoring opponents by 36.6 points per game. The Buffs are outscoring foes by 35.3.

Kennedy said Marshall reminds of him of 2011 state semifinalist Dallas Skyline, which Kennedy faced as defensive coordinator at The Woodlands in the regional final.

Dynamic quarterback/receiver combo. Physical offensive and defensive lines. Strong running back.

“We’re going to have to run the football and do a really good job tackling in space,” Kennedy said. “They’re so athletic. We’ll have to make sure we don’t give up big plays.”

Williams said Lake Creek is a well-coached team that has gotten better every season.

“They work together as a team and they execute very well,” Williams said. “The quarterback and the running back fuel it and do a tremendous job. They score a whole lot of points.”

Both teams not only embrace physicality, they rely on it.

“We’ll see who can play mistake-free football and be the most physical as a group,” Williams said.

Physicality has been an emphasis of Kennedy’s since he was hired to open the Lake Creek program in January 2018 after being an assistant at The Woodlands since 1998.

“To me, coming from 6A football to 5A football, the difference is offensive lines and defensive lines,” Kennedy said. “Everybody has skill kids. Offensive and defensive lines being physical make teams different. For us to be as good as we can be … the offensive line had to be physical, and in the course of making it physical, you also make a physical defensive line.”

The Lions’ O-line is anchored by 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior Aiden Kaplan.

“He’s a rock star,” Kennedy said. “There’s nobody in the state of Texas that wouldn’t want him as an offensive lineman. He’s physical, he’s smart and he gets after people.”

Senior guard Layton Mann, sophomore center Dominick Armour and junior tackle Jaxon Sayers have also been impressive up front.

Sophomore running back Tyvonn “Ty Ty” Byars and senior quarterback Cade Tessier may get most of the headlines, and for good reason, but there’s no question what makes the Lions’ offense go.

“Offensive line is where it starts, and defensive line is where it starts when it comes to stopping the run,” Kennedy said.

Senior end Kaden Harmann is responsible for many of the Lions’ “splash plays” on defense, but he has plenty of help in senior linebackers Chase Brown, Grant Balke and James Kennedy.

“It’s our best year so far on defense,” Kennedy said.

While Marshall is potent and prolific offensively with senior quarterback Jordon Davis, senior receiver Ja’Koby Banks and senior running back Jy’Adrian Wortham, it’s the young defense that makes the Buffs tick.

More than half of Marshall’s defensive starters are in their first year at the varsity level. They are junior safeties Joshua Lair and William Mitchell, junior cornerbacks Paul Lucas and Ky Guillory, junior linebacker Ryan Simpson and junior nose guard Koryn Randals.

Along with veteran defensive linemen Zachary Chapman, Logan Granville and Trent Thomas, it’s a perfect blend of youth and experience.

“It’s very competitive, very physical and very disciplined,” Williams said of his defense. “There’s a lot of pride there. Ownership and pride have led these guys to doing what they’re doing.”

Kennedy said he knew at halftime of the season-opener against Angleton, which the Lions trailed 23-14 before rallying to win 42-38, that he had something special this season.

“I thought the kids were all-in,” he said. “They fought really hard, fighting back to take the lead. I told them, ‘Look, your own mistakes are what’s going to beat you. Not many people are going to line up and just beat you.’ They came out, we didn’t make mistakes in the second half, were very physical and won the game.”

He has a no-nonsense group that understands how far it has come but also grasps what’s still in reach.

“Our focus right now is winning the region,” Kennedy said. “To do that, we’ve got to go through Fort Bend Marshall. That’s where we’re at right now. When it’s over, we’ll look back on all the good things we’ve done, because I know there’s a lot. But if you don’t win the last one, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.”