It's every high school football team's dream to play in December. Lufkin is no different, especially when it means its arch-rival will be on the other sideline.

"It's good to be practicing in December. It's big for our kids, our school, and our town," Panthers coach Todd Quick said on Wednesday. "And to get to compete against people you know, respect and have a long history with, it just builds excitement."

Lufkin is fired up for its Class 6A Division II Regional Final against Longview on Saturday, much like the rest of East Texas. A standing room-only crowd is expected to be at the 2 p.m. kickoff on Saturday at Stephen F. Austin's Homer Bryce Stadium.

It's the seventh time the two will meet since 2014 and third time in the postseason. Longview beat Lufkin in the bi-district round in 2014 and 2015, and also came out on top, 35-16, in Week 1 of this season.

"It never gets old. It doesn't matter if it's the first week or 14th week, it never gets old playing Longview. You could probably change jerseys with our kids and get the same thing out of each one," Quick said. "They're country, hard-nosed kids who play the right way. It's exciting for the kids to be part of something this big."

Lufkin (11-2) has lost just once since its season-opening loss to the Lobos. Since the Panthers' 45-21 at the hands of The Woodlands on Oct. 6, Lufkin has reeled off seven wins in a row. The Panthers won the first six by at least 17 points before its 14-11 win over Spring Westfield last week in the regional semifinals.

Coming out on top in a low-scoring defensive battle going into Longview was huge for his team, Quick said.

"There's a huge difference between a game like that and a shootout. You see the kids playing and they know that one play can completely change the outlook of the game," Quick said. "You're going to have to stop them at some point, I don't care if it's 51-50, you're going to have to make a stop. We always talk about offenses but in the end it's still about the defense."

Quick said his defense has continued to improve over the course of the season, especially when it comes to the number of players he can put in at any given time.

"We played 19 kids on the defensive side of the ball last week," Quick said. "It's important to have that depth, especially int eh fourth quarter when you can still play with speed with fresh kids on the field."

But it was a transition from defense to offense for one particular player that has made a huge impact on this year's team. Senior Isaiah Phillips made the move from linebacker to running back full-time before this season, and the results have been eye-popping.

Phillips has vaulted himself to the front row of Texas' best running backs, rushing for 1,727 yards and 24 touchdowns in 13 games. Only three DFW-area running backs have a higher rushing total in Class 6A.

"He told us all along he was a good running back, but they all say that," Quick said with a laugh. "Isaiah has kind of burst onto the scene this year. His ability to avoid blockers is the reason he was so good at playing linebacker and it's the same way at running back avoiding tacklers. We told him in January he would be our running back, and he made himself into what he is now. He went to work in the spring and has done a great job for us."

Between Phillips' breakout season and Longview's affinity for smash-mouth football, Quick said both teams' rushing attacks are going to be at the forefront of Saturday's game.

"(Longview) Coach (John) King will attest to this, too, but if you can control the football you control everything about the game," Quick said. "You control the clock, the tempo, how long their offense says off the field. It's a huge factor. We're going to have to be able to run the ball so Isaiah needs to have a big game and our offensive line has to have a big game."

Lufkin finds itself in a territory it hasn't seen in some time. The Panthers are in the the fourth round for the first time since 2005, and first time under Quick. It's time to become a normal thing again, Quick said.

"We went through a spell there when we were in the fourth round every year and then there was a gap where we haven't been. We expect this here," Quick said. "We're ready."

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