LION FOOTBALL

Abilene Wylie (0-0) at No. 10 Brownwood (0-0)

7:30 p.m. Friday — Gordon Wood Stadium

2006 Result: Brownwood 18, Abilene Wylie 14

A rare sight will occur Friday night as the No. 10 Brownwood Lions actually open a football season in the friendly confines of Gordon Wood Stadium.

For the first time since 2001 an opposing team will make the trek to Brown County as the Class 3A Abilene Wylie Bulldogs visit in a 7:30 p.m. rematch of last year’s 18-14 Brownwood victory.

The Lions’ last five season openers have taken place at Abilene’s Shotwell Stadium (2006), the Round Rock ISD Stadium (2004-05), Texas Stadium (2003) and the Alamodome (2002). Brownwood started the 2001 season with a 32-0 home win over San Angelo Central, which ignited a 4-0 start.

The home opener is a welcomed sight for the Lions, who made a 400-mile round trip to Wichita Falls for a scrimmage last Friday.

“I think that, especially after our trip to Wichita Falls last week, it’s going to be good to take a 10-minute ride,” said Brownwood Lions head coach Steve Freeman. “We’ve got a great game day routine that we believe in whether we’re on the road or at home. But it’s good to have that first game here.”

Friday’s home date also provides the Brownwood faithful with an immediate opportunity to get a glimpse at a Lions squad that has been one of the most talked-about in the state during the offseason. The Lions return 21 lettermen, including seven offensive and seven defensive starters, from last year’s 7-7 team that reeled off four straight late-season wins to reach the Class 4A Division II state quarterfinals.

Due to Brownwood’s playoff success and the number of starters returning, the Lions have garnered preseason rankings of No. 7 in Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine and No. 10 by the Associated Press.

“We’ve had preseason notoriety quite a few times in the 13 years I’ve been here,” Freeman said. “I think if I have a choice to have it or not ever have it, I’d rather have it. A lot of that’s not telling us what’s going to happen, but what has happened. Most of these folks never see you play a down, but I’d rather our program be recognized than not.”

The Lions are heading into Friday’s game not quite where Freeman expected them to be, but he added that could all change when they take the field.

“When you turn the lights on a lot of things change for the good,” Freeman said. “I would say up to this point that we may be not as far as long as what we anticipated, but emotions play a big factor. It’s been a pretty long haul up to this point. The kids have been punching the clock since Aug. 6 and we’ve been through some pretty significant weather temperatures.

“Just as recently as Tuesday our boys were gassed and that plays into the tempo of your workouts and the emotion. The mind does some weird things to all of us. I think that’s probably one reason that I might question if we’re as far along as we what really thought we might be at this time. I do know we’ve got a long way to go, but as long as our kids have that try-hard ingredient, I have no doubt that we’re going to get where we want to go.”

Brownwood is relatively healthy heading into the opener, as the only player expected to miss the game is linebacker Tracer Skelton, who suffered a broken jaw the first week of preseason practice. Defensive tackle Justin Ragsdale, who was held out of the Wichita Falls scrimmage, is expected to suit up.

“With the exception of Skelton, we’re going to be in pretty good shape,” Freeman said. “Ragsdale tweaked an ankle against Guyer and we held him out last week. He looks to have recovered extremely well, so we should go into the game in pretty good shape.”

The Lions will be facing a Wylie squad that returns just four offensive and four defensive starters from last year’s 9-3 Class 3A Division II regional semifinalists. Head coach Hugh Sandifer’s Bulldogs do, however, boast a roster of 38 seniors, which matches the total number of Brownwood players that are expected to take the field Friday.

“They’re bringing a roster of about 60 kids over and if they don’t have enough room on their sideline we’ll have plenty on ours,” Freeman said. “The thing about Wylie is year in and year out they remain extremely competitive. That staff has been in place for a long time and they have a systematic approach. If you go back over the years, they’ve been like us and played up a lot and they’ve had great success in their pre-district games.”

Friday’s opener will mark the debut of new Wylie starting quarterback Jared Wallace, who is taking over for Gary Edwards, who amassed 2,467 total yards and 27 touchdowns last season.

“Their quarterback this year is extremely sound, but he doesn’t have the same speed factor that Edwards had,” Freeman said. “Edwards was extremely dangerous and was one of those kids that could make a bad play a good play.”

Bailey McGee and Cameron Rogers are expected to see the bulk of the carries in the backfield, and they will be running behind a line anchored by seniors Todd Selby and Taylor Massey.

Brownwood will counter with much of the same front seven on defense that yielded just 16.3 points per game and 299 yards — including 82.5 yards rushing — during its final four wins of the 2006 season. Among the returning defensive starters are Ragsdale and Grady Staton at the tackles, David Fisher and part-time starter Michael Perry at ends, Jordan Longoria and Chase Holmes at linebacker and 16-4A defensive newcomer of the year Kenny Vaccaro at safety.

Wylie’s defense returns half of its front six, led by all-district linebacker Trevor Casey and defensive end Alex Chrisman.

But the Lions offense finished as the top-ranked unit in District 16-4A a year ago as they averaged 30.7 points and 374.8 yards of total offense per game.

Brownwood returns a wealth of experienced skill players including quarterback Casey Pachall, last year’s 16-4A offensive newcomer of the year, along with running back Corey Burr.

The Lions’ offensive front is one of the largest in school history and will again be the key to the team’s success. Projected starters include center Luke Butler (5-10, 190 lbs.), tackles Jon Fitzgerald (6-5, 310 lbs.) and Stavion Lowe (6-4, 295 lbs.) and guards John Ward (6-3, 310 lbs.) and Dusty Crelia (6-0, 250 lbs.).

Expecting the unexpected has always been a good mindset to carry into a season opener, but Freeman and company would like to avoid a repeat of last year’s disastrous opening moments against the Bulldogs.

“We absolutely don’t want to begin this game as we did a year ago,” Freeman said. “We had problems early on in just about every aspect of the game that you can imagine. I know inside of four minutes we dug ourselves a 14-0 hole and it took us essentially four quarters to take the lead and then protect the win.

“We’d like to get this game started in a real sound way. I would prefer for things to be on an even keel for us. We’ve been in games at times where we were the ones that put up a bunch of points real quick and that’s not always favorable, either, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to be trying to be putting points on the board. You’d just like for the early games to play out in realistic circumstances.”

In order for Brownwood to earn its second straight season-opening win, Freeman stated the Lions must avoid the little mistakes that plague several teams early in the year.

“Our goal for this week is to really understand who we are physically and mentally and have the comprehension that we don’t have room to botch things up,” Freeman said. “We can’t have negative offensive plays, we have to be good with our third-down conversions, we can’t turn it over and we can’t have momentum-killing penalties. Defensively, we can’t give up the big plays and we have to put our helmets on the ball and make the play.

“The two things we struggled with at Wichita Falls was missed tackles and dropped balls. We just have to ensure that the offense is feeding the defense, the defense is feeding the offense and the kicking game is kept in check.”

For a more in-depth look at the Brownwood Lions, check out the 2007 Football Preview in today’s edition of the Brownwood Bulletin.