Jerry Rice

In this Sept. 9, 2014, photo, Jerry Rice hugs coach Ajani Sanders after he helped coach the Scarborough High School football team in Houston. Players at Houston’s Scarborough High School knew before the season started there was a chance the downtrodden program would make the playoffs at 0-10. Sure enough, the team is taking a 57-game losing streak into a first-round game against a perennial postseason contender. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Cody Duty)

DALLAS (AP) — Houston Scarborough coach Ajani Sanders understands there are people who don’t think his 0-10 team with a 57-game losing streak should be in the Texas high school football playoffs.

And he isn’t worried about what the score might be against perennial postseason contender West Orange-Stark on Thursday night.

Sanders talked to his players about winning this week. Just like he does every week.

“They’ve asked me … ‘Coach, you just got beat 66-6. Why are you so excited?'” Sanders said. “All I want in life is an opportunity. Hey, this week is opportunity No. 11.”

The possibility of Texas having what is believed to be its first winless playoff team was set in motion earlier this year when Scarborough was placed in a five-team district by the state’s governing body of public high school sports. Not long after, one of the schools was almost shut down before being spared — but without athletics.

Since four teams make the playoffs, Scarborough was thus guaranteed getting in before the season started. The same thing could happen next year because the realignment process runs in two-year cycles.

So the Spartans worked out Monday in front of a few camera crews. The opposing coach got phone calls about what he was going to do to keep the score from getting out of hand.

Sanders? He just has more motivational material — beyond an early-season pep talk and visit from Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice — as he tries to build a program almost from scratch.

“Week 1, we lined up, we thought we were going to end the streak,” said Sanders, whose team is in Class 4A, the third-largest in the state. “Week 2, the same thing. Week 3, here it is, here’s the week that we end the streak. And that’s how we play. We don’t go out and say, ‘Hey, we’re going go out here and try to survive.'”

But that’s what everyone else will be thinking Thursday night. If the game turns into a blowout, the first sign of it will mean West Orange-Stark coach Cornel Thompson has to decide whether, when and how to keep the score down.

That wasn’t part of Thompson’s game plan early in the week, though.

“We’re just like any other week,” said Thompson, in his fourth year leading a program that routinely makes the playoffs and won back-to-back state championships in the 1980s. “Somebody’s going to get beat in the state of Texas in some classification … that shouldn’t get beat. And it dang sure better not be the Mustangs of West Orange-Stark.”

Assuming Thompson’s team “takes care of business” — a popular phrase for him as he fielded inquiries about his potential dilemma this week — he will have the spotlight for any possible displays of sportsmanship.

“He’s got this incredible chance to have a teaching moment for all of his players that they’ll remember for years and for the players on the other team that won’t be traumatized and will remember for years that compassion plays into a lot of things, even something as competitive as sport,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

Sanders’ team has lost by an average score of 53-8 this season, including defeats of 66-0 and 65-0. But that’s an improvement over last season, before he took over as head coach, when the Spartans were shut out six straight games.

As much as he likes to note the improvement, Sanders isn’t hung up on margin of defeat.

“I trust that these coaches out there, they’re not going to embarrass the kids,” said Sanders, who left a job as an assistant at another Houston-area school because he wanted to be a head coach and he thought his teaching could reach beyond the field. “I’m not going to help the score get run up on me either. I’m not going to be passing the ball every other play if it’s getting out of hand.”

Four teams make the playoffs in most of the six classifications in Texas, where 12 state champions are crowned because each class is divided into two divisions.

And even though 672 of the state’s roughly 1,300 schools make the football playoffs, plenty of teams with winning records are staying home while Scarborough plays in what Texas kids like to call the “second season,” since the playoffs go on for six games in most classes.

Sanders isn’t ashamed. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Our deal is we’re going to play for all those teams that lost out on tiebreakers,” said Sanders, whose team is still 23 games short of the state record of 80 straight losses by Houston Davis from 1985-93. “We’re going to go out there and we’re going to try to honor those guys by going out there and playing a good, hard game of football.”

And he won’t be worrying about the final score.

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

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