When things get quiet at the end of his typically long workdays, Sean McAuliffe sometimes takes a few moments to reflect on what he's learned in his first season as Judson's head football coach.
His self-assessment usually leads him to the same conclusion.
"This is a humbling experience for me," McAuliffe said after a workout this week. "I'm truly blessed. I don't have a lot of time where I sit back and reflect on what's gone on this year in the sense of, wow, I'm the guy in charge at the school that a legend coached at and I played for."
That legend, of course, is D.W. Rutledge, who went 198-31-5 and guided Judson to four Class 5A Division I state championships during his 17-year tenure as the Rockets' head coach. Judson made the playoffs 16 times and played in six state finals with Rutledge in charge.
McAuliffe has a unique perspective on what Judson fans call "Rocket Pride," experiencing the school and community's spirit as a fan, player, assistant coach and now, as head coach.
McAuliffe, 39, was a senior defensive tackle on Judson's 1992 title team and returned to his alma mater in 2011 when Mark Smith, who succeeded Jim Rackley as head coach, hired him as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
McAuliffe, who had been Smith's defensive coordinator at Kerrville Tivy before the two moved to Judson, became the Rockets' head coach in March after Smith resigned to take the head-coaching job at Madison.
"The program at Judson still has the same concepts that it always has had," McAuliffe said. "The x's and o's are different and it's a different era of football, but the same desire and high expectations haven't changed. We still have hard-working kids who are winners."
McAuliffe will lead Judson (9-4) against Reagan (12-1) in the 6A Division I state quarterfinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Judson's Rutledge Stadium. The game also will determine the Region IV-6A Division I championship.
The Reagan-Judson winner will face Cypress Ranch or Dickinson in the state semifinals at 3 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Alamodome.
Two other San Antonio-area teams will square off in another regional final this weekend.
Brandeis (12-1) plays Steele (12-1) in the 6A Division II state quarterfinals at 4 p.m. Saturday at Alamo Stadium. The winner meets perennial power Katy or Manvel at NRG Stadium, formerly Reliant Stadium, Dec. 13 in Houston. Kickoff is tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m.
Rutledge, now executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association, plans to watch the Judson-Reagan game Friday night.
"You're always proud of your former players when they're successful in any field, but it's a special feeling when they do well as coaches," Rutledge said. "Sean has done a great job. He was always a hard-working, unselfish kid when he played at Judson, and he was well liked by his teammates. He's surrounded himself with good coaches and his team is playing well."
Judson has gone 8-1 since stumbling to a 1-3 start, with the lone loss in their last nine games a 23-22 heartbreaker to Steele in 25-6A play. Knights quarterback L.G. Williams scored on a 1-yard run with 16 seconds left to give Steele the victory.
The Rockets' three other losses were to Pflugerville Hendrickson (37-34), Brandeis (27-14) and Brennan (39-14).
"They lost to four great teams and they almost beat Steele," Reagan coach David Wetzel said. "Judson is still Judson."
After beating Smithson Valley to finish the regular season 6-4 and clinch their state-record 38th consecutive winning season, the Rockets defeated Churchill (28-10), O'Connor (50-35) and Laredo United (55-20) to reach the state quarterfinals for the 20th time in the past 33 seasons.
"Right now I think we're a real good football team, but we want to go from good to great," McAuliffe said. "I think we have a chance to do that, and Friday night is another step in that direction."
Madison beat Judson 33-29 for the Region IV-5A Division I crown last year.
"The thing that's stood out the most to me this season has been the resilience of our kids," McAuliffe said. "I think that's a reflection of the Judson program as a whole. If you look at Judson through the years, they've overcome all kinds of different things.
"No doubt, there's always been a great talent level here. But I think our kids have always been resilient, too. They're fighters and they're winners. More importantly, I think they're going to be winners in life."
The Rockets' offense has been led by 14-year-old freshman quarterback Julon Williams, who became the starter when junior Michael Malato and senior Weston Vekasy went down with season-ending knee injuries. Malato was injured against Brennan on Sept. 19, and Vekasy was lost in the New Braunfels game three weeks later.
Williams, who started the season at running back, has been the starting quarterback since Vekasy was sidelined.
"We're fortunate to have someone like Julon, who is going to be amazing someday," McAuliffe said. "For him to step in and not get rallied and see the kids rally around him has been a big key to our success.
Williams is Judson's leading rusher with 686 yards and 10 TDs, and has completed 59 of 85 passes, with no interceptions, for six TDs.
The Rockets are 7-2 against Reagan and beat the Rattlers 42-21 in the state quarterfinals in 2007. That avenged a loss to Reagan in the regular-season finale for both teams. The Rattlers are 0-4 in the state quarterfinals.
None of that will matter Friday night, McAuliffe said.
"Reagan has a very good football program and it all starts with the guy that's in charge," McAuliffe said. "Coach Wetzel is a super guy. He's very easy to talk to, a very humble person. His kids are ultra-competitive."
Reagan has gone 95-38 and won four district championships and a co-title under Wetzel, who is in his 11th season with the Rattlers.
"They've got a great talent over there," McAuliffe said. "Friday night, when they walk out on the field, there's going to be some mismatches in their favor."
Region IV finals
Judson (9-4) vs. Reagan (12-1), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Rutledge Stadium, Judson
Steele (12-1) vs. Brandeis (12-1), Saturday, 4 p.m., Alamo Stadium
Austin Johnson (11-2) vs. Austin Vandegrift (11-2), Saturday, 2 p.m., Gupton Stadium, Cedar Park
Cedar Park (10-3) vs. Kerrville Tivy (10-3), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Alamo Stadium
Liberty Hill (11-2) vs. Burnet (11-2), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Reeves Complex, Round Rock
Yoakum (10-3) vs. Sinton (10-3), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Farris Stadium
Hallettsville (10-3) vs. Edna (8-5), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Traylor Stadium, Rosenberg
Odem (12-1) vs. Blanco (13-0), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Comalander Stadium
Refugio (12-0) vs. Mason (12-0), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Heroes Stadium
Bremond (12-0) vs. Bruni (10-2), Friday, 7:30 p.m., La Vernia