Waskom Confidently Preps To Defend 3A Division II Title
WASKOM -- It was like watching an antique car's engine hum away. A really cool antique car.
Under clear skies and standard hot and humid conditions, head coach Whitney Keeling's offense mostly performed without a hitch Tuesday on the turf of Waskom's Wildcat Stadium.
The only troubling sign was a handful of bad exchanges between a brand new center, as part of an entirely new offensive line, with two new quarterbacks.
Other than that, the flex-bone and double wing formations ran smoothly. A great first sign for a unit almost completely overhauled.
Even if it was a non-contact practice in shorts.
This is supposed to be the weaker side of the ball for the defending Class 3A Division II state champions.
"It's our sixth football season and most of these guys have been in it since the seventh grade," Keeling said. "This senior group was in the seventh grade when we first got here. When it's a repetition thing and there's not that many football plays it's basically, 'these are your rules and you have to get good at it.' Once they get good at the rules, you just have to coach the speed of the game.
"I don't know if we're on the same level this year as we were last year at this point, but we actually feel like we've had a really good first two days of practice."
How could Waskom be as good on this side of the ball as last season?
The school -- population 255 -- just graduated two players that are expected to perform well in the NCAA Division I college ranks. Kevin Johnson moved on to SMU and June Bug Johnson will likely get some looks after time at Tyler Junior College.
Furthermore, two other players joined the Johnsons as 1,000-yard rushers for the Wildcats through their 16-game title campaign. One graduated.
Another player finished his career well above 900 yards. The entire offensive line from the championship team is gone as well.
The team still has talent, however. With some state championship swagger.
Seniors Chan Amie and Mike Reason headline the handful of returning starters. They count twice as two-way players, all-state linebackers on the defensive side.
Amie also is the lone returning rusher that went for 1,000 yards. Reason will start at receiver.
"It's very exciting coming off the state championship," Amie said. "The town deserved it. We gave it to them. It felt great and we'd like to get there again."
But even as the overhauled offense ran competently as Keeling and company install their concepts before moving to full pads Friday, the state's big publications' opinions are the Wildcats just lost too much to get back there again.
TheOldCoach.com's Friday Night Football magazine projects Waskom to finish behind Elysian Fields in District 8-3A Division II. Dave Campbell's Texas Football has the team behind Elysian Fields and Arp.
The Wildcats return nine total starters. The remainder of the district averages 14 major contribution players back.
"We lost more than probably anybody in district," Keeling said. "We're picked third or fourth. Some of them have us fifth. But it's a lot easier climb from there rather than being at the top and everybody shooting at you. I'm hoping they kind of overlook us a little bit."
Defensively, the team is in pretty good standing. Amie and Reason obviously help.
The unit returns six starters from a team which held league opponents to 7.4 points and all opponents to 20.3.
"This year, I feel like we're underestimated," senior quarterback and first-year starter Dylan Harkrider said. "We don't have all our amazing rushers, but we'll definitely be exciting. We're excited to get on track."
Big challenges await before the district slate. Waskom will open the season against Center from Class 4A Division II before dropping back into Class 3A Division II for non-district games versus Paul Pewitt and Hughes Springs.
The Wildcats will open district play against Elysian Fields on Sept. 25.
"Elysian Fields is returning a lot and you know that Arp is going to be good because that's just their tradition," Reason said. "I think West Rusk and Troup return a lot of starters, too. There should be a lot more closer games. No more blowouts. No more 40-point games. But this will definitely be a season and a district to watch."
If Waskom picks up steam again, look out.
They're not ready to concede anything.
"The ball has to bounce your way," Keeling said. "I think we have the talent to get back. As coaches, we're going to tell you that we do. Whether we do or not, I guess you'll get to see in December."