Derrick Stuckly — Brownwood Bulletin

By the time many of you gaze over this piece, it will be T-minus 24 hours and counting until practice fields throughout the area are dotted with student-athletes aspiring to guide their respective high school programs to a state football championship.

The 2006 season was a banner year for our coverage area with a state championship earned down in Richland Springs and state quarterfinals appearances made by the Brownwood Lions, Early Longhorns and Zephyr Bulldogs. All total, half of the 18 teams featured in the Bulletin’s yearly football preview earned trips to the postseason.

Though the first games of this season are still over three weeks away, the start of two-a-days provides an opportunity to examine a few questions regarding the area programs and their expectations for the upcoming season.

1. Can the Brownwood Lions equal or surpass the postseason success they had a season ago?

Nine weeks into the 2006 season, it was fair to say the Lions didn’t resemble a playoff-caliber team, much less one that was two rounds away from competing for their eighth state championship. However, a 60-10 demolishing of Midway in the season finale, the magic of McLane Moore’s thumb and the determination of the Lions to make the most of their second chance resulted in three postseason victories.

Fast forward to today where seven starters on both sides of the ball are back, and most of those players are only juniors. Led by reigning 16-4A offensive and defensive newcomers of the year Casey Pachall and Kenny Vaccaro — both NCAA Division I collegiate prospects — and with what is being touted as one of the biggest offensive lines in Brownwood history, the Lions’ potential seems to be limitless. Dave Campbell’s Texas Magazine certainly thinks so as it ranked Brownwood at No. 7 in the state in 4A.

However, there is still the pesky 16-4A schedule that includes Division I state runner-up Copperas Cove (ranked No. 1 by Texas Football) and Division II state runner-up — and Brownwood season-ender — Waco High (ranked No. 4 by Texas Football). Both teams lost key members of their lineups, but with nearly 2,000 students enrolled in each school, replacing parts isn’t overly difficult.

The Lions played both Cove and Waco High close during the regular season and with another year of experience under their belts, knocking off either wouldn’t be a surprise. Then again, the Lions proved you don’t have to defeat either to make a lengthy playoff run. What Brownwood must do in order to return to the playoffs is simply make sure it defeats the teams it is expected to, and not slip up as it did last year at Killeen.

At the very worst, I see the Lions wrapping up the regular season at 7-3, but how far their playoff run goes depends on how well they’re playing heading into postseason. As Brownwood demonstrated last season, it’s not always the best team that wins in the playoffs, but the team that’s playing its best.

2. How will the Early Longhorns adjust to the loss of several key members of their back-to-back district championship teams?

Time flies when you’re having fun.

It was only 2004 when the Early Longhorns and their faithful were pondering when a streak of 47 seasons without a postseason appearance would end. Two seasons later the Longhorns have a pair of district championships to their credit, along with a handful of playoff victories.

But some of the key components to their postseason run are no longer wearing the purple and white as 21 lettermen graduated in May. That begs the question, “Who’s going to fill their shoes?”

Early’s status as a program that has truly turned the corner will now be put to the test. In smaller schools, it’s not uncommon for a class or two of exceptional athletes to pass through high school and leave a legacy the likes of nothing seen before them. How the program performs following those departures will be its defining moment.

The Longhorns certainly have the ingredients to establish the consistency they crave, starting with stability in the coaching ranks from head coach Robbie Tindol down.

Also, Early is not exactly opening a bare cupboard. The Longhorns have 17 lettermen returning, but just four starters back on each side of the ball.

Though they lost key contributors at the skill positions, the secondary and along the line, the Longhorns are either inserting players who have shared time on back-to-back playoff teams or have moved up from an extremely successful JV program.

Possibly the biggest concern for Early is not the Longhorns themselves, but the other teams in the district that continue to improve. Once again 6-2A is expected to be a tightly-contested race as the Longhorns, Wall, Coleman, Jim Ned, Ballinger and Bangs each appear to be legitimate playoff contenders.

One thing is certain — if the Longhorns do reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season, they should be battled-tested and expectant of a deep playoff push.

3. Can the Bangs Dragons return to the playoffs after a one-year absence?

Growing pains are to be expected when a new coach takes over a program with a recent pair of state championship game appearances — especially when the coach is installing a brand new offensive and defensive scheme.

Eddie Pettit’s first season as Bangs head coach started with a frustrating five-game losing streak, but after some mid-season tinkering, the Dragons won four of their final five games. The season couldn’t have ended much better as Bangs upset Wall on the Hawks’ home turf in Week 10, preventing the host team from capturing the 6-2A title outright.

The season-ending wave of momentum, coupled with the return of six offensive and five defensive starters, has the Dragons thinking postseason again after their one-year absence. But the Dragons face the same dilemma as rival Early — they are in a district with legitimately six teams competing for three playoff spots.

Bangs can’t afford to get off to the slow start it experienced last season if it wants to head back the playoffs. If the Dragons hit their stride early in the season, don’t be surprised to see a heavy green tint on the 6-2A playoff picture.

4. Can the Richland Springs Coyotes defend their state title and make it three crowns in four years?

It would appear in 2007 that the only thing that can prevent the Richland Springs Coyotes from repeating as Six-Man Division I state champions are the Coyotes themselves.

With five starters back on each side of the ball — including record-setting quarterback/spread back Tyler Ethridge — from a team that’s gone 42-1 the past three seasons, the odds are a little stacked in the Coyotes’ favor that they will again be hoisting hardware at the end of their season.

There are two main reasons the Coyotes will likely be even more motivated to capture a third title this season.

First, the nucleus of the Coyotes’ recent run — Ethridge, Mark Williams, Shelby Smith, Jesstin Fox and Patrick Couch — are all seniors. They would love nothing more than to end their high school careers on the same high note they relished following their freshman and junior seasons.

Also, though the Coyotes have enjoyed tons of success during the Jerry Burkhart era, they haven’t been able to claim the distinction of back-to-back state champions. A loss to Throckmorton in the state semifinals at Breckenridge in 2005 was the only loss the Class of 2008 has suffered. I wouldn’t bet on them tasting defeat again.

5. Who will emerge in what should be an extremely competitive Six-Man Division I, District 13 race?

If any local district race could be more competitive than District 6-2A, it’s District 13 in the six-man Division I ranks.

May, the 2006 district champion, Blanket, the district champion in 2005, and Santa Anna, the runner-up both years, are again expected to vie for the title. Rising Star, which last made the postseason in 2005, could also sneak into the playoff picture as most of its roster returns.

The complication in the race centers around the fact that May and Santa Anna have lost major contributors from last year’s teams, while Blanket — like Rising Star — returns an experienced core. Don’t forget Panther Creek is also in the mix, and while not the powerhouse it once was in the late-90s, the Panthers could easily play the role of spoiler for one of the playoff hopefuls.

If there is going to be a huge local surprise this football season, I look for it to happen in this district.

6. Can the Zephyr Bulldogs continue their string of success with a new coach in charge?

Zephyr playoff football and head coach Robert Lee have become synonymous over the past few years, but a new era in Bulldog football is about to begin.

Landon Buffe takes over a program that captured the Six-Man Division II, District 14 title and advanced to the state quarterfinals a season ago. Lee was known for being tight-lipped, playing it close to the vest and utilizing every player on the roster. How Buffe approaches the game, and how the Bulldogs react to his style, could be a telling factor in this season’s outcome.

Buffe does have the benefit of several veteran players returning for his first campaign, such as Cord Biddy, Chase Jackson, Ethan Fisher and Jason Hughes.

Though the game may look a little different in Zephyr this season, don’t anticipate the results to waver.

7. Can the Brookesmith Mustangs do it again?

Playoff appearances haven’t been a common occurrence in recent years for the Brookesmith Mustangs, which is what made last year’s trip to the playoffs so special — not to mention it was the swan song for the majority of the roster. As the Mustangs embark on the 2007 season, only two lettermen — Bryn Allgood and Michael Watkins — remain from last year’s 7-4 team.

Though the Mustangs are dealing with several new faces, the good news is, aside from Richland Springs, the rest of the district race appears to be wide open. Some have penciled Rochelle into the second playoff spot, others think Eden and Veribest will finally be capable of turning the corner and Brookesmith has been mentioned as well.

An early indication of what the future holds for the Mustangs could come during its non-district schedule, which includes the likes of Rising Star, Blanket and Santa Anna. A solid showing early ignited Brookesmith’s run a year ago, and a similar start to the 2007 season could allow lightning to strike twice for the Mustangs.

8. How will the Victory Life Warriors fare in their first season of TAPPS football?

A new brand of football can be found in Brown County this season as the Victory Life Academy Warriors debut on the TAPPS six-man circuit.

The Warriors’ first-ever game occurs at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1 against Dickinson Pine Drive Christian at the Richland Springs Kickoff Classic. Earlier this week, VLA was still finalizing its schedule due to some cancellations, as finding opponents in an inaugural year at any level of six-man football can be challenging.

The players in the program have been working out since the spring, and I’ll admit seeing how they fare is one of the things I am looking forward to this season. I’m definitely going to try and take in a few of their games and would suggest others give them a chance, too. Congratulations on starting the program and good luck in the future.

9. Who will be the next breakout star?

Each team in the area is capable of producing one player who posts numbers that make heads spin. Richland Springs has its record-setter in Ethridge, Pachall’s numbers at Brownwood are more stellar with each start, and the list goes on.

However, some players emerge with astronomical stats, as was the case with Santa Anna’s Ben McIver.

I remember receiving phone calls from Santa Anna head coach Lloyd Fields on Saturday mornings during the 2005 season. After being informed of the Mountaineers’ outcome and receiving stats from the previous night’s game, Fields asked that I not post McIver’s stats in order to keep him a secret as long as possible.

After McIver led the Mountaineers to their first playoff victory since 1988 later that season, the worst-kept secret in the area was completely out of the bag.

But the exposure didn’t faze McIver, who went on to rack up a combined 4,501 yards and 76 touchdowns passing and rushing in 12 games as a senior while leading Santa Anna to a second straight playoff berth.

Who will emerge and put up staggering numbers this season as he leads his team to the playoffs? We’ll have to just sit back and watch.

10. Can the area combine to send another nine teams to the postseason?

Brownwood, Early, May, Brookesmith, Zephyr, Santa Anna, Richland Springs, Coleman and Goldthwaite each made the playoffs in 2006 and all indicators point to a similar combination of teams making it this season.

Add Bangs back into the 6-2A mix, have Comanche — under new coach Jeryl Brixey — turn things around and shock a few teams in District 7-3A, and have Mullin move up a spot in the final District 15, Division II six-man standings and that number could peak at an even dozen.

Will it, or any of these scenarios, happen? Who knows.

What I can guarantee is that another action-packed season is upon us, every team thinks this is “the” year, and it’ll be a blast seeing how it all turns out.

Only 25 more days until kickoff.

See you in the stands.