Realignment pulled perennial power Alto away from the likes of West Sabine and San Augustine, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Yellowjackets will enjoy an easy road to the District 11-2A Division I championship.

The 'Jackets will be reunited with former district rival Cayuga, which has plenty of firepower of its own returning from last season's playoff team. Always competitive Kerens and Carlisle, one of the most consistent small-school programs in all of East Texas, should make for an intriguing district race all season long.

District 11-2A Division I Preview

Cayuga RB Keshawn Jackson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)
PLAYMAKERS
  • Aaron Arden, Jr., QB, Cross Roads
  • Jaquez Faulk, Jr., RB, Grapeland
  • Tyarius Hackett, Sr., LB, Alto
  • Colten Hearell, Sr., WR, Cayuga
  • Keshawn Jackson, Sr., RB, Cayuga
  • Bryce McGowan, Sr., WR, Carlisle
  • JaVie'Ontae Mumphrey, Sr., LB, Alto
  • Darius Pope, Sr., WR, Alto
  • Jyran Shaw, Sr., RB, Alto
  • John Venable, Sr., FB, Cayuga

 

TOP GAMES
  • Oct. 10 -- Cayuga at Kerens
  • Oct. 24 -- Cayuga at Alto
  • Oct. 24 -- Carlisle at Grapeland
  • Oct. 31 -- Alto at Kerens

 

1. Alto Yellowjackets

Alto WR/LB Tyarius Hackett. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Paul Gould

2013 finish: 9-4 (1A D-I regional semifinalist)

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR/LB JaVie'Ontae Mumphrey, Sr., 6-3, 208 (12 catches, 351 yards, 4 TDs; 68 tackles, 12 sacks)
  • WR/LB Tyarius Hackett, Sr., 6-1, 195 (15 catches, 259 yards, 2 TDs; 85 tackles, 11 sacks)
  • WR/DB Darius Pope, Sr. (15 catches, 343 yards, 3 TDs; 5 INTs)
  • RB Jyran Shaw, Sr., 5-7, 140 (28 carries, 193 yards, 2 TDs; 8 catches, 72 yards)
  • LB Willie Skinner, Sr., 6-0, 195
  • DB Leroy Lewis, Sr.
  • OL Hunter Harwell, Sr.
  • QB Keenen Johnson, Jr.
  • OL Luis Alvarado, Jr.
  • LB Brian Diaz, Soph.

 

Offense: The Yellowjackets must find replacements for quarterback Zac Sturns and all-state running back Jacolby Whitaker, but if history has taught us anything, Alto doesn't rebuild; they reload. Another constant within the Alto program is speed, and plenty of it. The 'Jackets claimed the Class A state track and field championship back in May, and plenty of firepower from that group will make its way to the gridiron this fall.

Alto DB Leroy Lewis. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Junior Keenen Johnson figures to get the nod at quarterback, taking over for Sturns (3,009 total yards and 30 TDs in 2013). It could be a running back-by-committee situation for head coach Paul Gould and company, but senior Jyran Shaw will provide the "home run threat" every time he touches the ball. The receiver corps will be big and athletic. JaVie'Ontae Mumphrey and Tyarius Hackett are huge targets on the outside and both have plenty of breakaway speed if either find themselves in the open field. Junior Luis Alvarado is a dominant force up front, which gives Alto's offense the potential to be similarly explosive to 2013 when the 'Jackets averaged 39.2 points per game.

Alto WR/DB Darius Pope. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Alto must fill the void left by the five starters lost to graduation, but two of its holdovers were perhaps the 'Jackets' top two defenders. Mumphrey and Hackett combined for 23 sacks and both are poised to be even more of a disruptive force as seniors. Both players are listed as linebackers, but either one is capable of lining up at defensive end and using their speed and strength to beat offensive tackles or blocking/chipping tight ends.

The rest of the linebacking corps should be solid as well with the return of Willie Skinner and Brian Diaz, who the coaches feel will make a big impact as a sophomore. Darius Pope, a threat in the passing game at receiver, doubles as a lockdown defensive back as evidenced by his five interceptions from a year ago. Leroy Lewis is another ball-hawking DB lurking in the Alto secondary.

2014 outlook: Since winning back-to-back state titles in 2006 and 2007, the Alto program has been searching for similar success deep in the playoffs. Alto has just one season with more than nine wins in the last six years; an optimist would say the 'Jackets are due for another postseason run into December.

Alto's non-district schedule, which includes a Week 5 bout with fellow 2A power Tenaha, is challenging and should provide the 'Jackets a strong enough test for a district full of newcomers; Grapeland is the only holdover rom Alto's league last year. Once Alto qualifies for the postseason, former district rivals San Augustine and West Sabine and Centerville figure to be Alto's stiffest competition out of Region III.

 

2. Cayuga Wildcats

Cayuga FB John Venable. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Russell Holden

2013 finish: 8-2 (1A D-I bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Keshawn Jackson, Sr., 5-7, 153 (198 carries, 1,879 yards, 27 TDs)
  • FB John Venable, Sr., 6-2, 225 (819 rushing yards, 13 TDs)
  • WR Colten Hearell, Sr., 6-1, 165 (342 receiving yards, 4 TDs)
  • OL Jayson Johnson, Sr., 5-11, 295
  • DB Jimmy Pitts, Sr., 5-6, 150
  • LB Brett Whitten, Sr., 5-10, 175
  • LB Jalyn Wilson, Sr., 6-1, 175
  • OL Kolby Radford, Sr.

 

Offense: Cayuga possessed one of the most potent offenses in all of East Texas last season, averaging 45.7 points per game. Even more good news: the Wildcats bring back most of their starters from that side of the ball, which should make for one exciting season of football for fans of Cayuga. Much like it was in the previous decade, the Wildcats' M.O. on offense will include running the ball, and lots of it.

Cayuga WR Colten Hearrell. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Senior running back Keshawn Jackson, the younger brother of Texas A&M receiver and Cayuga alum Malcome Kennedy, is primed to build upon last season's 1,800-yard campaign. With the majority of the offensive starters returning, including his lead blocker -- fullback John Venable -- expect Jackson to flirt with 2,000 yards in 2014. When Jackson isn't getting the ball, Cayuga will utilize Venable's bruising style of running to batter opposing defenses -- especially inside the 10-yard line. Colten Hearell is a nice target in the passing game, and after last season's breakout performance, it's not out of the question to assume he'll be more of a factor in the offense.

Defense: Cayuga's defense was dominant during stretches of 2013, holding opponents to an average of only 18.9 points per game for the year. While not blessed with size, the Wildcats' defenders will chase down plays and aren't afraid to finish with authority.

Cayuga LB Jalyn Wilson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Linebackers Brett Whitten and Jalyn Wilson form what could be one of the best LB duos in the entire district, and defensive back Jimmy Pitts is adept at locking onto receivers and making plays on the ball down the field. The real key will be how well the defensive front holds up. If Cayuga's front line can apply enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks and effectively shut down running lanes, the Wildcats could have a special season on the horizon.

2014 outlook: Since capturing the 2009 state championship, with the help of Kennedy and former Texas and SMU running back Traylon Shead, Cayuga has failed to win more than nine games in a season. But with the amount of talent second-year coach Russell Holden has returning to the field this year, the Wildcats appear poised to make a serious run at the district title and may be even a deep push into the playoffs.

Achieving a league title will be difficult with road games at Alto and Kerens, but if Cayuga's impact players can remain healthy, the Wildcats will definitely be in the mix. How far Cayuga advances in the postseason may depend on how the district seedings shape up, so the importance of winning district shouldn't be lost on the players and coaches.

 

3. Kerens Bobcats

Coach: Russell Anderson

2013 finish: 5-6 (1A D-I bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • ATH Zach Duncan, Sr., 5-10, 150
  • DL Tavion Hall, Sr., 5-8, 180
  • LB Logan Gordon, Sr.
  • OL Samuel Williams, Sr., 6-3, 190
  • OL Hunter Green, Jr., 6-4, 245
  • OL Bryer Duke, Jr., 5-9, 220
  • WR Jeremy Gould, Sr.
  • QB Nate Betts, Sr., 6-0, 175

 

2014 outlook: It was an up-and-down season for Kerens in 2013, but in the end, the Bobcats did just enough to qualify for the playoffs for the eighth time in the last nine years. Kerens averaged more than 32 points per game, while the defense surrendered 34.5, so it's obvious which side of the ball Kerens needs to improve the most. The Bobcats have made the playoffs for three consecutive years without the benefit of a winning record. Head coach Russell Anderson is in his eighth season on the sideline, which means there's plenty of continuity at the top of the program. And with a few minor adjustments here and there, Kerens could be back to winning on a more consistent basis.

 

4. Carlisle Indians

Coach: Rocky Baker

2013 finish: 8-3 (1A D-I area finalist)

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR/DB Bryce McGowan, Sr., 5-9, 155 (23 catches, 478 yards, 7 TDs; 64 carries, 430 yards, 3 TDs; 46 tackles, 5 for loss, 4 INTs, 7 PBU, 2 forced fumble, 6 recoveries)
  • LB Michael Savala, Jr., 5-8, 160 (50 tackles, 2 for loss, 4 QB pressures, 4 fumble recoveries, 2 PBU)
  • LB Ben Goss, Sr., 5-9, 180 (49 tackles, 6 for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovery, 1 PBU)
  • DB Cainin Wimberly, Jr., 5-10, 170 (51 tackles, 6 for loss, 2 INTs, 4 PBU, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovery)
  • FB/LB Tiburico Garcia, Sr., 5-7, 205 (56 carries, 329 yards, 4 TDs; 27 tackles, 6 for loss, 2 QB pressures, 2 fumble recoveries)
  • QB Collin Grey, Jr., 5-10, 160 (7 of 11, 59 yards, 1 INT)
  • OL Ryan Curbo, Sr., 6-0, 225
  • LB Dalton Sanders, Jr., 6-0, 155 (16 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 PBU)

 

Offense: The Indians weren't exactly an offensive machine last season, despite a positive eight-win season. Carlisle averaged less than 260 yards per game of total offense and netted only 27.3 points per game -- mediocre for today's standards. Carlisle also enters 2014 in need of replacing its quarterback and two of its top three rushers from a season ago.

But the cupboard isn't completely bare, as the Indians return one of the district's most versatile athletes in receiver Bryce McGowan, who finished second on the team in rushing and led in receiving as a junior. Collin Grey got a few reps under center, so he shouldn't be completely unfamiliar with playing quarterback on Friday nights. Tiburico Garcia is a big back, capable of giving Carlisle some third-and-short conversions and touchdowns near the goal line. Ryan Curbo should serve as a stabilizing force on the Indians' offensive line, which has a few holes to fill before the season begins.

Defense: Carlisle shined on defense a season ago as the Indians held opposing offenses in check, to the tune of a scoring average of 17.2 points per game. And with a talented corps of defenders returning, the Indians' defense may be even better in 2014.

Carlisle's linebackers are stacked with the return of Michael Savala, Ben Goss, Garcia and Dalton Sanders. McGowan, when he's not wreaking havoc as an offensive playmaker, is doing damage from the defensive secondary. His knack for creating turnovers (four interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries in 2013) will be a key to Carlisle's defensive success moving forward.

2014 outlook: Head coach Rocky Baker is entering his 10th season in Carlisle, and he's been remarkable consistent if nothing else. The Indians have qualified for the playoffs five times during Baker's tenure, and have yet to suffer through a losing season -- its worst, a 5-5 campaign in Baker's debut season of 2005. So, if history repeats itself, expect at the very least a competitive team that will stay in the postseason mix all the way through.

The offense will need to make some headway if Carlisle is to make a run at the district title against the likes of Alto and Cayuga, who both possess dynamic and game-changing playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. The Carlisle defense should keep them in most games, but it will be up the offense to win games in the fourth quarter.

 

5. Grapeland Sandies

Coach: Shawn Brown

2013 finish: 2-8

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Jaquez Faulk, Jr., 5-7, 150
  • ATH Rodney Davis, Jr., 6-0, 155
  • ATH Riley Chapman, Soph., 5-7, 150
  • LB Wesley Lord, 5-9, 185
  • ATH Kamari Smith, 6-1, 190

 

Offense: It was a rough season all the way around for the Sandies, but especially on offense, where Grapeland managed just 13.9 points per game in 2013. With five starters back on that side of the ball, there are a few pieces second-year coach Shawn Brown has at his disposal.

Junior running back Jaquez Faulk is a standout on the basketball court, and Brown is hoping he begins to come into his own on the football field this fall. Faulk's not alone, as Rodney Davis and Riley Chapman have shown promise out of the backfield heading into the new season. The offensive line is filled with question marks, and until a dependable quarterback is found, Grapeland's offensive woes may not be fully absolved in time for a serious push toward the playoffs.

Defense: Things weren't much better for Grapeland on the defensive side of the ball. The Sandies surrendered more than 45 points per game, which gave a struggling offense and the team as a whole no chance to compete.

Just like on offense, there are five players with starting experience returning. It remains to be seen whether the newcomers will have enough of an impact to lead to significant improvement from last season. The best Grapeland can hope for is its defense, which will be small and inexperienced, to get better with each week.

2014 outlook: It would be easy to discount Grapeland, especially with all the struggles the Sandies endured a year ago. But with a coach entering his second full season in charge, there is at least hope that change could be on its way. The basketball team reached the state tournament last spring, so it's possible some of those players can bring a winning attitude to the football field. That could go a long way in turning around a program that has not had a winning season since 2008.

 

6. Cross Roads Bobcats

Coach: Jim Bradford

2013 finish: 3-7

Returning starters: 9 offensive, 8 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB/DB Aaron Arden, Jr., 6-0, 170 (105 of 216, 1,407 yards, 11 TDs, 12 INTs; 111 carries, 314 yards, 5 TDs; 52 tackles, 11 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovery, 1 PBU)
  • WR/DB Trey Hazelip, Sr., 5-9, 160 (22 catches, 315 yards, 1 TD; 32 tackles, 4 fumble recoveries)
  • FB/LB Tyler Johnson, Soph., 5-7, 175 (16 carries, 41 yards; 58 tackles, 1 sack,
  • LB Justin Vaughn, Sr., 5-11, 170 (81 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 fumble recovery)
  • WR/DB Taylor McKenzie, Soph., 5-10, 165 (22 catches, 293 yards; 22 tackles, 1 fumble recovery)
  • OL Justin Disotel, Jr., 5-10, 225
  • OL Luke Carnes, Jr., 6-1, 230
  • DL LaTrey Chancey, Jr., 6-0, 180 (38 tackles, 1 sack, 1 PBU)

 

Offense: Cross Roads has more returning starting experience than any team in the district, including nine of 11 from the offensive side of the ball. The Bobcats' offense showed flashes in 2013, finishing the year with a scoring average of 23.9 points per game and a total yardage figure of 275 per contest.

Junior quarterback Aaron Arden had a productive sophomore season under center and big things are expected of the signal-caller by second-year head coach Jim Bradford. Senior Trey Hazelip and sophomore Taylor McKenzie should provide the QB with capable options in the passing game downfield, while an experienced offensive line anchored by Justin Disotel and Luke Carnes should help the Cross Roads offense become a potent force in 2014.

Defense: The Bobcats will need significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball after Cross Roads allowed 40 points per game a season ago. If the defense doesn't get better, it won't matter how much more productive the offense becomes going forward.

Arden is a playmaker on defense as well after he provided the Bobcats with 11 sacks his sophomore season. Tyler Johnson and Justin Vaughn should provide stability from the linebacker spot, while McKenzie and Hazelip man the secondary. The front line will be anchored by LaTray Chancey, who came into his own rushing off the edge last season.

2014 outlook: Since qualifying for the playoffs in 2003, it's been tough sledding for the Cross Roads football program. The Bobcats are 18-82 in the last 10 years -- their best season over that time span at 3-7, which they've done on three occasions. Bradford is the fifth different coach Cross Roads has had in the last decade, so perhaps a bit of continuity will begin to develop throughout the course of the 2014 season.