The past two years were fun ones for Lufkin fans. Their classic rivalries within East Texas actually meant something once the Panthers got demoted from Class 6A to Class 5A.

But there were drawbacks as well. District road games against Corsicana and Ennis were brutal and most other league contests' distance weren't that much better than traveling to the northwest part of the Greater Houston Area in the opposite direction.

What's more, Lufkin enjoyed competing at the state's highest level and carved itself a comfortable niche with The Woodlands and Conroe schools before getting recalled to its own region of the state.

Well, it's back to Houston for the Pack and their fans after two years. They will once again represent East Texas on their own.

How do we see the Panthers doing?

ETSN.fm's District 12-6A picks are here.

Lufkin QB Kordell Rodgers. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

 

District 12-6A Preview

PLAYMAKERS

  • OL Joseph Bell, Sr., Lufkin
  • OL Matthew Common, Sr., The Woodlands
  • RB Joel Denley, Sr., West Brook
  • DB Savon Fields, Jr., Lufkin
  • QB Colby Kizzie, Sr., Conroe
  • LB Zach La Canfora, Sr., The Woodlands
  • LB Cameron McLeod, Sr., Montgomery
  • RB/DB Alex Nunn, Jr., Montgomery
  • LB Jorge Ochoa, Sr., West Brook
  • QB Kordell Rodgers, Sr., Lufkin
  • WR Dhailon Phillips, Sr., Lufkin
  • DL Michael Purcell, Sr., The Woodlands
  • WR/DB Kyle Townsend, Sr., Oak Ridge
  • QB Jordan Turnquest, Sr., College Park
  • QB Eric Schmid, Sr., The Woodlands
  • LB Grant Stuard, Sr., Oak Ridge

TOP GAMES

  • Lufkin at The Woodlands, Sept. 30
  • West Brook at Lufkin, Oct. 14
  • Lufkin at Oak Ridge, Oct. 21

1. The Woodlands Highlanders

  • Coach: Mark Schmid
  • 2015 finish: 10-2 (6A D-I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Eric Schmid, Sr., 6-1, 175
  • DL Michael Purcell, Sr., 6-4, 230
  • OL Matthew Common, Sr., 6-3, 300
  • LB Zach La Canfora, Sr., 6-0, 205
  • WR/DB Chris Stewart, Sr., 5-9, 160
  • LB Grant Milton, Sr., 6-1, 190
  • WR Kesean Carter, Jr., 6-0, 175

2016 outlook: The Woodlands turned in an impressive 10-2 year a season ago and reached the Class 6A Division I area round before falling to Austin Westlake, which in turn reached the state championship game. Fourteen starters are back from that successful The Woodlands team.

Quarterback Eric Schmid broke 1,000 yards both on the ground and through the air and returns for another season. Tackle Matthew Common, who is 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, will be protecting Schmid.

Running back is a question The Woodlands will have to answer ahead of district play, but Schmid has proven he can shoulder the ground load, and the team does have a solid framework of a receiving corps with athletic perimeter players Chris Stewart and Kesean Carter back in the fold.

The Woodlands' offense averaged about 35 points per game last season in a decent district.

But defense is the team's clear strength, and seven starters return on that side of the ball. The group did not give up their 100th point of the season until the 12th game of the campaign.

The front should be particularly strong with end Michael Purcell and linebacker Zach La Confora returning. They were first-team all-district selections last season.

Grant Milton is another strong point at linebacker.

The Woodlands should be the deepest team by far with a district-best 4,280 students to choose from. For comparison, Lufkin has 2,198 students as the smallest school.

 

2. Lufkin Panthers

Lufkin WR Dhailon Phillips (5), WR Javante Ellington (4) and QB Kordell Rodgers (3).
  • Coach: Todd Quick
  • 2015 finish: 7-4 (5A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Kordell Rodgers, Sr., 6-0, 175
  • WR Dhailon Phillips, Sr., 6-3, 195
  • DB Savon Fields, Jr., 5-9, 168
  • OL Joseph Bell, Sr., 6-1, 300
  • OL Hunter Hollis, Sr., 6-3, 295
  • RB Khalil Brown, Sr., 5-10, 193
  • WR Javante Ellington, Sr., 5-5, 140
  • WR Malik Jackson, Jr., 6-0, 170
  • WR Jeremiah Davis, Jr., 6-0, 180
  • LB Isaiah Phillips, Jr., 5-8, 165
Lufkin WR Dhailon Phillips. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Lufkin's offense has the potential to be East Texas' best just with the seven known quantities accounted for. Finding the good in the five newcomers is a bonus, but it would be nice if some players came in and helped strengthen the offensive line between 300-pound tackle Joseph Bell and 295-pound tackle Hunter Hollis.

The Pack's passing game should be the region's best. Texas State quarterback commitment Kordell Rodgers returns as does a deep receiver rotation led by Dhailon Phillips, who owns offers from Texas State and Air Force.

Javante Ellington, a burner, and big targets Malik Jackson and Jeremiah Davis are other welcomed returners.

Lufkin averaged about 32 points per game with one of East Texas' toughest schedules a year ago, but, as a 5A school, it did not face many teams as deep as its new district opponents.

Still, expect the Panthers to lean on the pass and find success with it considering the wealth of experience at the relevant positions.

Lufkin LB Isaiah Phillips. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Five players return to the unit and none are bigger than safety Savon Fields and linebacker Isaiah Phillips. Both had good sophomore years and return to help keep opposing offenses challenged.

Bank on Lufkin producing an athletic backfield beyond Fields. That will be important in this district because all of the teams except College Park are sophisticated enough to attempt going over the top.

Things are a little less clear up front. The team's single biggest positional challenge will be overcoming the loss of defensive end Bronson Massie to Kansas State.

However, the team is as high on Ariel Olvera as it is on Isaiah Phillips. More than that, there's never been a talent shortage in town.

It just might be a special season if the defense comes together.

 

2016 outlook: Lufkin should be more than competitive despite being the smallest school in the league and despite a somewhat comfortable two years at the 5A level. The program has been here before, mostly with the same schools, and has performed well.

The Panthers will get the thing rolling with decent games against Longview -- which is almost completely rebuilding to start the year -- and chief rival Nacogdoches. From there, the team faces Bossier City (La.) Parkway at the Battle on the Border showcase in Shreveport, La., and then closes non-district play against Prepa Tech from Monterrey, Mexico.

It's a schedule that is winnable and should put the team on the right course ahead of facing The Wooldlands right out of the gate within league play.

Lufkin's offense should be fine and the defense should be forged against four quality non-district opponents. At that point, maybe the team surpasses The Woodlands' more proven talent from top to bottom.

 

3. Beaumont West Brook Bruins

  • Coach: Kevin Flanigan
  • 2015 finish: 6-5 (6A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB Joe Denley, Sr., 5-8, 185
  • LB Jorge Ochoa, Sr., 5-10, 195
  • OL Dan Moore Jr., Sr., 6-5, 316
  • DB Chris Bishop, Sr., 6-2, 180

2016 outlook: West Brook lost receiver Keith Corbin to Houston and safety Innis Gaines to TCU after a gritty run to the first round of the 6A Division I playoffs. Those players can't be replaced.

That was just the start of graduation attrition. The program brings back three offensive and three defensive starters in total.

However, running back Joel Denley makes a preseason case for the district's most valuable player award. He ran for 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.

You know West Brook will be leaning on Denley even harder as a senior with the old starting quarterback gone.

Linebacker Jorge Ochoa headlines the defensive side of the ball. He made 77 stops from his Mike position last year.

West Brook does sit on its own hotbed of talent in Beaumont. It won't take long to learn what the new team is about with good non-district games against Beaumont Central and Beaumont Ozen ahead of a great game against Houston King.

4. Conroe Oak Ridge War Eagles

  • Coach: Dereck Rush
  • 2015 finish: 4-6
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR Kyle Townsend, Sr., 6-1, 190
  • LB Grant Stuard, Sr., 6-0, 205
  • QB Bishop Durst, Jr., 5-9, 170
  • OL Jeremy Parker, Sr., 6-3, 328
  • DB Zach Johnson III, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • OL Joey Presutti, Sr., 5-11, 275

2016 overview: Like Lufkin, Oak Ridge is bringing back seven offensive starters with their own noticeable strengths.

Oak Ridge's immediate strength is along the offensive line with all-district selections Jeremy Parker and Joey Prescutti returning to the fold for their senior years. Quarterback Bishop Durst is another asset despite being undersized for a 6A signal caller.

Receiver Kyle Townsend is the star of the show. He owns offers from New Mexico and North Texas ahead of the campaign and caught 12 touchdowns toward 928 yards last year.

The team does hope fairly inexperienced running backs Contrell Green and Jimmie Moore can lead a large number of players Oak Ridge intends to give the ball to.

If those guys can handle the load, this squad has a complete offense.

The defensive side was Oak Ridge's strength last season, but it did give up 32 points per game in league contests toward a final record of 4-6 with limited offensive support.

Five starters are back from that group.

Linebacker Grant Stuard and defensive back Zach Johnson III are nice starting pieces as the team figures out what else it has.

Head coach Dereck Rush, formerly of John Tyler, has not been part of many losing teams. The pieces are there, particularly on offense, to be a competitive team.

 

5. The Woodlands College Park Cavaliers

  • Coach: Richard Carson
  • 2015 finish: 3-8 (6A D-II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Jordan Turnquest, Sr., 5-11, 185
  • OL/DL Anthony Taguma, Sr., 6-2, 270
  • RB Tucker Woody, Sr., 5-9, 170

2016 outlook: College Park always fields gritty teams, and its offense will be the most physical of the district. Head coach Richard Carson runs the veer.

Quarterback Jordan Turnquest is a nice asset for the system. He ran for a little more than 300 yards last season and popped off about 500 yards in the passing game.

Tucker Woody will be the key to the team's success as the No. 1 running back. As a senior, this will be his first season to start.

College Park likely will stay in all games against the league's middle pack. Teams can't get very far removed from it with a clock consuming, ball control offense.

6. Conroe Tigers

  • Coach: Robert Walker
  • 2015 finish: 4-6
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Kolby Kizzie, Sr., 6-3, 190
  • RB Donaven Lloyd, Jr., 5-9, 190
  • DB Quentin Brown II, Sr., 6-2, 190

2016 outlook: Conroe finished a rough district season on a high note last year with a Week 11 victory against College Park. Thirteen players from the team had that boost to ride into offseason workouts.

Kolby Kizzie is a great starting point for a team hoping to take the next step and reach the playoffs. He threw for about 1,700 yards last season and has fantastic size for the position.

Quentin Brown II has next-level size at safety. He's 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds.

7. Montgomery Bears

  • Coach: John Bolfing
  • 2015 finish: 5-5
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
  • LB Cameron McLeod, Sr., 5-9, 180
  • RB/DB Alex Nunn, Sr., 5-8, 160
  • QB Caleb Campbell, Jr., 6-2, 175

2016 outlook: Montgomery, like West Brook, suffered massive losses to graduation. In fact, three of its former players are now playing football locally at Kilgore Junior College.

The school's two district wins a season ago came against Klein and Klein Forest. Neither of those teams are in the district, and the league upgraded with Lufkin and West Brook joining.

Montgomery may be a pleasant surprise, but there's not much indicating a successful run other than linebacker Cameron McLeond, athlete Alex Nunn and big expectations for first-year starting quarterback Caleb Campbell.