There are consistently great programs across the state, but very few are honestly competing for the state championship year after year. Even then, the dominant programs of today have a tendency to drop back toward the chasing pack over time.

You know why?

Supporting a school means you're ultimately going to have to say goodbye to the athletes that put you on the map. Graduation changes the high school landscape every year.

That's not a bad problem for Big Sandy or Union Grove this year, but district co-champion Cayuga is definitely feeling the hurt after a breakthrough season. Kerens also took a beating with 10 offensive starters alone graduating from its area-round team.

Those factors just might be enough for either Hawkins or Cross Roads to end their significant playoff droughts.

But, without further adieu, we'll tell you Big Sandy and Union Grove are the frontrunners in this league.

Big Sandy put up video game numbers on offense and had a competitive defense a season ago. It has a district-best 17 starters back.

Union Grove has unmatched size at the skill positions and a little bit of swagger with last season's shared district title. Sixteen players from that squad are back and hungry for another trophy.

Where does that leave the rest of the pack?

The District 10-2A Division I picks are here.

 District 10-2A Division I Preview

Big Sandy RB Seth Burk. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • RB Seth Burk, Sr., Big Sandy
  • OL/DL Katerius Douglas, Sr., Kerens
  • RB Kiyandre Faulk, Sr., Kerens
  • QB/DB Cody Hearrell, Jr., Cayuga
  • WR/DB Luc Hyles, Jr., Cross Roads
  • FB/LB Erick McFall, Jr., Big Sandy
  • RB Kahmeron Pippins, Jr., Big Sandy
  • QB/DB Akim Richmond, Jr., Hawkins
  • RB/LB Ryder Sparkman, Jr., Cayuga
  • WR/DB Tanner Stanley, Sr., Union Grove
  • ATH Parker Thornton, Sr., Union Grove

TOP GAMES

  • Big Sandy at Kerens, Oct. 20
  • Cayuga at Hawkins, Oct. 20
  • Union Grove at Big Sandy, Oct. 27
  • Kerens at Cayuga, Oct. 27
  • Hawkins at Cross Roads, Oct. 27
  • Union Grove at Kerens, Nov. 3
  • Cross Roads at Cayuga, Nov. 3
Big Sandy RB Khameron Pippins. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

1. Big Sandy Wildcats

  • Coach: Larry Minter
  • 2016 finish: 8-4 (2A D-I bi-area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 9 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB/LB Seth Burk, Sr., 6-1, 178 (1,626 yards, 26 TDs)
  • RB/LB Khameron Pippins, Jr., 5-9, 185 (1,867 yards, 24 TDs)
  • FB/LB Erick McFall, Jr., 6-3, 241 (75 tackles, 12 TFL, 5 sacks)
  • OL/DL Rodney Stevenson, Sr., 6-1, 290
  • DL Colton Fenwick, Sr., 6-0, 242
  • DB Caden Minter, 6-1, 165
Big Sandy OL/DL Rodney Stevenson. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Big Sandy had major experience questions last season and came out smelling like a rose. Most of its guys are back. Nine starters return from an 8-4 squad.

The Wildcats should have, far and away, the best running game among district teams and could make a case as the best running team in the region at large for two reasons.

One, backs Seth Burk and Khameron Pippins combined for 3,493 yards and 50 touchdowns in 2016 as a junior and sophomore, respectively. Two, the offensive line that pushed for them is almost completely intact.

Big Sandy's line is headlined by Rodney Stevenson. He's 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds.

Complimentary players to the primary running game include quarterback Brayden Jewell and fullback Erick McFall. Both started on last season's team.

The unit as a whole averaged 44.4 points per district contest.

Big Sandy FB/LB Erick McFall. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Wildcats aren't far off defensively from their offensive edge in experience. Eight starters are back from a group that averaged 25.2 points against per district game.

Twenty-five points allowed is a good number, but both Cayuga and Union Grove achieved lower numbers. Union Grove returns eight defensive starters and Cayuga brings back four.

Defense is McFall's specialty in spite of being a good blocking back in the run game. He recorded 75 tackles with 12 for loss at linebacker.

Inversely, a lot of Big Sandy's best offensive athletes have spot roles on the defensive side of the ball. Burk made 34 tackles and forced a fumble as a part-time defender.

2017 outlook: This could be a very big season for the Wildcats both within the district and within the region at large.

A high finish in the league will almost guarantee Big Sandy an automatic berth in the area round of the playoffs. The adjacent District 9-2A Division I is easily the weakest district of Region III.

Things get much tougher beyond the bi-district round though. Alto, Carlisle, Centerville, Lovelady and San Augustine are all expected to have pretty good teams and could come as early as the second round.

Non-district games against Class 3A competitors Quitman and Harleton plus a Week 2 meeting against Alto could serve Big Sandy very well down the stretch. And that's before considering the other strong teams of the Wildcats' own district.

 

2. Union Grove Lions

  • Coach: Roger Adams
  • 2016 finish: 8-3 (2A D-I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • ATH Parker Thornton, Sr., 6-3, 175
  • WR/DB Tanner Stanley, Sr., 6-2, 173
  • WR/DB Wesley Atkison, Sr., 6-1, 170
  • QB/DB Chandler Gordy, Sr., 6-3, 190
  • RB/LB Mikie Webb, Jr., 6-0, 170
  • OL Colton Holman, Jr., 5-11, 270

Offense: The first thing you'll notice about Union Grove is its size at the skill positions. Up to three receivers, depending on where quarterback candidate Parker Thornton lands, are taller than six feet as is quarterback candidate Chandler Gordy.

Those are nice matchups to have in high school football, especially at the 2A level.

The Lions' big issue offensively is replacing quarterback Austin Owens. He led the team in rushing three-fold as well as passing.

Union Grove does have a lot of experience to make up for Owens. Eight starters are back in total on the offensive side.

Last season, the Lions' offense generated an average of exactly 31 points per game.

Defense: Union Grove makes an outstanding case as the district's best defense. It held league opponents to a district-best 15.6 points per game and eight starters from that group are returning.

The Lions are particularly strong at the skill positions with the aforementioned height its two-way players possess.

Mikie Webb helps anchor the front seven at linebacker, and head coach Roger Adams is very high on his defensive line. This subgroup could be a challenge even for an offense as explosive as Big Sandy's.

2017 outlook: Between experience and size advantages, the Lions are in great position to contend for the district championship.

Union Grove is a safe bet to reach the postseason, even without Austin Owens, and probably won't have much trouble escaping the bi-district round.

But Region III gets tougher at the area round level, as the Lions can attest to last season.

Harleton, Overton and New Diana the first three weeks of the non-district schedule should have the squad ready to go once district play begins Oct. 13

 

3. Kerens Bobcats

  • Coach: Terrell Harris
  • 2016 finish: 4-8 (2A D-I bi-area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 1 offensive, 9 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB/LB Kiyandre Faulk, Sr., 6-1, 185 (1,200 yards)
  • OL/DL Katerius Douglas, Sr., 6-1, 250
  • WR/LB Stacey Bailey, Sr., 5-10, 200

2017 outlook: Kerens lost 10 offensive starters from last season's team, but head coach Terrell Harris probably retained the one he wanted the most in running back Kiyandre Faulk. The back averaged 100 yards per game as a junior.

But it can't be stressed enough that the Bobcats coaching staff has a big challenge in front of it with 10 inexperienced players surrounding Faulk.

Fortunately, nine starters are back on the defensive side. The group held district opponents to about 28 points per game en route to a 3-2 league finish in 2016, which ranked tied for third among the six teams.

Kerens is a decent bet to make the postseason since four of six teams go to the big dance. It beat last season's bottom two finishers -- Cross Roads and Hawkins -- by a combined score of 79-22.

Hawkins hasn't reached the playoffs since 2009. Cross Roads has not won more than three games a year in more than a decade.

 

4. Cayuga Wildcats

  • Coach: Cody Mohan
  • 2016 finish: 7-5 (2A D-I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB/LB Ryder Sparkman, Jr., 5-10, 160 (1,100 yards; 100 tackles)
  • QB/DB Cody Hearrell, Jr., 5-10, 150
  • LB Carson Grasch, Soph., 6-0, 180

Offense: Cayuga's offense was a big question last season. It ended up being the second most productive unit in the district and helped the school tie for the league championship.

Unfortunately, most of the players that made that happen graduated. There aren't a lot of known quantities beyond running back Ryder Sparkman and quarterback Cody Hearrell.

Eight inexperienced players will take over positions, but a fair non-district schedule should help the coaching staff get the group sorted.

Sparkman is the clear cut impact player on the heels of a 1,000-yard junior season.

Defense: Ryder Sparkman also might be the Wildcats' most valuable defensive player. He recorded about 100 tackles a season ago to help Cayuga to the area round of the state playoffs.

Fellow linebacker Carson Grasch, a 6-foot and 180-pound sophomore, won a spot on the all-district team as a freshman.

But the defense at large isn't much better in terms of experience compared to the offense. Seven new players will be part of the main unit this season.

2017 outlook: There are winners and losers with each graduation cycle. Cayuga is a district loser in this regard.

That's not to say the Wildcats won't make the playoffs, but head coach Cody Mohan is going to need a couple of breakout players to compete with very experienced Big Sandy and Union Grove teams for a shot at a repeat district title.

Hawkins ATH Camron Taylor. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

5. Hawkins Hawks

  • Coach: Scott Evans
  • 2016 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: N/A; 15 letter winners to 3 graduations
Player to watch
  • QB Akim Richmond, Jr., 5-10, 155

Offense: Quarterback Akim Richmond is back to lead the Hawks after being the school's most productive offensive player as a sophomore.

Richmond, a dual-threat, recorded more than 1,400 total yards of offense and scored 10 total touchdowns a season ago for the district's fifth-best group in terms of total points.

Hawkins' offense also will feature a tandem of running backs in Tristan Garrett and Everin Gipson. They went for about 1,100 combined yards and 11 scores.

Hawkins FB/DL Cadarius Strange. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Hawks allowed 38 points per district game toward a 1-4 league record. That number has to improve to have a chance at the playoffs.

A lot of Hawkins' athletes will play both ways and head Scott Evans will have to get creative to keep everyone fresh. While there are 15 returning letter winners to three graduations, Big Sandy and Union Grove have double the letter winners on their rosters.

2017 outlook: Hawkins probably will have to catch some breaks to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The Cayuga game plus a second consecutive win against Cross Roads might be enough to scrape in.

Cayuga and Cross Roads appear on the Hawks' schedule in back-to-back weeks Oct. 20 and Oct. 27.

That being said, the magic number to reach the postseason last year was three wins. Two teams tied for third place and Hawkins fell to fifth.

6. Cross Roads Bobcats

  • Coach: Daniel Pierce
  • 2016 finish: 0-10
  • Returning starters: N/A
Player to watch
  • WR/DB Luc Hyles, Jr., 5-4, 120

2017 outlook: Cross Roads averaged a 49-7 loss in all five of its district contests and went winless a season ago. New coach Daniel Pierce, who is also the school's head baseball coach, has his work cut out for him.

Pierce appears to get the most out his players, however. His most recent baseball team reached the playoffs.

A fair non-district game against Colmesneil and stretch games versus Frost, Timpson, Tyler All Saints and Chilton certainly won't hurt the team.