Two Class 3A coaches, tasked with carrying on title legacies

Photo by Russell Wilburn

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Before Grandview played for its first state championship in program history last season, the Zebras’ coaching staff, led by then-head coach Brad Davis and then-defensive coordinator Ryan Ebner, had one message for the players to keep them from getting caught up in the moment. When they arrived at AT&T Stadium, they were free to look around and take it all in. When they headed back to the locker room, though, everything needed to change.

“We’re done looking up,” the coaches said. “We’re keeping our eyes down.”

The advice worked. The Zebras locked in to their title game clash with Malakoff, and walked away with a 35-21 victory and the most prized hardware in Texas high school football.

Davis retired not long after, and Ebner was handed the keys to the program. A few months into his tenure as head coach, the advice he gave players in Arlington rings just as true for himself now. With much of the team returning, and a shiny new preseason No. 1 ranking in 3A DI from Texas Football (you’re welcome, coach!), the expectations are high for Grandview.

Across the state, Drew Johnston is taking over at Newton under much different circumstances, but certainly with no lesser expectations. He was named the Eagles’ fourth head coach in 56 years this spring following the retirement of his late father W.T. Johnston, who passed away in May after a long and well-documented illness that he used to inspire his team and anyone who heard him speak following the team’s Division II state championship win over Canadian. While the younger Johnston admits it was tough to see his father go, the support Newton showed for him and his family only made him love his hometown more.

“Newton was great to my family. There was times when my dad had to leave and be away, and they understood. I don’t know a lot of places that would be like that. They held fundraisers and supported us and it meant a lot,” Johnston said. “That’s what I told them when they hired me. This place is my home and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Newton is a place that has never looked up to anyone, and always kept its eyes down in pursuit of greatness. With that formula in place — just like fellow defending champions Grandview in Division I — the Eagles will be ready for all takers yet again this season.



Since playing its first varsity season in 2014, Brock has dominated Region I, winning three of five titles. Chad Worrell’s Eagles were narrowly edged out by Malakoff in last year’s state semifinals, and will have to reload this season with a number key players graduated, headlined by Texas A&M signee Baylor Cupp. Don’t expect Brock to be down long, but the door has been cracked open a bit more.

Bushland and Wall appear to be the two teams in the best position to sneak by the Eagles if they have a down year. The Falcons return 11 starters who will get plenty of reinforcements from a JV squad that went 10-0. Bushland coach Jimmy Thomas is entering his sixth year at the helm of the program, and they’ve been especially hot of late, going 19-7 over the last two seasons. Meanwhile, Wall has been an especially sharp thorn in Brock’s side over the years, and Houston Guy’s team has depth and experience in key spots, led by defensive end Joe Walker and dual-threat quarterback Mason Fuchs.

Shallowater will have to grow up quickly after losing the majority of last year’s regional finalist squad; Pilot Point may be poised for a breakthrough; and Eastland will have the best quarterback in the region, if not all of 3A, in Behren Morton. If the Mavericks light up scoreboards, it may be enough to storm through to the state semifinals.

This time last year, it was hard to see Malakoff coming, but the Tigers sure are hard to miss now. Led by WR Andreas Garrett, LB Colby Rush and QB Darion Peace, Jamie Driskell’s state finalists sure look like a team that could get back to AT&T Stadium. They’ll have to get through a tricky field in Region II, littered with teams with big-play ability and momentum-swinging star power. Atlanta will be especially tough with 12 starters returning, including the three-headed offensive monster of WR Kade Wood, RB Caleb Hamilton and RB Dra Nelson. The Rabbits have speed to burn and will be the last team anyone wants to get in a shootout with once the playoffs arrive. Gladewater and Jefferson are two programs that have been slowly rising over the last three seasons – both recorded double-digit wins in 2018 and return about half of their starters.

That brings us to Region III and the defending champion Zebras, now helmed by Ebner, and in the best possible position to repeat.

“This particular group, they love each other,” Ebner said. “We’ve had great players before, but this group is all about the guy standing next to them. You could see it in the playoffs, they’re doing it for each other. When you have a team like that, you can accomplish a whole lot.”

Talent helps, too, and Grandview has it oozing out between its black and white helmet stripes. Quarterback Dane Jentsch is also the quarterback on defense, where he plays as a free safety, and wound up winning MVP honors in the state championship game at both positions. He’s surrounded by an incredible cast of skill players in running back Elijah Golden, receiver Austin Boyd and tight end Dametrious Crownover, to say nothing of defensive stalwarts Cade Fedor and Michael Lehnhardt. Put simply: the Zebras are absolutely stacked. But Ebner’s seen enough football to know this region is anything but a cakewalk.

“Rockdale is returning some real good athletes. I think Cameron Yoe always has players and they do a real good job. East Chambers lost some big boys, but they’re tough,” Ebner said. “Franklin, they’ll tell you they’re down, but I know they only reload.”

Spoken like a true veteran, and he’s right. This could be a bounce back year for Tommy Brashear’s Yoemen down in Cameron, led by Braden Brashear and Nico Vargas. All Franklin does is hit hard, win games, and then plug in the next man up. Troy has one of 3A’s most exciting running backs in Zach Hrbacek, and sleep on Woodville and Diboll – two double-digit game-winners last season – at your own peril.

The Region IV crown again looks to go through District 14, where Yoakum, Goliad and Edna will beat the tar out of each other for a few weeks, and then do it again a few weeks later in the playoffs.



If you want a peak behind the curtain on Texas Football’s preseason ranking debates, consider the argument for Region I favorite Canadian as the preseason No. 1 over defending state champions Newton. The Wildcats return 13 starters, but lost the quarterback who led the offense for two straight seasons. The Eagles lost more impact players, but are also the defending champs and deserve a slight nod for being the team at the top of the mountain. It felt like a coin-flip decision, which only underscores how great Canadian should be this season, fully capable of another march to AT&T Stadium.

Not that anyone in Region I is going to roll over. Abernathy looks like it could be as good as ever, and that makes sense with four-year starter Bryson Daily leading the way at quarterback. Beyond that, it’s all the teams you’re used to seeing at least a couple rounds deep in the playoffs: Childress, Ballinger, Anson, Idalou and Cisco, which may be the best of the bunch with six starters back on defense.

It’s a new era for Region II stalwart Gunter, which lost cornerstone players like Dylan Jantz and Braiden Clopton to graduation, and now will lean on a new group of names to power the Tigers’ signature pistol offense and fierce 4-2-5 defense. District rival Holliday may be the team best position to take advantage of a down Gunter, and there’s likely no love lost between the two teams after two heated clashes last season. It may be Clifton, though, that is poised to make a leap. The Cubs won 11 games last season, return 11 starters and are powered by a “great senior class” according to coach Chuck Caniford. That class includes running back Riley Perry, quarterback Mason Brandenberger and receiver T.J. Ferch, and all three play both ways. There’s no time like the present for the best Clifton squad in more than two decades, but Rogers (led by former Gunter offensive coordinator Charlie Roten), Buffalo and Lexington should all be in the mix as well.

Newton loses perhaps the best player in 3A in Darwin Barlow, as well as one of the school’s most decorated senior classes, and yet remain favorites to win Region III and in the hunt to get back to AT&T Stadium.

“These seniors have kind of got a chip on their shoulders,” Johnston said. “We graduated some good kids, but we’ve got some good ones coming back. They’ve played a lot of football. They’re battle-tested. These seniors haven’t lost a game. People tell them they’re going to be down, but that’s just fuel for them.”

Daingerfield lost 79-12 to Newton in the playoffs last year, but emerge in 2019 as perhaps the best hope in East Texas to unseat the Eagles and put new blood one win away from a title game.

One team to keep an eye on in the hunt to dethrone Newton is East Bernard. The Brahmas lost by just a touchdown to the Eagles in last year’s state semifinals, and appear to have a squad with similar strength, talent and depth this season. They’ll get a push in Region IV from Tidehaven, a program that continues to live deep in the playoffs under head coach David Lucio. Blanco, Van Vleck and Poth are sleepers to make a run, but it’s East Bernard that may have what it takes to bring a Region IV team to the title game for the first time since 2016.

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