It's not often that both combatants in the previous year's state championship game are reunited in the same district the following season.

But such is the case for defending Class 3A Division I champ Carthage and runner-up Kilgore, who brought more than 20,000 fans into AT&T Stadium in Arlington for the second all-East Texas state final in four years.

The rematch won't be the District 9-4A Division I opener, or have the dramatic feel of a regular-season finale. But let there be no doubt, when these two area powerhouses get together Week 7 in Carthage, there will be a palpable buzz engulfing Bulldog Stadium.

In all, the district is comprised of seven state champions since 2004 -- Kilgore (2004), Carthage (2008-10, 2013), Henderson (2010) and Chapel Hill (2011). And then there's Palestine, which has reached the playoffs three consecutive seasons.

Whichever team comes out on top in 9-4A D-I, they will have earned it.

District 9-4A Division I Preview

Carthage LB James Marshall. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)
PLAYMAKERS
  • Will Bailey, WR, Sr., Brownsboro
  • Zane Boles, QB, Sr., Henderson
  • Rex Cicero, DL, Sr., Chapel Hill
  • Fabian "Gee" Clark, QB, Sr., Palestine
  • Randy Davis, RB, Sr., Henderson
  • Marquise Guinn, TE, Jr., Carthage
  • Blake Guthrie, OL, Sr., Kilgore
  • Kris Haynes, LB, Sr., Kilgore
  • Chris Howard, DL, Sr., Carthage
  • Jakeldric Jackson, WR, Jr., Carthage
  • Kevrin Justice, RB, Sr., Kilgore
  • Reggie King, FB/LB, Jr., Chapel Hill
  • Tristan Lary, WR, Sr., Henderson
  • James Marshall, LB, Sr., Carthage
  • Jarrod McLin, DL, Jr., Carthage
  • Dakendrick McMorris, DL, Sr., Palestine
  • Jeffery Minor, WR, Sr., Chapel Hill
  • Deundre Phillips, LB, Jr., Chapel Hill
  • Jordan Thompson, DL, Sr., Kilgore
  • Jeremy West, OL, Jr., Chapel Hill
  • Jarod Wood, TE, Sr., Kilgore

 

TOP GAMES
  • Oct. 10 -- Henderson at Carthage
  • Oct. 17 -- Kilgore at Carthage
  • Oct. 24 -- Chapel Hill at Kilgore
  • Oct. 24 -- Henderson at Palestine
  • Oct. 31 -- Chapel Hill at Henderson
  • Nov. 7 -- Carthage at Chapel Hill
  • Nov. 7 -- Henderson at Kilgore

 

1. Carthage Bulldogs

Carthage QB Jarod Blissett. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Scott Surratt

2013 finish: 15-1 (3A D-I state champion)

Returning starters: 2 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • TE Marquise Guinn, Jr., 6-4, 220 (25 catches, 310 yards, 4 TDs)
  • DL Jarrod McLin, Jr., 6-3, 220 (73 tackles, 9 for loss, 4 sacks, 24 QB pressures, 2 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 3 PBU)
  • LB James Marshall, Sr., 6-0, 200 (134 tackles, 9 for loss, 1 sack, 3 QB pressures, 5 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, 1 PBU)
  • DL Chris Howard, Sr., 5-10, 190 (62 tackles, 10 for loss, 4 sacks, 11 QB pressures, 1 fumble recovery)
  • WR Jakeldric Jackson, Jr., 5-8, 160 (12 catches, 144 yards, 1 TD)
  • WR/DB Kirston Ingram, Jr., 5-9, 175
  • OL/DL Cagan Baldree, Jr., 6-3, 230
  • QB Jarod Blissett, Jr.
  • FB Gilbert Perez, Jr.
  • OL Branton Halcumb, Sr.

 

Carthage WR Jakeldric Jackson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Carthage's 2013 offense was something to behold. Comprised of several three-year starters, including all-state quarterback Blake Bogenschutz, the Bulldogs had everything you'd ask for on the offensive side of the ball. It began with the quarterback, who set numerous single-season and career passing marks at Carthage. Bogenschutz, now at UTSA, capped off his career with a season for the ages, finishing with 4,003 yards, 57 touchdowns and only four interceptions. The Bulldogs must also replace their two 1,000-yard receivers, Terian "Tee" Goree and O'Keeron Rutherford -- both North Texas signees. Also departed is 2,000-yard rusher Tevin Pipkin and a huge offensive line that allowed Carthage the versatility to be as multiple and diverse with its play-calling than any team in the area.

The Bulldogs will have nine new starters on offense, a unit that also lost its offensive coordinator Chris Smith, who left to become a quality control assistant at Texas A&M late in the spring. He was replaced by former Pleasant Grove head coach Kevin Davis, who will work offensive guru and eighth-year head coach Scott Surratt on ushering in a new era of offense in Carthage.

Jarod Blissett will be given the keys to the offense this fall, after he played in mop-up time last season. The sample size is small, but Carthage coaches are confident the junior has the proper make-up for playing quarterback and can quickly grasp the scheme's intricate concepts. No one is expecting Blissett to become Bogenschutz on Day 1, but the hope is that the newcomer will continue to carry on the tradition of excellence among Carthage quarterbacks during the Surratt era.

The receiving corps will be decidedly smaller than in year's past, but there shouldn't be a drop-off in the speed department. Juniors Jakeldric Jackson and Kirston Ingram can fly, so if they get behind corners and over the top of safeties, their size becomes irrelevant. Junior tight end Marquise Guinn got the most work on offense last season, and even caught a touchdown in Carthage's state-championship victory. He was the third option in the passing game a year ago, but expect the large target to become more of a fixture on offense this season. Gilbert Perez is expected to reprise his role as fullback, and time will tell who eventually takes the reins and becomes Carthage's primary ball carrier at running back. The offensive line must be completely rebuilt, and expect Cagan Baldree, Branton Halcumb and Christian Jimenez to anchor the new group this fall.

Carthage DL Jarrod McLin. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Carthage's defense, ridiculed in the early part of last season, turned up their play down the stretch and was a big reason the program was celebrating its fourth state in six years last December. After allowing 63 points -- 43 in the second half -- in its lone loss to Whitehouse, the Bulldogs surrendered just 133 points over the final 11 games. The scoring average during that span was a pedestrian 12.1 points per game, a far cry from the 34 points per game Carthage was giving up through the first five weeks. The Bulldogs never allowed more than 23 points in their six playoff wins over Mexia, Navasota, Silsbee, West Orange-Stark, La Grange and Kilgore. However, as is the case on offense, graduation brought forth massive turnover on the defense. Perhaps no loss was bigger than that of defensive tackle Mario McCain, a four-year starter who was named the state title game's defensive MVP.

Carthage does have a few playmakers returning on defense, including junior defensive end Jarrod McLin, who really began to figure it out during the Bulldogs' dominant postseason run. His three-sack performance in the second-round blowout of defending state champion Navasota let everyone know the Bulldogs' defense may be in good hands for at least the next couple of years.

Carthage WR/DB Kirston Ingram. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Another D-lineman to keep an eye on is senior Chris Howard, who quietly put together a solid season rushing from the other side. Senior linebacker James Marshall, who was Carthage's leading tackler as a junior, will likely be the unquestioned leader on the defensive side of the ball for the Bulldogs. Smaller than the some of the great linebackers of Carthage past, Marshall makes up for that with an undeniable motor and relentless physicality at the point of contact. The Bulldogs will field an entirely new starting secondary, but expect to see receiver Jackson and especially Ingram contribute from the defensive backfield.

2014 outlook: An area rich in coaching, Surratt has vaulted himself into perhaps East Texas' best. It's hard to argue with the results. Since taking over in Carthage prior to the 2007 season, the Bulldogs have won four state championships and compiled an overall record of 88-15 -- the best of any program in the area over that span. Surratt, the former Texas High offensive coordinator, also sports an astounding 30-3 record in the postseason. Following the last of Carthage's three consecutive championships in 2010, Surratt had a similar challenge in replacing a massive number of impact players. Following a "down year," in which the Bulldogs still went 9-4 and reached the regional semifinals, Carthage played in the state semifinals in 2012 and, of course, won it all a season ago. Rebuilding, or reloading, is nothing new to Surratt and Co.

As always, Carthage has fashioned together an impressive non-district schedule, despite the amount of youth and inexperience. The Bulldogs begin the season against three consecutive 5A programs -- Hallsville, Lindale and Nacogdoches -- and close out non-district play against 4A Division II contenders Gladewater and Gilmer. It would not be a surprise to see Carthage experience a few growing pains during the first five weeks, but the Bulldogs could be a completely different team by the time their district opener against Henderson arrives. Region III in the playoffs will be no picnic either, as state championship contender Navasota appears to be the prohibitive preseason favorite to get through the region.

2. Kilgore Bulldogs

Kilgore RB Kevrin Justice. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Mike Wood

2013 finish: 14-1 (3A D-I state finalist)

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Kevrin Justice, Sr., 6-0, 180 (218 carries, 1,966 yards, 36 TDs; committed to Houston)
  • OL Blake Guthrie, Sr., 6-1, 260
  • LB Kris Haynes, Sr., 5-11, 220 (131 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 8 QB pressures, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovery, 1 INT)
  • DL Jordan Thompson, Sr., 6-1, 190 (41 tackles, 3 for loss, 7 QB pressures)
  • TE/DL Jarod Wood, Sr., 6-2, 200 (6 catches, 191 yards, 4 TDs)
  • WR Nick Orange, Sr., 6-2, 180 (20 catches, 270 yards, 2 TDs)
  • DL Jacobie Wafer, Sr. (43 tackles, 6 for loss, 2 sacks, 7 QB pressures, 1 forced fumble)
  • LB Mason Shelton, Jr. (97 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 QB pressures, 1 blocked kick)
  • QB Xaviar Gaona, Sr., 6-4, 170 (11 of 20, 241 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT)
  • FB/DB Chris Toombs, Jr., 5-10, 185

 

Kilgore TE/DL Jarod Wood. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Opposing defenses knew exactly what Kilgore's offense wanted to accomplish last season. Figuring out a way to stop it proved nearly impossible as the Bulldogs rode their age-old philosophy of power running all the way to the state championship game. The Kilgore offense, which averaged 43.3 points per game in 2013, really took off in the playoffs when the Bulldogs had three consecutive games in which they had three 100-yard rushers. For the season, Kilgore averaged 409 yards per game -- 340 of which came on the ground. There are some large shoes to fill on that side of the ball in 2014 following the graduation of 1,000-yard rusher Davieonta "JuJu" Brown, quarterback Benny Colbert, receiver Aaron Foy and offensive lineman Clay Wiley. Finding replacements won't be a walk in the park.

Kilgore QB Xaviar Gaona. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

One player the Kilgore coaches feel comfortable building their offense around is senior running back Kevrin Justice, a Houston commit who led the Bulldogs in rushing and scoring as a junior. Justice nearly eclipsed the 2,000-yard plateau despite splitting carries with Brown all season long. Until a complimentary back or backs are found, Justice figures to receive the lion's share of carries, which isn't a bad thing.

Senior quarterback Xaviar Gaona spent time at quarterback, especially early last season, and will be given the opportunity to direct the offense this fall. Senior receiver Nick Orange may not have the game-changing speed of Foy, but his size and overall athleticism should be enough to turn him into Kilgore's No. 1 threat in the passing game. Tight end Jarod Wood made the most of his six receptions as a junior, finding the end zone for half of them, and will be an important man Kilgore's offensive approach this season. Senior Blake Guthrie is the most experienced player on Kilgore's offensive line, which was perhaps the area's most dominant a season ago.

Kilgore LB Kris Haynes. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Even though Kilgore's offense took a giant leap forward last season, the Bulldogs' calling card continued to be their defense, which turned in another dominating season in 2013. The D-line combo of LaDarrin Anthony and D.Q. Scott disrupted the timing of almost every quarterback it came across in the previous two seasons, helping Kilgore's 'D' hold opponents to a modest 14.9 points per game. Only three teams in 15 weeks managed at least 25 points against Kilgore, and one of those was Carthage, which scored a season-high 34 vs. the Bulldogs' defense in the title game. In addition to the loss of Anthony and Scott up front, Kilgore lost its top tackler from 2013 -- linebacker Jake Brantley -- and a secondary that included playmakers like Joseph Shepherd and Stefun Tatum.

Kilgore DL Jordan Thompson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Not to fret. You don't become synonymous with defense for more than 20 years without having the ability to pick up the pieces and start over after heavy graduation losses. Kilgore feels good about its defensive front once again, with freakish athlete Jordan Thompson rushing from one end and hole-plugger Jacobie Wafer manning the interior. Jarod Wood, whose older brother Caleb started at DE last season, will likely see time at end this year as well. Senior linebacker Kris Haynes had a monster junior season and has coaches and fans alike wondering what the physical defender has in store for his senior year. The secondary is need of a serious overhaul, but if there's one thing about Kilgore it's this: the program never runs out of athletes. And if those athletes turn into good football players, don't expect too much of a drop-off.

2014 outlook: Following a 3-7 season in Mike Wood's debut year as head coach at Kilgore in 2010, the Bulldogs have done nothing but win and win big. Kilgore has compiled a 34-8 record over the last three seasons, reaching the 4A D-II quarterfinals in 2011, playing in the state semifinals in 2012 and for a state title a season ago. So despite the loss of several impact performers from last year's run, the expectations remain high at Kilgore. And it's not every day you are guaranteed a rematch with the team that denied you a state championship the very next year. But Kilgore has the opportunity, and it could have district title implications this time around.

To ensure his team is ready for the district grind, Kilgore has assembled a brutal non-district schedule, featuring games against Nacogdoches, Texas High and Gladewater prior to its 9-4A D-I opener against Palestine on Oct. 10. While no one is thinking state title at the moment, if Kilgore is able to get better with each week and get through what figures to be another strong district, another long postseason run could be on the horizon for the Bulldogs.

3. Chapel Hill Bulldogs

Chapel Hill WR Jeffery Minor. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Thomas Sitton

2013 finish: 9-5 (3A D-I regional finalist)

Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • FB/LB Reggie King, Jr., 5-11, 205 (22 catches, 232 yards, 2 TDs in 6 games)
  • OL/DL Rex Cicero, Sr., 6-2, 245 (36 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 QB pressures, 2 fumble recoveries)
  • WR Jeffery Minor, Sr., 6-0, 170 (43 catches, 474 yards, 5 TDs; 17 carries, 147 yards, 2 TDs)
  • LB Deundre Phillips, Jr., 5-9, 165 (77 tackles, 2 for loss, 2 INTs, 6 PBU, 3 forced fumbles
  • OL/DL Jeremy West, Jr., 6-3, 270
  • RB/LB Delenis Garrett, Sr., 5-9, 201
  • OL Gonzalo Arreguin, Sr., 5-11, 240
  • DL A.J. Mosley, Sr. (38 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 QB pressure)
  • RB/DB Ja'Braylon Franklin, Jr. (46 carries, 276 yards, 3 TDs; 21 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 forced fumble)
  • WR/DB Kenyotta Henderson, Jr.

 

Chapel Hill RB/LB Delenis Garrett. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: While area powerhouses like Carthage, Kilgore and Gilmer were putting together fine offensive seasons, Chapel Hill quietly developed into one of East Texas' most balanced and explosive offenses in 2013. The Bulldogs averaged 42.3 points and 494 yards per game -- 293 rushing and 201 passing. Quarterback Andrew Black had a season to remember a year ago, totaling 4,120 yards of offense and 49 touchdowns. Chapel Hill scored less than 20 points in a game only once in 14 weeks, while surpassing the 50-point mark on six occasions. Black graduated, as did 1,000-yard rusher Wesley Thompson and 1,000-yard receiver Gabriel Robinson. All told, Chapel Hill will be entering 2014 with just three players who started games on offense a season ago.

Chapel Hill OL/DL Jeremy West. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Replacing that type of production may be difficult, but a strong showing over the summer, which included a trip to the state 7-on-7 tournament in College Station, gave Chapel Hill fans a reason to be optimistic about the Bulldogs' offense this fall. Junior Konnor Hitchock is projected to take over at quarterback for Black, and while the new QB is not the ideal size for that position, showed glimpses of excellent decision-making during the summer and will only get better as his reps continue to accumulate.

Senior receiver Jeffery Minor is likely to emerge as Hitchock's favorite target in the passing game, following a steady junior season that ended with a couple of big games during the playoffs. The situation at running back is fluid, but expect several players to take turns taking handoffs in Chapel Hill's hurry-up, no-huddle spread attack. Look for junior Ja'Braylon Franklin and senior Delenis Garrett, a transfer from Lindale, to receive their fair share of rushing attempts. The offensive line figures to be a strength with the return of junior Jeremy West, who may also figure prominently in the rotation at defensive tackle, and Gonzalo Arreguin. The O-line as a whole may not be the biggest int the area, but it should be one of the most athletic and conditioned.

Chapel Hill FB/LB Reggie King. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: There were some ugly moments on defense last season for Chapel Hill, some of which can be directly linked to star middle linebacker Joseph Clark's devastating leg injury during the middle of the year. The Bulldogs allowed 33 points per game in 2013, a number inflated by their five losses to Whitehouse, Carthage, Gilmer and Kilgore, when Chapel Hill surrendered a total of 250 points -- 50 per game. In its nine victories, Chapel Hill limited opponents to a more respectable 23.6. The Bulldogs lost its top defensive linemen -- Keith Minor (Cincinnati) and Shaquille Warren (ULM) -- to graduation, and must find a replacement for Thompson (ULM), who anchored the linebacking corps following Clark's injury. However, there are a handful of intriguing prospects that could help Chapel Hill pick up the slack.

Chapel Hill LB Deundre Phillips. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

It all starts up front where seniors Rex Cicero and A.J. Mosley will be charged with applying a consistent pass rush and shutting off running lanes up the middle. Cicero was overshadowed by Minor and Warren on the D-line a season ago, but showcased his playmaking ability by returning a blocked field goal more than 80 yards for a touchdown in his team's first-round playoff win over Athens. The Chapel Hill linebackers have the potential to be a solid group as well with the trio of juniors Deundre Phillips and Reggie King and senior Garrett eager to make an impact. Phillips is probably Chapel Hill's fastest player, and despite being small in stature, plays about 30 pounds heavier on the field. King is a tremendous athlete who was hampered by injuries as a sophomore. He'll be making the transition to linebacker after working as the Bulldogs' H-back offensively a season ago. Expect Franklin and Kenyotta Henderson to perform well out of the secondary, a unit that was decimated by a myriad of health issues last fall.

2014 outlook: Sixth-year head coach Thomas Sitton has transformed Chapel Hill into a program to be reckoned with on a yearly basis, as opposed to one that would occasionally challenge for playoff spots. Since taking over prior to the 2009 season, Sitton has guided Chapel Hill to a state championship, another state finals appearance, a berth in the regional finals and an overall record of 45-19. The last time Chapel Hill experience such turnover from graduation was 2012, the year after its state title. The Bulldogs slipped to 3-7 and missed the playoffs that year, but rebounded with a postseason journey that spanned four weeks a season ago. This season figures to be a similar challenge for Sitton, but the players should have compete faith in the coaching staff given the recent track record.

Chapel Hill will once again face a difficult non-district schedule, which features Lindale, Whitehouse, Paris, Port Neches-Groves and Tatum. The first five weeks will reveal quite a bit about what type of team Chapel Hill will become this fall. Chapel Hill begins district with games against Brownsboro and Palestine, but finishes with a brutal three-game stretch -- at Kilgore, at Henderson and at home against Carthage.

4. Palestine Wildcats

Palestine QB Fabian "Gee" Clark. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Jay Brown

2013 finish: 7-4 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Fabian "Gee" Clark, Sr., 6-0, 188 (90 of 167, 1,636 yards, 18 TDs, 9 INTs; 54 carries, 290 yards, 7 TDs)
  • DL Dakendrick McMorris, Sr., 6-1, 275 (57 tackles, 9 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles)
  • OL Korbin Boles, Jr., 6-2, 320
  • OL Patrick Cross, Sr., 6-0, 270
  • WR/LB/S Chris Weaver, 5-8, 160 (5 catches, 159 yards, 1 TD; 30 tackles, 8 for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 PBU in 6 games)
  • LB Marquis Hernandez, Jr., 6-0, 210 (26 tackles, 5 for loss, 3 sacks, 3 PBU, 1 defensive touchdown)
  • OL Jake Neal, Soph., 6-4, 270
  • DB Cameron Barrett, Sr., 5-10, 165 (35 tackles, 1 for loss, 5 PBU, 1 forced fumble)
  • RB Devonte Mims, Jr.
  • DL Ty Swindle, Sr.

 

Palestine OL Korbin Boles. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Palestine's offense was productive and diverse in 2013. The Wildcats averaged more than 34 points per game, and made big plays both on the ground and thorough the air a season ago. Palestine loses 1,000-yard rusher Ben Luckett, who's now at ULM, and receiver/tight end Jarrell Owens (Oklahoma State) to graduation, which has the potential to severely cut into the offense's production this season. But the good news for first-year head coach Jay Brown is that he'll have a three-year starter at quarterback and a solid offensive line around which to build.

Fabian "Gee" Clark has been the starting quarterback since early on during his sophomore season, and he's done nothing but get better from week to week and year to year. Plenty capable of making plays with his feet, Clark settled more into a pocket-passing role as a junior and flourished. Clark passed for more than 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns, while adding a shade less than 300 yards and seven touchdowns rushing. The QB may be called upon to do a little more running this season, however, because of the inexperience at running back.

Palestine OL Jake Neal. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

The offensive line, despite graduating ULM signee Brian Thlang, has the potential to be the team's No. 1 strength. Senior Patrick Cross is a holdover from last year's unit, junior Korbin Boles is a transfer from crosstown Palestine Westwood and sophomore Jake Neal may have the highest ceiling of all three. Palestine will be breaking in a brand-new crew of skill players on offense, which may frustrate the experienced Clark at times, but an O-line that can give its QB enough time in the pocket to connect with receivers will sure make life much easier on offense.

Defense: Last season was inconsistent at best for Palestine's defense, which allowed opponents an average of 28.3 points per game. In fairness, the Wildcats' four losses to Chapel Hill, Athens, Fairfield and Jasper -- teams that combined to go 42-11 in 2013 -- accounted for roughly 63 percent of Palestine's total points allowed for the season. The new coaching staff is hopeful that the five returning defensive starters and the fresh crop of newcomers will be enough to transform the Wildcats into a more stingy defensive football team.

Palestine LB/DB Chris Weaver. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

The departure of Owens, a DE/LB hybrid, will be a challenge to overcome, but Palestine expects to have another strong presence up front. Senior tackle Dakendrick McMorris, who brings immense size and strength to the table, will be a handful for most offensive linemen he runs across this season. Senior Chris Weaver, who could see some time on offense as well, is a small but explosive and physical piece in Palestine's linebacking corps, which also features Marquis Hernandez. The secondary has a few question marks, but senior defensive back Cameron Barrett isn't one of them.

2014 outlook: After serving four years as Palestine's head coach, Lance Angel took the athletic director's position for Bryan ISD, opening the door for Brown. The Wildcats' new boss is no stranger to East Texas, having served as a defensive coordinator under Dickey Meeks at Henderson and as the head coach at Texas College. Three consecutive first-round playoff losses must have some within the Palestine community wondering if the Wildcats will ever take the next step and become a factor deep in the playoffs. The good news is that if Palestine can survive this rough and tumble district, whose teams have combined for seven state championships since 2004, the Wildcats should be more than prepared for most postseason challenges thrown their way.

5. Henderson Lions

Henderson QB Zane Boles. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Phil Castles

2013 finish: 3-7

Returning starters: 3 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Zane Boles, Sr., 6-5, 210 (195 of 342, 2,492 yards, 23 TDs, 8 INTs; 83 carries, 364 yards, 2 TDs)
  • RB Randy Davis, Sr., 6-0, 180 (114 carries, 355 yards, 4 TDs; 7 catches, 88 yards, 1 TD)
  • WR Tristan Lary, Sr., 6-2, 190 (34 catches, 385 yards, 5 TDs)
  • LB Dalton Goode, Sr., 5-11, 205 (106 tackles, 2 sacks)
  • LB Seth Hensley, Sr., 5-11, 205
  • DL Zach Allen, Sr., 6-1, 190
  • RB Lakendrick VanZandt, Jr.
  • DL Cadarius Caldwell, Jr.
  • DB Tre Lewis, Sr., 5-11, 170
  • OL Trevor Still, Sr., 5-11, 225

 

Henderson RB Randy Davis. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: The Henderson offense had its moments last season, but there were also times when it struggled. The Lions averaged 24.7 points per game for the year, eclipsing the 30-point plateau in three while being held to 14 points or less on three occasions as well. Some of that can be attributed to the arrival of a new coaching staff, while some of the inconsistency had to do with three-year starter Patrick "Monsta" Brown and running back Diamante Wright no longer being there. Whatever the cause, second-year coach Phil Castles is hopeful that a second year in his system, coupled with the return of a couple impact performers, will help Henderson become more productive on the offensive end.

Henderson WR Tristan Lary. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Senior quarterback Zane Boles returns for his second full season behind center, following a strong junior campaign that included more than 2,800 total yards and 25 touchdowns. Having a quarterback with starting experience usually leads to marked improvement from one year to the next. Running back Randy Davis, one of the quickest backs in all of East Texas, is anxious to end his high school career on a positive note after collecting more than 400 yards of offense and five touchdowns a season ago. Senior receiver Tristan Lary is a big target downfield in the passing game, and could develop into Boles' No. 1 receiving option after a nice 2013 season. There are several holes to fill at offensive line, but the coaching staff feels good about senior Trevor Still's abilities up front.

Henderson LB Dalton Goode. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: While the offense endured bouts of inconsistency, the defense may have been the primary culprit in denying Henderson a trip to the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Henderson, in need of a win over Gladewater in the 2013 regular-season finale, led 42-28 midway through the fourth quarter but allowed 21 unanswered points in the game's final five minutes to put an end to its season. Henderson, which yielded an average of 39.3 points per game a year ago, must show improvement on that side of the ball after allowing five teams to score 40 points or more on them. With just three defensive starters returning, a host of newcomers will have to be ready to make an immediate impact.

The linebacking corps figures to be in good shape with the return of seniors Dalton Goode and Seth Hensley. Both players are pretty much identical in size, and very comparable as far as skill set on the gridiron. The defensive line, which helped fuel Henderson's state championship run in 2010, will look to the duo of Zach Allen and Cardarius Caldwell to serve as the anchors this fall. The secondary could be a work in progress, but Henderson coaches believe senior defensive back Tre Lewis has the potential to become special in the back end.

Henderson LB Seth Hensley. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

2014 outlook: The final three years of the Meeks administration could not have gone much better as Henderson won the first school's first state title, followed that up with a state semifinals appearance and ended 2012 by reaching the quarterfinals -- all while compiling an overall record of 33-10. When several of those stars left high school and Meeks departed for Pittsburg, there were some who expected a natural step back in the first year under Castles' leadership. But one thing is certain about the Lions' current head coach: he doesn't suffer through too many losing seasons. In 12 years as a head coach at Elysian Fields, Chapel Hill, Corsicana and Henderson, his teams have made the playoffs 10 times and have failed to achieve a winning record only three times.

Henderson is reunited with both Kilgore and Chapel Hill in 9-4A D-I, who combined to defeat the Lions by 74 points in 2013. Longtime rival Carthage has won six of its last seven meetings with Henderson, which means the Lions' Week 8 matchup at Palestine could be for the district's final playoff spot. Henderson will prepare for the brutal league slate in non-district with games against Athens, Atlanta, Rusk, Newton and Daingerfield -- four of which compete in smaller classifications. Early-season wins could go a long way in rebuilding Henderson's confidence before the district campaign begins.

6. Brownsboro Bears

Brownsboro WR Will Bailey. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Jason Hooker

2013 finish: 2-8

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR Will Bailey, Sr., 6-3, 185 (40 catches, 524 yards, 6 TDs)
  • LB Braylon Wehrmann, Sr., 5-10, 185 (95 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries)
  • OL Cole McClain, Sr., 6-3, 300
  • RB Damien Thompson, Sr., 5-7, 190 (101 carries, 447 yards, 7 TDs)
  • OL Juan Gomez, Sr., 6-0, 300
  • WR Tamerick Pace, Jr.
  • QB Wyatt Rinehart, Soph.
  • TE Caleb Seale, Jr.

 

Brownsboro QB Wyatt Rinehart. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Brownsboro never could find a rhythm on offense a season ago, finishing 2013 with a scoring average of 22.3 points per game. There was a three-game stretch toward the end of non-district where the Bears won two games and averaged 36.7 points, but the other seven games yielded only 16 on average. It was the first year as head coach for former Liberty-Eylau assistant Jason Hooker, so some of the offensive struggles can be chalked up to unfamiliarity with the new schemes. But there can no longer be excuses, not in year two and especially not in this district.

The Bears bring back six offensive starters, but may end up handing the reins over to sophomore Wyatt Rinehart at quarterback. Obviously the coaches feel strongly enough about the youngster, otherwise the decision may have centered on someone else. Regardless, Rinehart will need help from his older and more experienced teammates in order to have success in his debut season at the helm.

Brownsboro OL Cole McClain. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Senior wide receiver Will Bailey was Brownsboro's biggest offensive threat a season ago, and his big frame should provide the new quarterback with a welcoming target in the passing game. Junior receiver Tamarick Pace is another potential playmaker downfield for Brownsboro, while running back Damien Thompson hopes to enjoy breakout success after earning valuable playing time as a junior. The offensive line will feature two 300-pounders in seniors Cole McClain and Juan Gomez, another welcoming sight for a young quarterback.

Defense: While the coaches believe the offense stands a great chance of improving, it's the defense that must come together quick if the Bears are to seriously challenge for a playoff spot out of this district. Brownsboro allowed opponents an average of 32.8 points per game a season ago, surrendering 40 points or more in four games. With five defensive starters returning, and a couple of promising newcomers in the fold, there's every reason to believe the Bears have a chance to be better on that side of the ball.

Brownsboro RB Damien Thompson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Bailey could see extensive time on defense, either at safety or maybe even at linebacker in an effort to ensure Brownsboro has its best players on the field at all times. One player the Bears coaches are excited to have back is senior linebacker Braylon Wehrmann, who nearly reached 100 tackles and came up with a couple of recovered fumbles a season ago. Playing defense in this day and age is tough enough as it is, so any help the offense could provide by extending drives, would make the Bears' 'D' more effective.

2014 outlook: In former head coach John Settle's seven years on the Brownsboro sideline, the Bears reached the playoffs five times and compiled a record of 45-29. It's been tough sledding ever since. In the three years following Settle's departure, the Bears have had two head coaches combine to go 8-22. On a positive note, Brownsboro went from 1-9 in Ty Thomison's first season as coach in 2011 to a 5-5 finish the following year. It's safe to assume that Hooker would take a four-game improvement from year one, which would likely put Brownsboro right in the thick of the playoff race. But for now, with five more established programs in the district, it appears a Brownsboro postseason berth in 2014 could be a long shot.