Bulldogs confident despite previous playoff setbacks
Though the end result of process may not turn out as hoped, that is not necessarily an indictment of the process – and the Heights Bulldogs still believe in their philosophy as they gear up for another shot against top Texas high school competition.
“For us, once we get there, advancing far into the playoffs is something we strive for – especially since being moved up into 6A [a few years ago]. It’s a point of pride,” Head Coach Stephen Dixon told The Leader.
The Bulldogs made a massive leap from 4A to 6A before the 2014 season, but it has not fazed them. Dixon and his squad have amassed 25 wins and four consecutive playoff appearances even during that transition period, and show no signs of letting up.
“For the most part, we’ve been matched up in some pretty tough districts when it comes to playoff matchups in the first round,” he said, noting the consecutive playoff matchups against a Langham Creek squad coming out of District 17, which produced last year’s 6A Divison I state champion. “Playing against them has been tough go for the past couple of years, but we definitely have enough talent on this team to overcome that and get over that hump.”
Depite the loss of do-everything athlete Jalen Green to graduation, the Bulldogs still possess plenty of offensive firepower to throw at oppsing defenses.
Returning tailback E’munn Parker – a two-time offensive player of the year who runs a 4.3 40-yard-dash – has speed to burn and skill to match. The senior has compiled nearly 1,100 total yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns the past two seasons, showcasing the ability to be a weapon both on the ground and through the air.
“We’ll definitely be looking to him to lead our offense this year,” Dixon said. “[Offensively], we want to establish the running game a little bit more this year than we did in the past.”
Joining Parker in the backfield will be senior quarterback Mark Castro, coming off a season in which he completed 65 percent of his throws for nearly 1,300 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
On the defensive side of the ball, defensive backs Derrick Smith and Xavion Solomon, along with defensive end Xavier Burke, and newcomer Giovonni Williams will anchor a Bulldog defense that seeks a rebound from a down year in 2017 according to Dixon.
Smith was second among returning Bulldogs with 37 tackles and two sacks a season ago, and Solomon picked off three passes to lead all Bulldog defenders. Burke totaled 24 tackles last season, while Dixon expects Williams to make an instant impact in his first season.
“There’s just have a confidence and a swagger [those guys] bring to the field, and a belief not only in themselves, but their teammates as well,” he said. “Every time these guys step onto the football field, they expect to win.That’s something I see in all of them.”
Heights created 51 sacks as a team in 2016, but that number cratered to just 10 sacks last year, while they went from allowing 23 points per game in 2016 to surrendering more than 27 per contest last season. In Dixon’s mind, the defense simply needs to ramp up the pressure and get that swagger back.
“Defensively, I think we’re gonna send more pressure. We took a step back defensively, in my eyes, last year,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to getting more pressure and relying on those back end guys to be able to cover.”
LUTHERAN NORTH LIONS
New culture leads LHN in 2018 season
This time last year, Lutheran High North was on the heels of a 7-win season, ready to take the next step. Unfortunately, the team hit a few bumps in the road; but a culture overhaul, renewed focus, and a talented senior class have the Lions primed to right the ship towards another playoff berth.
Head Coach Nathan Robbins and the Lions stumbled to a 3-6 record last season, with four of the six defeats (by a combined 17 points) coming by less than a touchdown – a sign to Robbins that things were not at a level conducive to a winning environment.
“We needed to make a culture adjustment – we didn’t really have that chemistry successful teams have,” he said. “We lost a lot of close games because we didn’t have that chemistry, so we really focused on changing the culture of our team [this offseason].”
Enter a book by John Gordon in conjunction with former Falcons coach Mike Smith, with Robbins taking “four C’s” of Committment, Consistency, Communication, and Caring and applying it to their surroundings.
“We want to make sure we’re doing those big things which create a culture. Part of a good team is sacrificing for your teammates, plus we’ve got to learn to sacrifice for our community and be a presence there,” Robbins said. “We’ve got a different reaction, and a different level of accountability this year. We’re equally as talented – if not moreso – than last season, but that’s the biggest difference. We’ve got kids that are bought in and playing for each other.”
Versatility in abundance
On the field, the Lions boast a supremely talented cast again in 2018, with a plethora of senior leaders ready to take charge. It all begins with Jimmy Walker a 6’3”, 245-pound senior who has displayed wide-ranging skill set. Walker played on both the offensive and defensive lines during his freshman and sophomore seasons before transitioning to a tight end and flex receiver in 2017. In 2018, he’ll add another to the toolbox – in addition to helping on the the line as a defensive end, he will also take over the reins as the team’s quarterback.
Walker, who holds at least four Division 1 offers as a defensive end, also runs a 4.7 40-yard-dash to round out a dynamic arsenal.
“Him making a transition to help us on both sides of the ball is a huge task, but they’re both elements we know he can handle,” Robbins said. “When you have a quarterback like Jimmy, then the run games becomes more viable. It’s a unique skillset [that he has], so I think that’s going to enhance our game.”
Helping anchor the Lions’ ground attack will be Senior DL Julian Dean, who will be a noseguard and offensive guard, as well as senior center Eli Schoppe Fisher.
“[Julian] might have the quickest hands on the team. He’s a great kid, and one of those charismatic glue guys,” he said. “[Eli] is the type of kid who knows how to encourage; he’s intellectual and uses that to his advantage.”
Last year, LHN’s attack put the ball in the air more than half the time and on the ground less than half. In 2018, Robbins sees the plan potentially flipping a script as Walker and a dynamic group anchor the load.
“When you have to respect the quarterback in the run game, the tailback gets into more open space. When you go to a system where your quarterback is just as much a focus, it makes it tougher on defenses to cover,” he said. “Plus, I think it’s fun when you get to playoff weather – where it might be wet and rainy and the elements come into play a bit more – and having the run game be available, which can be more effective.”
Defensively, not too much will change for the Lions base 3-4 front, which is anchored by multiple senior tackles – including Dean. And when those two close the running lanes, Robbins hopes to force more long-yardage situations where returning inside linebacker J.J. Sadler and the rest of his cast will be waiting.
Despite just transitioning to the position for the first time last season, Sadler led the team in tackles and defensive touchdowns, along with snagging four interceptions.
“He understands football, and just seems to wind up in the right spots all the time,” Robbins said. “Our coverage packages might change – we’re pretty versatile with our packages, and we’re just able to put the right guys in the right spot, in the right matchups.”
ST. THOMAS EAGLES
Seasoned core leads Eagles into 2018
The St. Thomas Catholic Eagles have a proud tradition on the gridiron, and the current incarnation enters this season with a chip on their shoulders, eager to erase the memories of last season’s up-and-down campaign.
St. Thomas stumbled to a 3-6 record in 2017. But that page is history, and Head Coach Rich McGuire insists the key to righting the ship lies in a short memory.
“Any time you come off a season like that, the key is always to just get back to work, and get back in the weight room – and the kids have done just that,” he said. “I think we have a lot of kids who have put the work in these last nine months here dedicated to getting stronger, faster, and doing the things you’re supposed to do.”
Everything starts and stops with quarterback Peyton Matocha, who enters his third season leading the Eagles’ offense. Matocha accounted for nearly 1,000 total yards and 12 touchdowns (eight of them through the air) while throwing just two interceptions last season.
“He’s such a dynamic player, and a great leader on the football field – that’ll be really what keeps us going, is his play,” McGuire said.
Another enormous key will be the Eagles returning three senior offensive linemen this season who have played quite a bit, and will help keep Matocha upright.
“When you get three guys up front who have significant action together, that helps exponentially,” McGuire said.
Three-year starter Ian Wheeler (118 yards, four touchdowns) also returns at tailback, while Dylan Dixon (115 yards, one touchdown) and Josh Madden (120 yards, one touchdown) will anchor the receivers group.
“We have a lot of starters coming back offensively that have seen some action, so they’ll be relied on quite a bit,” McGuire noted.
Defensively, the Eagles will be slightly younger, and McGuire will lean on returning defensive lineman Connor Mcgovern (18 tackles, one sack), along with top returning linebacker Chris Gentempo (19 tackles, one fumble recovery), for leadership up front. St. Thomas also returns defensive back Daniel Coco (17 tackles, two sacks) who will run the Eagles’ defensive backfield after leading the Eagles with three interceptions in 2017.
“[Daniel] has taken to that role quite well, and it helps immensely having a seasoned safety back there to carry the back end,” McGuire said. “[But defensively], we do what we do, and I haven’t changed a whole lot.”
McGuire does not anticipate too much change offensively either, given the aforementioned experience returning the offensive system, other than a strong return to health.
“We’re just hoping to stay healthy, and if we do that we should be able to move the ball on people,” he said.
Rams hungry again for elusive playoff victories
Waltrip may have a new captain at the helm, but the in-house promotion provides continuity for the program as it looks to break a less desirable streak of continuity.
The Rams, by most accounts, had a historic season in 2017, finishing 8-0 for its first undefeated season in program history and clinching its first district title in 13 years. However, despite punching their postseason ticket for the ninth consective season, the program is still searching for its first playoff win since 1994 – and believe the time is now.
“Every year, you’re working diligently to make it to the playoffs, so we don’t take it for granted – half the teams in our district don’t get the chance to make it, so we’re proud of the fact that we’ve given ourselves a chance to win simply by being there,” Head Coach Wayne Wheeler said. “This year, we’re focused on trying to win one, and a great deal of that is just about getting better each week.”
Wheeler was promoted from offensive coordinator – where he had served in such a capacity for the past four seasons – in April after Todd Wright left the program for Killeen Ellison, providing continuity for the program in their push to end a decades-long postseason drought.
“We’re going to be young on both sides of the ball, especially on defense – we’re replacing all 11 starters, so that’s going to be a task in itself playing all the kids who are perhaps unproven on Friday nights,” he said. “Our team just has to get better every week, and we’ve got to make sure that as a coaching staff we’re getting better week in and week out.”
Senior receiver Washington Jordan, a three-year varsity starter with more than 25 games under his belt, along with junior wide receiver Orvis Fowler – a three-year letterman himself – will be called upon to lead a young squad into battle.
“[Washington] is not an extremely vocal kid, but we’re asking that he continue to lead by example, and eventually start speaking up to help get the young kids headed in the right direction,” Wheeler said. [Orvis] has been through the fire, and is a kid who has the skill set to compete anywhere. He’s an excitable kid who does all the little things right; we’ve just got to make sure he’s headed in the right direction and getting the kids to follow.”
Another wrinkle in 2018 will be the Rams employing multiple players on both sides of the football – including Jordan and Fowler – which stems from a simple adage Wheeler has picked up during 15 years of coaching.
“This will be the first year we’ll have multiple kids playing on both sides of the ball. One of the things I’ve learned from coaches far greater than myself over the last 14 years is to do your best to get your best 11 players on the football field,” he said. “So we’ll make a few adjustments to ensure we’re doing that. We want our best 11 out there competing and leading the team, in whatever facet that may be. We’ll be crafty in how we get our best guys on the football field.”
ST. PIUS X PANTHERS
Short memory key for loaded SPX squad
A few feet. Two points. That’s all that separated St. Pius X from its first state football championship in a decade. And all eyes will be on a loaded, senior-laden team as they attempt to bounce back under their first-year head coach — but that does not change the mentality for 2018.
“Our guys understand that whatever took place last year, was Team 62 – this is Team 63. It has its own identity, we have our own strengths and weaknesses. Obviously there’s an internal drive to get better day, but that’s just a part of it,” Head Coach Erik DeHaven said.
DeHaven, who has been the Panthers’ defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, inherits a battle-tested squad from former coach Stepen Hill that includes more than 30 seniors hungry for the ultimate prize. They have racked up 31 victories and three consecutive state semi-final appearances from 2015-2017, but still have yet to capture the one they covet most.
“We tell our guys to give us one percent, every day – we’re going to take this thing one day and one game at a time. If we accomplish our goals there, we’ll find success,” DeHaven said. “…One of the greatest things about this game is that it teaches you about adversity, and our guys understand what that is now – what getting so close teaches you is “what’s that extra going to be that allows you to get over that hump?”
Don’t fix what isn’t broken
If you’ve seen St. Pius X’s offense the last few seasons, you’ve likely seen the 2018 incarnation, as DeHaven won’t rock the boat from a juggernaut that averaged more than 620 yards and nearly 51 points per contest last season.
As always, it begins with senior QB – and Arizona commit – Grant Gunnell, who is coming off yet another prolific season where he threw for nearly 5,000 yards through the air and 61 scoring tosses against just six interceptions.
“[Grant] is our leader; on and off the field, he’s the same person. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player,” DeHaven said.
St. Pius X also returns Gunnell a full arsenal, including Florida State commit Boobie Curry – who led St. Pius X returners with 1,576 receiving yards and 18 touchdown catches last season – Texas A&M commit Chase Lane (881 yards, 8 Tds) and junior receiver Seth Jones, who already holds a Boston College offer.
Seniors Kaleb Ducros (1,379 total yards, 10 TD’s) and Trenton Waggoner (627 yards, 13 TD’s), along with transfer tailback Tate Jernigan, round out a loaded offensive force with speed and skill to burn. Meanwhile, Hunter Pachal and Barrett Brock anchor a strong offensive line to complete the arsenal.
“I think we’re going to be a lot faster this season,” DeHaven said. “[Offensive coordinator] Aaron Carpenter’s done a tremendous job of taking our playbook and simplifying it even more so that our guys can go that fast.”
On the defensive side, the Panthers are committed to attacking offenses with athletes all over the field – a slight variation from 2017.
Should a runner be fortunate to get past brusing noseguard Tommy Goode – who holds an offer from Arkansas Pine-Bluff – then they’ll get to deal with returning linebackers Bruno Forestieri – a West Point commit and First Team All-State selection who lead SPX with 89 tackles last season – and Colby Roberts (51 tackles last season). Both can also match up well with receivers in coverage.
Finally, senior Jarvis Johnson (22 tackles, one interception last season) leads the defensive backfield in the departed Ricky Lester’s stead.
“There were times last season we just sat back in zone and let teams drive on us a bit. We’re going to be more aggressive this season, because we’ve got the athletes to match up with just about any receiver,” DeHaven said.
New coach, new mindset
While 2017 may not have been the step forward some were hoping for at Scarborough, new head coach Gary Howard has the Spartans’ sights set on the future with a renewed energy, and a new promise.
Scarborough ended a 56-game losing streak by winning a game in each of the 2015 and 2016 seasons (the first such occurrence in quite some time), but struggled to an 0-7 finish on an abbreviated schedule after Hurricane Harvey caused the cancellation of three games last season. However, that hasn’t deterred Howard, or detract from the progress that has been made over the last several seasons.
“Coach [Keith] Alex did an incredible job moving the program along and won a few games over the last few seasons,” Howard said. “I just want to pick up the reins where he left off, and build even more on that solid foundation.”
Despite the 0-7 record, 2017 showcased several more competitive games and a spark in the Spartans that has become more evident with each passing season, and Howard hopes to build on that along with a few new philosophies in his first season at the helm.
“One of the things I feel has been lacking has been some commitment from the players, so I’m trying to build the love of the game, build the team into learning how to do their job and focusing on that as opposed to what the next man is doing,” he said. “I think if we’re able to do that, we’ll be able to pull some wins out of the hat.”
Howard will look to senior quarterback Anthony Williams – who got hurt in a pre-season scrimmage last year and missed most of the season – and a few others to help deliver on that promise.
“We had a lot of promise with him, so him missing most of the season last year hamstrung the game plan a bit. We’re trying to make sure we keep him healthy, plus he’s grown to be more of a leader both on and off the field,” he said. “So I’m hoping he, along with Dantre Carter, Chris Santos, and Peyton Joseph, can help me coach on the field and get these guys where they need to be.”
Amongst all the unknowns, however, Spartan fans can count on one sure-fire promise.
Howard, like most coaches, is always scrutinizing every detail, with each nugget of information more valuable than the next, to gain an advantage. It’s a new day at Scarborough, and the storm is coming.
“I can guarantee the guys on the other side of the field are going to see something a little bit different from us this year. Over the summer, we designed some things we believe will cater to the strengths and help support the weaknesses we have as a team,” he said. “All the coaches out there coming up against us will know one thing: we do plan to compete this year. My guys are coming at you with some major intensity and with a renewed will to win – we’ll be pulling some games out this season.”