VAN -- Dig a pond into the meadow that backs into the Vandals' practice area and you could have the framework for a nice cul-de-sac. Maple Street does not see much traffic and the kids could walk about a quarter-mile to the high school.

Head coach Jared Moffat's Van team practices on prime real estate. But we're not talking about the layout of land anymore.

By far the most eastern school in District 8-4A Division I, this up-and-coming program just missed the classification's brutal Region III zone. As the UIL works from West Texas through East Texas and then down toward Houston, Region III begins with District 9. That zone features Carthage, Chapel Hill, Kilgore, Jasper, El Campo, Navasota, Sealy, Stafford and some smaller Houston schools Van would not have to worry about until Game 16.

"We've been blessed with a better district than we've had in the past," middle linebacker Hunter Redmond said of Van's league and its placement in Region II. "Athens is very good. Kaufman is not somebody you can underestimate. They beat us last year. The district as a whole is very tough, but in the past years we've had a harder district and the postseason was horrible with the 'District of Doom.'

"You've got to beat the best to be the best, but this year our postseason chances look a lot better. We're going to go for the district championship against some rough teams, but we're going to be up there with them."

Andrew Platter has returned from a leg injury sustained early last season. (Christopher R. Vinn,

The land Van stands on is valuable for a second reason. The school's experience factor.

The Vandals have nine returning starters on both sides of the ball, and the program even has a few dark horses for college football offers aside from defensive end Brice Borgeson.

It's looking like a great time to be a Van Vandal with a 3,000-yard rusher named Matt Savis, a quarterback and receiver unit that can rival the best in the region, an experienced offensive line headlined by Wyatt Santos as well as a defensive unit Moffatt identifies as overachievers.

"We don't have a blue chip, Division I player that's been offered by a lot of people," the head coach said. "But we've got some guys that are right there on that bubble. We've got some guys who, if they play extremely well early in this season, will probably get some offers. Then we've got some guys who are on the bubble trying to get, maybe not Division I scholarships, but, the same thing."

Thursday's practice showed some of what Moffatt is optimistic about.

Van is disciplined squad with serious talent interspersed among a group of very good high school players. Take Redmond as an example.

Middle linebacker Hunter Redmond will direct the defense on the field. He led the team in tackling last season. (Christopher R. Vinn,

"Hunter Redmond was our leading tackler last year and almost our leading tackler as a sophomore," the head coach said. "He's a really good high school football player. Extremely intelligent, straight-A student, with great instincts at linebacker.

"When you look at him, he doesn't look like much, but he's a typical Van kid in the sense he finds a way to play a little better than he looks. He does it every Friday night. He runs the defense. This will be his third year and it's a comfort to have him there."

The same could be said for the Vandals' receiving group. They don't have the measureables attributed to top-end college football prospects, but it's an effective group with new life.

Senior quarterback Peter Maddox is very pleased.

"We've got a great set of core players overall," the signal caller said. "We've got Andrew Platter coming back from a broken leg in the first game of last season. He's a good asset on the outside along with Layton Myers who caught nine touchdowns in five district games. We've got Luke McGowan who is a great slot receiver with good hands. Then Matt who is a freaking stud running back. We've got four returning starting offensive linemen, so I think we will be very good there this year."

Could it be Van running the table this year in Region II toward the state semifinal?

Liberty-Eylau and Pittsburg look like trouble from the adjacent District 7 and there are three other teams in the zone with a lot of name recognition in Arygle, Dallas Carter and Kennedale.

District foes Athens and Kaufman are enjoying the same preseason outlook. The head-to-head league games will dictate who gets the easiest trip around the region.

It's all still a ways off with scrimmages and a non-district slate of Palestine, Spring Hill, Lindale, Brownsboro and a potential first-round playoff opponent in Paris North Lamar.

Friday is the first day the UIL allows teams in Van's classification to put on pads.

Moffatt is excited for all of it.

"There's nothing like the first day of practice to get the kids excited for practice," he said. "The second day, it's hot. Then all they want to do is put pads on. Then they're fired up again and by about the third day it's lost its luster. For us though, this is a veteran team. There are a lot of kids who have played downs for us on Friday night and have played since they were sophomores. We kind of have the luxury of being further along than we probably usually are.

"But, even with that, I've been real pleased with their attitude and real pleased with their effort. It's been very good so far."

Running back Matt Savis has more than 3,000 yards through two varsity seasons. He'll be joined in the backfield this season by Alphonso Thomas. (Christopher R. Vinn.