The District 11-3A Division I race was a two-team chase in 2014, coming down to a Week 8 showdown between state-ranked and unbeaten Teague and Malakoff to decide the district championship.

Teague ultimately came away victorious that night, and finished off its first unbeaten regular season in school history. Malakoff, meanwhile, had to settle for second-best and eventually suffered a first-round playoff loss, ending what had been a fantastic season.

As the calendar turns to 2015, it appears as if Teague and Malakoff will once again challenge for league supremacy. But with big returning numbers at both Palestine Westwood and Elkhart, could either of those teams jump into the league title mix?

District 11-3A Division I Preview

Elkhart RB Zack Gray. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • QB Mik'kail Shepherd, Sr., Teague
  • LB Zacchaeus Bell, Sr., Teague
  • RB Q.T. Barker, Jr., Malakoff
  • WR Tyler Russell, Jr., Malakoff
  • ATH D.J. Hicks, Sr., Palestine Westwood
  • RB Kaigan Baker, Sr., Palestine Westwood
  • RB Zack Gray, Sr., Elkhart
  • DL Traylon Swanson, Sr., Elkhart
  • RB Keenan Hargest, Sr., Eustace
  • LB Noah Romero, Sr., Kemp

 

TOP GAMES

  • Malakoff at Daingerfield, Sept. 4
  • Malakoff at Palestine Westwood, Oct. 9
  • Elkhart at Eustace, Oct. 9
  • Malakoff at Teague, Oct. 23
  • Elkhart at Palestine Westwood, Oct. 30

 

1. Teague Lions

  • Coach: Donnie Osborn
  • 2014 finish: 11-1 (3A Division I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • QB Mik'kail Shepherd, Sr., 5-9, 160
  • LB Zacchaeus Bell, Sr., 6-0, 170
  • DL Ryan Mitchell, Sr., 6-0, 270
  • LB Dylan Crawford, Sr., 6-1, 200
  • DB Cooper Jones, Jr., 5-10, 150

 

2015 outlook: Teague enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history in 2014, going through the regular season undefeated, and even ascending into the state's top 10 poll during the year. It was the first time the Lions ever went unbeaten, and the 11 wins were the most in program history. Now, what does Teague do for an encore? The Lions graduated 3,500-yard passer Austin Skinner, 1,300-yard rusher John Love, and two 1,000-yard receivers -- Aaron Mitchell and Robbie West. While the offensive skill positions will be occupied almost entirely by newcomers, Teague still brings back 12 starters from last year's area finalist. Senior Mik'kail Shepherd, who was a receiver a season ago, is expected to step into the starting quarterback's role. Second-year head coach Donnie Osborn believes Shepherd has what it takes to become among the district's most explosive offensive playmakers. Defensively, the Lions returns a solid nucleus made up, in part, by seniors linebackers Zacchaeus Bell and Dylan Crawford, senior lineman Ryan Mitchell, and junior defensive back Cooper Jones.

 

2. Malakoff Tigers

Malakoff's Zach Sanders (65) and Tristen Tobey. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Jamie Driskell
  • 2014 finish: 9-2 (3A Division I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 4 defensive

 

 

Players to watch
  • RB Q.T. Barker, Jr., 5-11, 160
  • WR Tyler Russell, Jr., 6-2, 170
  • LB Dylan Grim, Sr., 5-9, 175
  • OL Colton Barker, Sr., 5-11, 285
  • DB A.J. Cook, Jr., 6-0, 190
  • QB Jake Woolverton, Sr.
  • OL Chase Busch, Jr., 5-10, 200
  • DB Dustin Miller, Sr.

 

Malakoff RB Q.T. Barker. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Quite simply, the Malakoff Tigers were among East Texas' most explosive offenses in 2014. The Tigers averaged more than 46 points per game, and four times they scored at least 50 points in a game. Malakoff lost standout running back Marcus Dowell and starting quarterback Stephan Wolfe to graduation, but overall, the Tigers return six offensive starters from a season ago. Junior running back Q.T. Barker has good size and speed out of the backfield, while junior wideout Tyler Russell has the size necessary to beat defenders in one-on-one situations down the field and in the red zone. Senior Jake Woolverton is expected to step into quarterback job in 2015, and if he can distribute the ball effectively to a relatively deep collections of weapons, Malakoff's offensive numbers may not suffer too much of a downturn. The offensive line should be in good shape with the return of senior Colton Barker and junior Chase Busch.

Malakoff LB Dylan Grim. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Malakoff's defense was one of the area's best-kept secrets last season. While the offensive exploits grabbed most of the headlines, Tigers defenders did a number on opposing offenses. For the season, Malakoff allowed teams an average of just a little more than 16 points per game. Only twice did the Tigers surrender more than 28 points in a game, and both were losses -- 50-35 to Teague in district, and 34-24 to Buna in the first round of the playoffs. Seventh-year head coach Jamie Driskell will have some work to do finding replacements on the defensive side of the ball, where only four starters are returning. Early on, Malakoff must rely on its seasoned veterans, including senior linebacker Dylan Grim, junior defensive back A.J. Cook, and senior defensive back Dustin Miller. It may be difficult for Malakoff's defense to live to the level of last season, but don't expect the Tigers' performance to drop off too drastically.

2015 outlook: Driskell has turned Malakoff, a program that was once was one of the worst in all of East Texas, into a legitimate district title contender year-in and year-out. In his six years in charge, the Tigers have made the playoffs in all six seasons, sporting a combined record of 54-16. So even though less than half of Malakoff's starters are coming back in 2015, Driskell and his coaching staff have experience in cycling through players. Malakoff has at least eight wins in every season under Driskell, so don't expect that to change this fall. The biggest question marks will be how well Woolverton performs at quarterback, and how well a young defensive unit comes together.

 

3. Palestine Westwood Panthers

  • Coach: Kevin Hayes
  • 2014 finish: 7-4 (3A Division I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive

 

 

Players to watch
  • ATH D.J. Hicks, Sr., 5-8, 160
  • RB Kaigan Baker, Sr., 5-7, 180
  • RB Steven Green, Sr., 5-6, 155
  • OL Freedom Thompson, Sr.
  • OL Logan Rogers, Sr., 5-10, 220
  • DL Danny Burns, Jr.
  • TE Malik Benson, Sr., 6-0, 275
  • ATH Red Warren, Jr.

 

Offense: The Palestine Westwood offense had a breakout 2014 season, averaging right at 34 points per game. Despite low expectations from outside the program, Westwood surprised most observers with an offense that, by the time the season ended, was expected to score points every time it got the ball. And with eight returning offensive starters, much of the same can be expected in 2015. The Panthers quite possibly have the district's best collection of running backs in multi-purpose athlete D.J. Hicks, along with seniors Kaigan Baker and Steven Green. Between the three of them, Westwood should have little trouble establishing the running game this season. The offensive line can be considered a strength as well, as Westwood welcomes back seniors Freedom Thompson and Logan Rogers. Senior tight end Malik Benson is an excellent blocker in the running game, and junior ATH Red Warren could provide the Panthers' offense an added dimension of explosiveness this season.

Defense: Westwood's defense got off to an incredible start to the 2014 season. During the Panthers' 5-0 beginning to the year, they allowed opposing offenses an average of just 14.8 points per game. It was a different story down the stretch for the Panthers, who surrendered an average of 33.7 over their final six games, in which Westwood went 2-4. Making sure the defense carries its intensity on through the regular season will assuredly be on the mind of second-year head coach Kevin Hayes and his staff. The good news for Westwood is that seven defensive starters are returning in 2015. Junior defensive lineman Danny Burns is arguably Westwood's top defender, and his individual play will have a lot to do with how much the Panthers' defense as a whole improves.

2015 outlook: Westwood reached the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009, and its seven wins were the most the program had achieved in one season since 2007. In the five years leading up to last season, Westwood had fallen on hard times, combining to go just 12-38, including an 0-10 campaign in 2010. Now, with 15 starters returning from a playoff team, Westwood has its sights set on the next step: a district championship. It won't be easy with Teague and Malakoff, which defeated Westwood by a combined 63 points in 2014, standing in front of them. Teague and Malakoff each spent time in the state's top 10 poll a season ago, and with so many of their impact players gone to graduation, some are expecting the two programs to dip a little in production. But will it be enough for Westwood to seriously challenge for league supremacy?

 

4. Elkhart Elks

Elkhart's Lane Lisiecki (left) and Zack Gray. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Sam Wells
  • 2014 finish: 5-5 (3A Division I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 9 defensive

 

 

Players to watch
  • RB Zack Gray, Sr., 5-10, 195
  • DL Traylon Swanson, Sr., 6-0, 220
  • WR Alex Flores, Sr., 6-1, 175
  • WR Chad Taylor, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • WR Jackson Adair, Sr., 6-1, 160
  • DL Nathan Vick, Jr.
  • OL Colton Frazier, Jr., 5-10, 220
  • QB Lane Lisiecki, Sr., 5-10, 155

 

Elkhart WR Chad Taylor. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Elkhart had its fair share of solid productivity in 2014, averaging right at 29 points per game. And with seven returning starters back on the offensive side of the ball, the odds are that the Elks will be even better this season. With senior running back Zack Gray, a potential all-state candidate, back to carry the load, Elkhart's offense appears to be ready to take flight again in the fall. Gray tallied more than 1,100 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns a season ago, but expect those numbers to trend upward in the coming months. The Elks will have to replace their quarterback -- 2,000-yard passer Austin Sheridan -- but fourth-year head coach Sam Wells is confident in the abilities of senior Lane Lisiecki, who played sparingly as a junior. Elkhart will also bring back receivers Alex Flores, Chad Taylor, and Jackson Adair, who combined for more than 1,300 receiving yards a season ago.

Elkhart DL Traylon Swanson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Elkhart experienced some struggles on the defensive side of the ball in 2014, allowing opponents an average of more than 27 points per game. Most of that came in district losses to Teague and Malakoff and its bi-district playoff loss to Kirbyville, but if Elkhart wants to turn the tide and become a serious district title threat this season, the Elks' defensive play must be better. Luckily for the Elks, nine defensive starters return to the fold. Senior defensive lineman Traylon Swanson is among the most disruptive interior linemen in the entire district, and the coaches are expecting another stellar season from their defensive anchor. Junior Nathan Vick also returns to Elkhart's D-line, which could become one of the best defensive units in 11-3A Division I.

2015 outlook: After missing out on the playoffs in Wells' first season as coach in 2012, Elkhart has reached the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1964-65. A third straight trip to the playoffs figures to be contingent on how much all of Elkhart's experience will affect the season. Logic says that Elkhart should improve in every facet of the game in 2015, but it won't be easy to qualify for the postseason in a district that also includes the likes of Teague, Malakoff, Palestine Westwood, and Eustace. If everything goes according to plan, Elkhart should reach the postseason.

 

5. Eustace Bulldogs

Eustace's Quentin Parks (left) and Hayden Plunk. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Heath Ragle
  • 2014 finish: 4-6
  • Returning starters: 2 offensive, 3 defensive

 

 

Players to watch
  • RB Keenan Hargest, Sr., 5-10, 190
  • DL Hayden Plunk, Sr., 6-4, 200
  • OL Mikey Marshall, Jr., 6-3, 290
  • RB Micah Stone, Jr., 6-2, 185
  • DB Justin Griffin, Sr., 5-8, 170
  • QB Cody Duncan, Sr.
  • LB Quentin Parks, Sr., 5-8, 170
  • RB Clifton Johnson, Soph.

 

Eustace RB Keenan Hargest. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: It was an up-and-down season for the Eustace offense in 2014. The Bulldogs averaged almost 25 points per game, but there were a few games where points were extremely hard to come by. And most of the struggles occurred in district play when Eustace dropped four of its five games. During league play, Eustace scored an average of 16.8 points per game, which was a far cry from its output during the first five weeks of the season. In getting off to a 3-2 start to the year, the Bulldogs scored an average of 33 points per game. Third-year head coach Heath Ragle only returns two offensive starters, but one of them happens to be one of the very best players in the district. Senior running back Keenan Hargest is back after rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. Most of the offense will run through Hargest, but Eustace will also be counting upon sophomore Clifton Johnson and junior Micah Stone out of the backfield.

Eustace LB Quentin Parks. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: If Eustace hopes to challenge for a playoff spot in 2015, its defense must improve upon last year's performance. For the season, the Bulldogs surrendered an average of 33.5 points per game to opposing offenses. During Eustace's 1-4 district stretch, the Bulldogs' problems on defense were even more pronounced, as opponents put up an average of almost 40 per game. Improving the defense won't be easy with just three starters on that side of the ball returning, but Ragle is hopeful that a few new playmakers emerge alongside proven commodities like senior defensive lineman Hayden Plunk, senior linebacker Quentin Parks, and senior defensive back Justin Griffin. It will take some doing, but if Eustace can steadily improve its defense, some of the pressure will be taken off its offense to perform well every time it touches the ball.

2015 outlook: Eustace missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007, and with only five returning starters coming back, the Bulldogs are facing an uphill battle to get back. Eustace handily took care of winless Kemp in its only district win of the season a year ago, but the Bulldogs were outscored by an average of 35 points per game in their four league losses. Obviously, Eustace must close a fairly sizable gap on the rest of the district in order to have a chance at making the postseason. District favorites Teague and Malakoff lost some talent to graduation, but playoff hopefuls Palestine Westwood and Elkhart return the bulk of their teams from last season.

 

6. Kemp Yellowjackets

  • Coach: Brandon Hankins
  • 2014 finish: 0-10
  • Returning starters: 9 offensive, 10 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • LB Noah Romero, Sr., 6-3, 195
  • RB Braxton Watters, Sr., 5-9, 200
  • WR Elijah Gardner, Jr., 6-4, 175
  • WR Josiah Brewington, Jr., 6-3, 170
  • DB Kane Johnson, Soph., 6-2, 180

 

2015 outlook: Kemp last made the playoffs in 2008, but that seems like such a distant memory with the way the years since have transpired. The Yellowjackets are just 8-51 since the 2009 season, are a coming off an 0-10 campaign in 2014. Head coach Brandon Hankins hopes his second year in charge is when Kemp begins to make serious progress in becoming a relevant program. The 'Jackets return the most starters of any other team in the district with 19 -- nine offensive and 10 defensive. But time will tell what, if any, affect that will have on Kemp in the coming months.