Sleeper Spotlight: Longview Pine Tree ready to stand tall

Michael Cavazos/Longview News-Journal Photo

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This offseason is taking a toll on Longview Pine Tree coach Kerry Lane. Yes, the UIL’s recent announcement delayed the Pirates’ season by about a month, but that’s not why. It’s the ever-shifting sands of guidelines, recommendations and orders that has the young head coach pulling his hair out.

“I’m a six-month planner,” Lane said. “It’s driving me crazy.”

It’s a common refrain from coaches, that the pandemic has made the usual suddenly anything but. But it’s especially understanding coming from Lane — not only because of his Type-A commitment to scheduling, but also because he’s got a lot to look forward to.

The Pirates are entering their fifth season under Lane’s leadership, and in many ways, the program is unrecognizable from when he took over. Pine Tree is coming off back-to-back seasons of five or more wins for the first time since 2001-02, and just the second time since 1983.

“It’s just the way our kids work, the way they compete,” Lane said of the difference between then and now. “We don’t have a bad day of lifting or running. Four years ago, it was pulling teeth to get players to show up on time, to be tough. Now, the kids are doing those things because it’s expected of them.”

In 2017, the Pirates snapped a 16-year playoff drought, a cause for celebration in west-central Gregg County. Last year, Pine Tree made it back to the playoffs — clinching postseason berths twice in three seasons for the first time in program history — but finishing the year on a four-game skid left a sour taste in their mouth.

“I wasn’t as concerned about the playoff game, because it was tied at 14 with A&M Consolidated heading into the fourth quarter,” Lane said. “But the stretch against Lindale and Whitehouse, we did not play well. If we’re going to take the next step for the program, we’ve got to play the entire season. That’s what good programs do. In spots, we looked really good, but you can’t have a bad week.

“It’s been a point of emphasis for us. You beat a lot of teams late in the year because they’re tired of playing. We were kind of one of those teams last year.”

But the Pirates look uniquely suited to get over the hump, thanks in large part to their superstar quarterback DJ Freeman. Entering his third year as a starter, Freeman has accumulated 62 touchdowns in two seasons, capped by last year’s 2,216 yards passing, 1,160 yards rushing and 36 total scores.

The numbers are remarkable on their face. They’re even more remarkable considering Freeman, who is being recruited as a receiver, stands just 5-7 and weighs in at 155 pounds.

“For a kid his size to do what he’s done, he’s incredibly tough,” Lane said. “Not a lot of guys who are 155 pounds can play 5A football week-in and week-out. People are always amazed at how tough he is — they’ll turn to me and say, ‘Wow, 5 is not big’.”

Freeman’s toughness, Lane admits, does give him heartburn sometimes.

“He doesn’t slide or run out of bounds, and it drives me crazy,” Lane said. “We have a new rule this season: if he doesn’t run out of bounds or slide, I’m pulling his butt out. And he doesn’t like sitting on the sidelines.”

While the Pirates try to keep their quarterback on the field, the defense will be working to get off of it, a task that’s been challenging recently for the program. Pine Tree allowed 36.3 points per game in 2019, ranking a paltry 100th out of 125 teams in Class 5A Division II.

Lane knows that must improve, and he’s confident that new defensive coordinator Jacob Holder — who coordinated the North Forney defense that beat the Pirates in the 2017 playoffs — will work some magic with a veteran bunch.

“The last two years, we’ve been pretty young on defense,” Lane said. “Now, we definitely have more experience coming back on that side of the ball.”

The road didn’t get any easier for the Pirates, who added Division I dropdown Texas High to an already stacked District 9-5A DII headlined by Marshall and Whitehouse. But Pine Tree is confident that they’ll make some noise when the season arrives.

Now, if someone could just tell the coach when that is.

“Do I hate not having a plan? Absolutely,” Lane said. “It eats at who I am. My wife told me that I love summer, but by June or July, I’m over it. This has been the longest July ever. It’s probably been good for me, though…I need some more balance in my life.”

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