In a little over a week, the ball is launched. And a fire-breathing linebacker is likely to pick it up and look to score.
Opening day for UIL football training for grades 4A and below arrives on August 1st. It’s also the first day for all of the 5A and 6A teams that haven’t done spring training, which this year actually includes Midway, as head coach Shane Anderson wanted the extra scrum that the start of the pre-season camp early.
The officially unofficial start to the Centex High School season will happen even sooner, as we at the Tribune-Herald will host our Whateverish High School Photo/Media Day at Waco ISD Stadium on Thursday. It’s an event that always promises a lot of work, but nevertheless a lot of fun too. (God bless our photographers, slapping on the turf, sweating the heat.) I always look forward to seeing the teams walk into the dressing rooms, decked in their resplendent shirts, full of hope and wonder. “Hey, Oglesby, thanks for coming!” … “What’s up, La Vega, looking sharp!”
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A good number of coaches also attend our photo day, so much so that it looks a bit like a Centex football family reunion. (And if the mafia taught us anything, you’re not going against the family.)
In the coming weeks, the Trib will release a series of stories, previews and predictions for all of the nearly 70 high school football teams in our coverage area. I don’t want to step on the toes of any of our big stories (so I won’t), but there are still additional topics we can explore today. So with that in mind, here are five Central Texas football questions I’m interested in, along with a few darts thrown at something resembling the answers. (Or at least some reasonable guesses.)
Could Mart be underrated?
My fingers apparently didn’t want to type that last sentence, because it’s as crazy to think as it is to write. Keep in mind that this underestimated notion is all relative. Dave Campbell’s Texas Football ranked Mart No. 3 in his Class 2A Div preseason preview. II, so it’s not like the Panthers were thrown into the backcountry. But when you’re used to opening at #1, even 3 can feel a bit low.
Some of the (slightly) dampened expectations around the Panthers can be attributed to the fact that a stud collection of 2021 seniors is gone. Guys like Ayden Lane, Klyderion Campbell and De’Traevion Medlock were all established stars for Mart since their second seasons, but they dragged on, degrees in hand, to their next adventures.
For the blink of an eye — about as long as it takes the Panthers to muster a six pick — it looked like Mart could lose his high-performing head coach as well. Kevin Hoffman announced his retirement in January, but changed his mind and 10 days later said he would stay with the Panthers.
With Hoffman at the helm, discount Mart at your peril. In his tenure, the Panthers are 91-11 with three state championships. Mart’s “disappointing” seasons are historic campaigns everywhere else.
Which team do we not see coming?
Who do I look like, Marty McFly? Always in motion is the future. If people could see this coming, they would never head to the storm drain and start talking to the creepy clown to begin with. (That was three movie references in three sentences. Apparently I watched too much Netflix. Bring the football.)
Last year, Marlin stunned everyone by going 11-4 and reaching the Class 2A state semifinals in Ruben Torres’ first season as Lead Dog. A few teams on the rise that aren’t necessarily generating a lot of buzz include Riesel, Rosebud-Lott and Groesbeck. But at the same time, they all had winning records in 2021. To answer the question, we need someone, much like Marlin in 2020, who lost more games than he won last season. We want an off-the-radar flyer that would leave us all in awe when, like a 60-year-old Tom Cruise as the Maverick, they reverse their flight path and drop unexpectedly. (OK, no more movie references for at least two paragraphs.)
An ideal candidate: Midway. The Panthers endured a 1-9 record in Shane Anderson’s first season after leaving Connally. And at least some outside observers don’t expect a drastic improvement. Texas Football ranked Midway sixth in its 12-6A district forecast, out of the hunt for the playoffs.
Granted, the Panthers have a long way to go to return to the perennial contender they were for most of the 2010s. But they have more than a few things in their favor. They left the District of Doom and won’t have to face the DeSotos and Duncanvilles of the world until the playoffs. They fielded a young squad last year, and returners should no longer be fazed by the dazzling lights on Friday. Junior Thornton, Dom Hill, Kannon Clendenin are now veterans. They believe they are stronger, as Anderson knew his team was not where it needed to be to compete in Class 6A, and as such, instituted an ambitious weight program.
Perhaps more importantly, everyone is more comfortable with Anderson and his system after a full year on trial. Last year was a lot of learning on the fly for Midway. Now is the time for the Panthers to put those lessons into practice. If they end up making the playoffs, remember you heard it here first.
Who is the best Centex player no one talks about?
If you’re a local high school football fan, you won’t need an introduction to many of the area’s top returning players. Midway’s Thornton, Lorena’s Jadon Porter and Joe Gutshall, La Vega’s Bryson Roland, Marlin’s Desmond Woodson, West’s TJ McCutcheon, Crawford’s Breck Chambers and Connally’s Jelani McDonald are all familiar names and faces, as they know very well the end zone.
As for a few players (from the same team) who probably aren’t discussed in depth at local Dairy Queen brain trust gatherings, meet Wortham’s Tanner Bean and Anthony Fortoul. In just over six games last year before getting injured, Bean rushed for 1,078 yards and 17 touchdowns, while making 19 two-point conversion scores. One of the reasons he excelled was the initial blocking of Fortoul, who as a 6-foot-4, 275-pound sophomore last year helped the Bulldogs to a 5-average. 9 yards per carry.
Wortham played 13 games last season before being ousted by Mart. With Bean and Fortoul back in the fold, the Bulldogs could be fierce.
Which first-year coach is in the best situation?
The high school football coaches are gypsies. They roam the desert, peddling their wares village after village. Those who cling to long-term homes are the luckiest.
I’d be interested to see what David Haynes Jr. does as a freshman at Whitney. In the long run, I think he’ll be a great fit for the Wildcats. Clifton’s Brent Finney, Robinson’s Mike Ludlow and Teague’s Zachary Linscomb all face challenges of varying degrees.
But the easy answer to the above question has to be China Spring’s Tyler Beatty, right? The Cougars are coming off a state championship season, a season Beatty participated in as an assistant coach. And while China Spring has graduated a flock of stallion ducks, including Mr. Texas Football Major Bowden and Tribe Super Centex Athlete of the Year Brayden Faulkner, there are still a few hosses filling those timeless powder blue jerseys. Kyle Barton rushed for 1,175 yards and won the District Offensive MVP. Tre Hafford caught 11 touchdown passes while earning the Defensive MVP of the Game award for the state title. Thomas Barr should rank among the best kickers in the state.
Yeah, with Beatty behind the wheel, the China Spring bus might still be running until December. (It’s a metaphor. The Cougars probably have a separate bus driver.)
How many Central Texas teams win the state?
Two seasons ago, for the first time in nearly two decades, our region did not produce a state champion. It was a strange season, and when the 2021 campaign rolled around, I thought we would see a course correction. Before the season, I predicted four local teams would win the state — we ended up with three, which still isn’t too shabby. In addition to the aforementioned China Spring winning the 4A Division II title, we saw Lorena achieve her first championship since 1987 and Live Oak restore her trophy shine in the six-TAPPS realm.
Considering that in eight of the past nine seasons the Super Centex area has hosted multiple state championships, I’m going to call on that trend to continue. Let’s stick to last year’s prediction of three champions.
Oh, you gonna want me to tag the teams too? Good. Give me Lorena to repeat, as Ray Biles’ Leopards bring back some key pieces from the 2021 title team. They’re tough and tested. Marlin is charged enough to withstand injury or adversity. Watch out for the Bulldogs in 2022. As for team three, let’s go with these Red-Headed Strangers of Abbott, who should be highly motivated after a 13-1 campaign in the state semifinals in the fall. last.
Of course, it’s all speculation at this point. Soon the stories will begin to be written.