Exploring the Top 25: 3A
If I was Carthage, I wouldn't be a happy camper. Like, at all.
After all (assuming I'm still role-playing the East Texas powerhouse), my Bulldog football program just won its second-straight 3A DII title through the efforts of a prolific offense and a stifling defense. My 2008 team toppled Celina, one of the most feared small schools in Texas history, and my '09 squad downed Graham's Case McCoy, who closed his career as one of the top passers ever to play in Texas. Oh, yeah, and I haven't lost a game since September of 2008.
And I'm still not ranked No. 1 to start the season?
It's true. Despite Carthage's epic run through Class 3A recently, and despite the presence of returning stars in LB Kendall Thompson and QB Anthony Morgan, the Bulldogs couldn't even crack the top three. Doesn't mean they won't end up there, of course. But for now, two programs loaded with returning experience take the cake as our Nos. 1 and 2: start-up Lucas Lovejoy and old-hand Brownwood. Talk about opposite sides of the coin.
Lovejoy, whom I watched lose to Abilene Wylie in a DI state semifinal a year ago, isn't that wild of a choice — despite the fact that it only has two seasons of varsity play under its belt. Returning eight starters on both sides of the ball from a title-contending team is one thing. But when one of them is Michael Means, one of the grittiest and most talented quarterbacks in Texas (45 TDs), you've got a real chance to go all the way. Adding in Blake Martin, an impact RB, and Matt Kotecki, the defensive leader at LB, only strengthens the case. This team was good enough last year, and now its even better. Seems smart to me.
Brownwood is a different kind of animal. Is this selection colored by the program's past dominance, decades ago? I mean, yeah, maybe. Programs that have proven they can be successful, even in years past, have a better chance of doing so again. But this second-place ranking is far more about the talent on the roster than ancient history. Jaxon Shipley is, without question, elite. He's one of the most unguardable receivers across all classes, and having his dad at coach almost assures his grasp of the system. Returning nine starters both ways — from a 13-game team in '09 — makes this group's recent 7-on-7 DII crown look even better. Our No. 1 and 2 teams may not be orthodox, but odds are both titles (Lovejoy in DI and Brownwood in DII) will run through them come December.
No. 3 Cuero, the aforementioned Carthage Bulldogs, and No. 5 Abilene Wylie round out the next three, and all of them played in at least a state semi a year ago. Cuero, despite a coaching change to Rick Owens, remains a regional contender with RB Trent Jackson in the fold. The Gobblers have dominated Region IV recently, and getting versatile performances out of their 10 returning starters will be the biggest key to adding another notch to their belt. Carthage, as stated, has just as good a chance as anyone at the top. And even though Abilene Wylie returns three only starters — none of them at the skill spots — and loses 41 seniors, the retention of Hugh Sandifer as coach almost ensures this group will contend yet again. Only a very difficult district could derail another region-winning effort.
The remaining half of the top ten should shock approximately no one, as Prosper (No. 6), Celina (7), Giddings (8), West Orange-Stark (9) and Wimberley (10) are all familiar faces from the previous decade. It's tough to even handicap their odds within the group, too. Obviously, we think our sixth-ranked team has better odds at a title than our seventh. But the separation between the five schools is very fine. Prosper, with all-state RB Juan Williams back to lead a rebuilding offense, should lean on the dominant defense that guided it to a title two years ago. Celina always has talented players, while Giddings' run game, West Orange-Stark's athletes and Wimberley's Dennis Smith all serve as reminders that these programs are still the class' vanguards. Until they're playing each other, it's always a surprise when they drop out of the playoffs. WO-S has the most to prove after a somewhat lackluster '09.
The Next 15
The first team of the final 15 in our rankings is a good anecdote to start with — Kirbyville, which leads a noticeable contingent of teams on the move. The Wildcats, for example, are back up in 3A after a two-year stint in 2A that netted consecutive DI title game appearances (loss to Muleshoe, loss to Pilot Point). In both cases, Kirbyville was derailed at the eleventh hour by our eventual 2A Player of the Year (Wes Wood in '09, Jarman Johnson in '09). Kirbyville's Fred Ford is an excellent choice to do the same to someone else this year. Other teams coming up or moving down? Henderson, which starts at No. 15 after coming down from 4A. A bit of a stretch, yes, but don't be surprised if it wins nine or ten games this year. Pilot Point, that same group that downed Kirbyville a few months ago, moves up to 3A with hopes that OL Boone Feldt can serve as a rock for the rebuilding offense.
Gilmer stands along in this conversation. Just months after winning the DI trophy in impressive fashion, the Buckeyes are tasked with rebuilding efforts on both sides of the ball. There are a lot of holes to fill for highly-successful Jeff Traylor. Some statdewide fans have even scoffed at their No. 13 ranking. But if there's one thing Giilmer has regularly proven over the past decade, it's that it sports consistent talent. Expecting anything less than eight regular season wins (watch that Carthage district game!) would be a disappointment.
If the ground game wins championships — a pretty debatable claim in this day and age — No. 17 Mexia (Doug Gentry), No. 22 Brookshire Royal (Brandon Williams) and No. 25 Texarkana Liberty-Eylau (Tra Carson) all have inside tracks to trophies. Each of those three running backs will sign an FBS scholarship by season's end, and all three have attracted regional attention from large college programs. Williams in particular has been highly sought after. Royal, which made a surprising run last year, is a sneaky darkhorse for a regional final.
Out of the remaining eight teams (Sealy, Argyle, Bridgeport, Pittsburg, Kennedale, Waco La Vega, Caldwell, Navasota) offer a little regional balance to things. The only thing missing? West Texas. The region sported two teams in the top five, but other than that, it's a quiet year. Snyder has a chance to leap up and surprise, though. Never turn your back on West Texas ... that's when it'll win five titles before you blink.