District 8-3A Division II won't be for the faint of heart. A defending state champion, a traditional state power on the rise, a consistent playoff regular, and a brand-new state championship winning coach leading another ... yes, this league is definitely the real deal.

Waskom, the reigning state champions, have a few playmakers back, but will it be enough to thwart off an attempt to overthrow the Wildcats from the top of the district's mountain? Time will tell.

District 8-3A Division II Preview

Frankston WR Kendrick Rogers. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • RB/LB Chan Amie, Sr., Waskom
  • LB Mike Reason, Sr., Waskom
  • RB Kyree Ratliffe, Sr., Elysian Fields
  • WR Dylan Parker, Jr., Elysian Fields
  • QB Kayce Medlock, Jr., Arp
  • OL Mack Stroupe, Sr., Arp
  • WR Kendrick Rogers, Sr., Frankston
  • WR Justice Bean, Sr., Frankston
  • OL Corey Brister, Sr., West Rusk
  • QB Dee Starling, Sr., West Rusk
  • LB Cody Holland, Sr., New Diana
  • OL Reece Clark, Jr., Troup

 

TOP GAMES

  • Elysian Fields at Mineola, Aug. 28
  • Waskom at Elysian Fields, Sept. 25
  • Waskom at Arp, Oct. 9
  • Arp at Elysian Fields, Oct. 30
  • West Rusk at Frankston, Oct. 30

 

1. Waskom Wildcats

Waskom RB/LB Chan Amie. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Whitney Keeling
  • 2014 finish: 15-1 (3A Division II state champion)
  • Returning starters: 2 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • RB/LB Chan Amie, Sr., 5-11, 175
  • LB Mike Reason, Sr., 5-8, 170
  • DB Eric Stephens III, Sr., 5-8, 150
  • RB/DB Keileon Johnson, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • QB Dylan Harkrider, Sr., 6-3, 180
  • QB/DB Logan Hughes, Jr., 6-1, 185
  • DB Kaleb Haynes, Sr., 5-9, 170
  • LB Lucas Norton, Sr., 5-8, 160

 

Waskom QB Dylan Harkrider. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Waskom had nearly five players accumulate at least 1,000 rushing yards last season, but four of them have graduated, so there will be a few new faces leading the Wildcats' offense in 2015. It won't be easy replacing the production of the departed Kevin Johnson, Junebug Johnson, Dillon Benton, and Trace Carter, but sixth-year head coach Whitney Keeling is hopeful that a new crop of playmakers can help keep Waskom among East Texas' elite offenses. Senior Chan Amie returns to the offense after nearly reaching the magical 1,000-yard plateau a season ago, and just one other starter come backs on the offensive side of the ball. It may be difficult for Waskom to duplicate its scoring average of 49.3 points per game, but Amie, running back Keileon Johnson, and either Dylan Harkrider or Logan Hughes at quarterback will be essential members of the Wildcats' attack this fall.

Waskom DB Eric Stephens III. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Wildcats appear to be in better shape on the defensive side, with six starters returning to a unit that allowed a shade more than 20 points per game a season ago. Amie is the ring leader, after recording a team-best 216 tackles (36 for loss) to go with 12 sacks, five forced fumbles, three recoveries, and two interceptions. He'll have help in the linebacking corps as senior Mike Reason returns after a solid junior season. Keileon Johnson will double as a defensive back, while Eric Stephens III is a veteran to Waskom's secondary. With the offense breaking in some newcomers, it will be up to the defense early to set the tone for the upcoming season.

2015 outlook: It's been an exciting ride for Waskom the last two years. After reaching the state semifinals in 2013, the Wildcats went all the way last year and captured the school's first-ever state championship. Losing nine offensive starters is not an ideal way to go about defending the title, but Keeling remains confident his team can overcome the graduation blows. The target will certainly be on Waskom this season, and the District 8-3A Division II schedule features road games at last year's league runner-up and third-place finisher -- Arp and Elysian Fields.

 

2. Elysian Fields Yellowjackets

Elysian Fields's Ryan Storey looks to pass during the Yellowjackets' 36-30 win over Paul Pewitt in their Class 3A Division II bi-district playoff Nov. 16, 2014, in Hallsville. (Mike Davis, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Scott Ford
  • 2014 finish: 8-4 (3A Division II area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • RB Kyree Ratliffe, Sr., 6-3, 215
  • WR Dylan Parker, Jr., 6-4, 180
  • RB Jakoby Owens, Sr., 5-11, 180
  • QB Ryan Storey, Sr.
  • LB Reese Mathews, Sr., 6-3, 215
  • WR Ray Ratliffe, Jr.
  • WR Brevin Manning, Sr., 6-0, 200
  • OL Hunter Coleman, Sr., 6-1, 295

 

Elysian Fields' Kyree Ratliffe turns upfield during the Yellowjackets' 36-30 win over Paul Pewitt in their Class 3A Division II bi-district playoff Nov. 16, 2014, in Hallsville. (Mike Davis, ETSN.fm)

Offense: After a slow start to the 2014 season, the Elysian Fields offense got into high gear down the stretch. The Yellowjackets managed just 13 points in their first two games, but once district play began, EF took scoring to a completely different level. The 'Jackets averaged a little more than 40 points in their seven district contests. And with eight offensive starters returning to the fold, third-year coach Scott Ford is hopeful EF can continue its high-scoring ways in 2015. The focal point of the 'Jackets offense will be senior running back Kyree Ratliffe, who put together a big junior campaign that included 1,247 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns to go along with three additional scores in the passing game. Ratliffe's big frame and physical running style often overpowers smaller defenders at the 3A level, and if he remains healthy, an all-state caliber senior season could be on the horizon. EF also returns quarterback Ryan Storey along with big-play wide receiver Dylan Parker.

Defense: The defense was hit or miss a season ago. As a whole, EF allowed a scoring average of more than 25 points per game, but against elite competition, that number was much higher. The 'Jackets allowed 49 and 56 points in district losses to Waskom and Arp, respectively, and they also surrendered 30 points or more on three other occasions. Elysian Fields has six defensive starters returning, so the 'Jackets will need a few newcomers to step in and fill voids left by some of EF"s top defenders from 2014. One player the 'Jackets are thrilled to have back is senior linebacker Reese Mathews, who led the team in tackles a season ago. If EF can shore up some of its defensive issues from a season ago, this team has great potential moving forward.

2015 outlook: Elysian Fields has missed the playoffs just four times in the last 20 years, and the Yellowjackets are almost assuredly ticketed for another postseason berth this season. EF reached the state semifinals in 2012 and last played for a state title in 2007, and the buzz entering the 2015 campaign has the people of Elysian Fields thinking big once again. The 2013 season, Ford's first on the job, yielded just three wins but that was considered a rebuilding year with bigger and better things to come. Well, the youngsters that suffered through that tough campaign are now juniors and seniors, and seemed poised to lead the 'Jackets to another long playoff journey.

 

3. Arp Tigers

Arp's Joseph Dews (left) and Tray Baker. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Dale Irwin
  • 2014 finish: 9-2 (3A Division II area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 4 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • QB Kayce Medlock, Jr., 6-0, 180
  • OL Mack Stroupe, Jr.
  • DB Tommy Reese, Sr., 6-1, 185
  • LB Isaiah Baker, Sr., 5-8, 165
  • WR Tyler Stewart, Jr.
  • WR Joseph Dews, Sr., 5-8, 150
  • FB/LB Terry Nance, Jr.
  • WR/DB Tray Baker, Jr.

 

Arp QB Kayce Medlock. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Arp must find a way to replace the production of one of the schools'a all-time leading rushers in order to remain in the running for the district title. Marcalas Johnson completed his high school career with four consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, a truly rare feat. It remains to be seen what the Tigers' offense will look like without Johnson, but longtime head coach Dale Irwin has a few pieces to work with, including quarterback Kayce Medlock. As a sophomore, Medlock passed for 1,130 yards with 10 touchdowns and only one interception. But that only told half the story, as he also tallied 667 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 63 rushing attempts -- an average of almost 10 yards per carry. Without Johnson in the mix, expect Medlock's role to increase in the offense. Other key components to his year's offense include running back Isaiah Baker and receiver Tyler Stewart, who each performed well in limited roles a season ago.

Arp LB Terry Nance. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Just like the offense, Arp's defense suffered a big loss to graduation in the person of defensive lineman Tyrone Hunt, who signed with Baylor last February. The Tigers must also replace six other starters on the defensive side of the ball. Baker doubles as a linebacker, and Arp figures to be strong at the mid-level with the return of fellow linebacker Terry Nance. The secondary will be anchored by senior Tommy Reese and junior Trey Baker. Last season, Arp's defense allowed opposing offenses an average of a little more than 20 points per game, which is a respectable figure in this day and age of uptempo, spread offenses. To compete against speedy and experienced offenses like the ones at Waskom and Elysian Fields, the Tigers will need a few newcomers to step up and perform well on Friday nights.

2015 outlook: Since 2007, Arp has become one of the winningest programs in all of East Texas. The Tigers have compiled a record of 74-26 over the previous eight seasons, which include four years of at least 10 wins. With only 10 returning starters, and the proposition of playing in one of the most competitive 3A districts in the state, another 10-win season may be difficult to attain. Arp will need a big season from Medlock at quarterback, and a solid effort on the defensive side of the ball if the Tigers are to compete for a district championship.

 

4. Frankston Indians

Frankston's Kendrick Rogers (left), T.J. Brumley (center), and Justice Bean. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Mike Owens
  • 2014 finish: 4-6
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • WR Kendrick Rogers, Sr., 6-5, 190 (committed to Texas A&M)
  • WR Justice Bean, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • DL Chris Thompson, Sr., 6-2, 175
  • QB T.J. Brumley, Jr., 5-9, 175
  • LB Zane Porter, Jr., 6-0, 205
  • OL Josh Porter, Soph., 5-10, 250
  • RB Brice Harrington, Sr.
  • LB Dylan Hokit, Sr., 5-8, 160

 

Frankston WR Justice Bean. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Scoring wasn't a problem at all for Frankston in 2014. Last season, the Indians rolled up an average of 31.6 points per game. Frankston will be breaking in a new quarterback and running back in 2015, but the Indians bring back a total of seven offensive starters, so the potential for another high-scoring attack remains alive for Frankston. The obvious strength on offense lies with the Indians' receiving corps, which features two players that eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau a year ago. Kendrick Rogers, who has committed to Texas A&M, and his 6-foot-5 frame is a matchup nightmare for defensive backs on the 3A level. And his partner in crime, senior Justice Bean, is just as dangerous. Last season, the duo combined for 2,142 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns. Junior T.J. Brumley is expected to take over the reins at quarterback, and whoever wins the starting running back job will be running behind an experienced offensive line.

Frankston DL Chris Thompson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Frankston's defense was a trouble spot last season. The Indians surrendered a scoring average of 38.9 points in 2014, and was a big reason why Frankston failed to reach the playoffs for a second consecutive year. The Indians allowed a total of 305 points in losses to Cayuga, Waskom, Troup, Elysian Fields, and Arp. So if Frankston wants to crack the district's top four and reach the postseason, much better play on the defensive side of the ball is required. Fortunately for the Indians, they return seven defensive starters. Chief among them is senior defensive lineman Chris Thompson, whose size and strength make him a problem for opposing offensive linemen. Linebackers Zane Porter and Dylan Hokit will also be counted upon to provide steady play.

2015 outlook: Frankston had high expectations entering the 2014 season after the Indians had reached the playoffs the previous year. However, a three-game losing streak to end the season cost Frankston the chance at a return trip. Matt Nally, who spent three seasons as Indians head coach, took an assistant coaching job at Melissa in the offseason, which prompted Frankston to begin searching for a coach that could maximize the team's returning star power. The Indians finally settled on longtime coaching veteran Mike Owens, who spent more than a decade roaming the sidelines at Tyler Lee. Owens captured a state championship in 2004 with the Red Raiders, and his hire has raised expectations in Frankston to whole new level.

 

5. West Rusk Raiders

West Rusk's Breyon Thurman (left) and D.J. Hicks. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: John Frazier
  • 2014 finish: 3-6
  • Returning starters: 9 offensive, 8 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • OL Corey Brister, Sr., 6-2, 280
  • QB Dee Starling, Sr., 6-2, 185
  • LB Joe Wright, Sr., 6-0, 225
  • WR D.J. Hicks, Sr., 5-9, 160
  • WR Kevin Jones, Jr., 6-3, 175
  • OL Cameron Richmond, Jr., 6-5, 280
  • HB Nick Ballard, Sr., 5-10, 220
  • DL Hayden Sims, Jr.

 

West Rusk QB Dee Starling. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: It was a tough season for the West Rusk offense in 2014, as the Raiders managed just 22.8 points per game. Part of the struggles were because of a rash of injuries that beset head coach John Frazier's squad throughout the year, and it was partly due to an overall lack of experience. The same can't be said anymore. West Rusk begins the new year with a clean bill of health and nine returning offensive starters to boot. Senior quarterback Dee Starling, a rangy and athletic playmaker, will be a big part of what the Raiders do when they have the ball. He has the ability to make plays with both his arm and his legs, which could help West Rusk's offense turn the corner in 2015. The receiving corps should be a strength as well with the tandem of senior D.J. Hicks and junior Kevin Jones returning. The Raiders are also blessed with size on the offensive line, with senior Corey Brister and junior Cameron Richmond leading the way.

West Rusk LB Joe Wright. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: West Rusk allowed more than 30 points per game a season ago, which didn't help its cause for breaking through for a playoff spot. But eight starting defenders are back to help what should be a much-improved Raiders defense. Senior linebacker Joe Wright is the heart and soul of the unit, and he'll have a large say in how well the defense functions together. Meanwhile, junior Hayden Sims is capable of applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks, which is a real luxury against spread teams who like to take shots down the field. If the defensive side of the ball improves for West Rusk, the Raiders could find themselves in the mix for the fourth and final postseason spot come October and November.

2015 outlook: Since West Rusk's run to the state quarterfinals in 2010, the Raiders have struggled to maintain a winning edge. The Raiders have combined for a 12-28 record over the last four seasons, and have failed to capture a playoff win. West Rusk has been snake-bit with injuries over the last couple of seasons, leaving many to wonder if the current cycle of Raiders players would ever live up to their potential. Time will tell, but if West Rusk can shake the injury bug and can survive a murder's row of district competitors, the Raiders could be in excellent shape of at least getting to the postseason.

 

6. New Diana Eagles

New Diana's J.Q. Hunter-Shaw (left) and Cortez Smith. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Brett Ratliff
  • 2014 finish: 3-8 (3A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • RB/LB Cody Holland, Sr.
  • DL Skylar Simpson, Sr., 6-0, 200
  • WR Cortez Smith, Sr.
  • DL Toby Palmer, Sr.
  • LB Cole Freeman, Jr., 5-11, 205
  • RB J.Q. Hunter-Shaw, Sr., 5-10, 185
  • RB Jesse Creswell, Sr.
  • LB Aron Jahr, Soph.

 

New Diana RB/LB Cody Holland. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: New Diana defied the odds last season by reaching the playoffs despite averaging just 21 points per game. The Eagles' overall record may not have been pretty, but they did just enough in a brutal district to survive beyond the regular season. Fourth-year head coach Brett Ratliff knows his offense must be improved if New Diana has visions of returning to the postseason for the third consecutive year. He'll have six returning offensive starters to work with, including a trio of ball carriers that are expected to do much of the heavy lifting in the ground game. Seniors Cody Holland, J.Q. Hunter-Shaw, and Jesse Creswell figure to factor in the offense quite heavily in 2015. If and when New Diana decides to take advantage of favorable matchups downfield in the passing game, senior receiver Cortez Smith is capable of winning a few one-on-one battles.

New Diana QB/DL Skylar Simpson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: It's not often that a team that's defense allows almost 39 points per game finds itself participating in the playoffs. But that's exactly what happened in New Diana's case a season ago. Obviously, the odds of that transpiring again are extremely low, so Ratliff is hoping that his six returning defensive starters, along with a handful of newcomers, can drastically improve the defense's level of play in 2015. Holland is a dynamic presence at the linebacker spot, as are junior Cole Freeman and sophomore Aron Jahr. New Diana also welcomes back defensive linemen Toby Palmer and Skylar Simpson, which could give the Eagles one of the top defensive fronts in the entire district.

2015 outlook: The season did not get off to great start for New Diana, which suffered a three-game losing streak to begin the year. The Eagles slowed the negative momentum with consecutive wins, but after getting to 2-3, New Diana stumbled again with another three-game losing streak. New Diana fought to get in the playoffs, but ended up dropping five of its final six games, including a 49-18 defeat to Hughes Springs in the bi-district round of the postseason. If the Eagles want to entertain thoughts of being a playoff contender again this season, improved play on both sides of the ball is a must.

 

7. Troup Tigers

Troup's William Craver (left), Ravenn Garcia (center), and Joey Gray. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Dennis Alexander
  • 2014 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • OL Reece Clark, Jr.
  • WR Dalton Hayes, Jr.
  • LB Ramiro Martinez, Soph.
  • DL Kyle Williams, Sr.
  • OL Joey Gray, Sr.
  • DB Lane Smith, Sr., 5-8, 140
  • OL William Craver, Sr.
  • QB Callen Eastman, Sr., 6-3, 170

 

Troup QB Callen Eastman. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Troup's offense performed well for the most part in 2014. The Tigers averaged a little more than 30 points per game, and went over the 50-point mark on two occasions. And with seven returning starters on that side of the ball, Troup is hoping that some of that success will carry over into the new season. Standout running back D'Luis West was lost to graduation, but the Tigers return several key components on offense. The strength of the unit may very well be the offensive line, which returns seasoned veterans like seniors Joey Gray and William Craver along with junior Reece Clark. Senior Callen Eastman will call the shots at quarterback, while junior Dalton Hayes is an excellent downfield weapon in the passing game. If Troup can settle on a running back or two to shoulder the load, the Tigers could be in for another productive season on the offensive end.

Troup LB Blake Attaway. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Troup's defense had its fair share of struggles in 2014. Opposing offenses scored an average of more than 38 points on the Tigers a season ago, a number that must fall drastically if Troup has any real chance of getting to the playoffs. The Tigers have six returning staters from last year's defense in the mix, so a solid foundation of experience has been laid. Now, Troup must find a few extra pieces to build around the nucleus. Senior Kyle Williams is a game plan disrupter on the defensive line and represents the key for a successful defensive season for the team. Sophomore linebacker Ramiro Martinez showed flashes of excellence as a ninth-grader, and defensive back Lane Smith is a quality coverage man in the secondary.

2015 outlook: The immediate future may not look as bright as some would like, but it always helps to have one of the state's most established and winningest head coaches in your corner. Dennis Alexander, who ranks in the top 5 in wins all-time in Texas, begins year No. 4 on the Troup sidelines. The Tigers reached the playoffs in his first two seasons in charge, but struggled for a two-win season in 2014, the lowest number of victories for Troup in s season since 2010's team finished 0-10. The Tigers may not have the athletes that currently roam the field at Waskom, Elysian Fields, or Arp, but Troup is on a mission to prove last season's disappointment was only a fluke.

 

8. Winona Wildcats

Winona's Deundre Wheeler (left), Braxton Kincade (center), and Jeremiah Bolton. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Keylon Kincade
  • 2014 finish: 1-9
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 8 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • RB/LB Deundre Wheeler, Jr., 5-10, 190
  • WR/DB Jeremiah Bolton, Sr.
  • OL/DL Tecorian Simmons, Jr., 6-1, 290
  • ATH Braxton Kincade, Jr., 5-11, 175
  • WR/LB Chris Lindley, Sr.
  • WR Zachary Francis, Soph.
  • ATH KJ Kincade, Fr.
  • OL/DL Leland Norman, Sr., 5-7, 180

 

Winona RB/LB Deundre Wheeler. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: It was a season to forget for the Winona offense in 2014, as the Wildcats mustered just 19 points per game. There were a ton of underclassmen that saw game action a season ago, which may have caused growing pains at first, but could ultimately pay off huge dividends. Several freshmen saw significant playing time last year, and saw what it took to win on a consistent basis on Friday nights. Winona will have a multitude of options on the offensive side of the ball this fall, including junior running back Deundre Wheeler, who showed glimpses of his full potential as a sophomore. Junior Braxton Kincade figures to handle the quarterbacking responsibilities at first, but don't be surpised of head coach Keylon Kincade's son -- freshman KJ Kincade -- gets a few snaps from behind center at some point this season.

Winona OL/DL Tecorian Simmons. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Without a doubt, the weakest part of Winona's team in 2014 was its defense. The Wildcats gave up an average of more than 47 points per game a season ago, which made it virtually impossible for an inexperienced offense to keep pace most nights. Winona brings back eight starters on the defensive side of the ball, and coach Kincade will need all of them to step their game up individually if the Wildcats are serious about changing the program's losing culture. Wheeler doubles as hard-hitting linebacker, while the defensive line will be anchored by big junior defensive tackle Tecorian Simmons. Winona's secondary looks solid with the return of seniors Jeremiah Bolton and Leland Norman.

2015 outlook: Entering his first season as a head coach, Keylon Kincade knew his task would be difficult at the outset, especially with so many young faces stepping out onto the field on Friday nights for the first time. The result, predictably, was a 1-9 campaign, which represented Winona's lowest win total since the 2011 season. The Wildcats will still be extremely young at several spots this year, but if Winona can make marked progress through the course of its 10-game schedulem the Wildcats may begin to see the rebuilding project take shape next season.