GORMAN – Head coach Jeremy Phillips inherited a Zephyr Bulldogs program filled with juniors and seniors, though most had very little playing experience at the varsity level. In Thursday's season-opening contest against the Bryson Cowboys at the Gorman Kickoff Classic, growing pains were apparent as the Bulldogs were dealt a 64-49 defeat.
“We're a young team and we're trying to learn a new system,” said Phillips, who served as defensive coordinator at Blanket last season. “A lot of these kids have never had varsity experience in their lives. We knew there were going to be some growing pains early on.
“One of our leaders, Mason Rogers, said after the game, 'I felt like we got better today.' Offensively I felt like we got better, but obviously we weren't in the shape we thought we were, and that's something we're going to have to work on going forward. But I feel good about our team as long as we improve every week.”
Rogers, a junior, accounted for 334 of Zephyr's 384 yards of total offense. Rogers rushed for 299 yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries, completed 2 of 4 passes for 21 yards and a score, and hauled in a 14-yard reception.
On the flip side of the ball, the Zephyr defense yielded 413 yards – 224 on the ground and 189 through the air – as Bryson scored on its first nine possessions and ran out the clock on its 10th drive.
“With our youth and inexperience, we don't know where to line up against varsity teams, how to adjust, how to listen, a lot things that I'd taken for granted as a varsity coach that I expect juniors and seniors to know, they just don't have that experience yet,” Phillips said. “It's something we're going to work on going forward and we'll get better at every week.”
T.J. Imotichey rushed for 140 yards and two touchdown for Bryson, while Marcos Espinoza chipped in 89 yards and two more scores on the ground.
Through the air, Imotichey, Espinoza and Landon Stephens combined to complete 12 passes, including five scoring tosses. Zander Tinney led the way with three receptions for 64 yards, Espinoza caught two passes – both touchdowns – covering 31 yards, and Drake Huffman added two grabs for 43 yards.
The teams traded touchdowns in the early going, as Zephyr trailed 14-12 at the end of the first period thanks a 57-yard scoring sprint by Rogers, and a 6-yard touchdown pass from Bryson Gibbs – who soon after left the game with an ankle injury and did not return – to Cole Miller.
Bryson stretched the lead to 22-12 on the second play of the second quarter as Stephens and Tinney connected on a 33-yard pass. Zephyr failed to produce points on its next drive, and Bryson quickly capitalized as Imotichey's 1-yard plunge extended the Cowboys' advantage to two scores, 28-12, at the 6:01 mark.
The Cowboys padded their cushion to 18 points by halftime, 42-24, despite a 2-yard touchdown run by Zephyr's Orin Kern and a 20-yard scoring toss from Rogers to Garit Durbin.
Zephyr closed the gap to 42-30 on its first drive of the second half, as Rogers scored from 9 yards out on a fourth-and-1 at the 6:55 mark of the third period. But the Bulldogs' inability to slow down Bryson's offense prevented Zephyr from getting any closer.
The Bulldogs added touchdowns on an 18-yard pass from J.C. Mangus to Durbin at 3:39 of the third, a 2-yard dive by Rogers with 9:18 left and on a 52-yard gallop by Rogers on fourth-and-17 with 4:32 to go.
“The thing I was most pleased about is we never quit,” Phillips said. “One of the things we want to aspire to do is never quit, always fight through everything. I felt like tonight we had chances to lay down and we didn't, we kept fighting. You can't coach that, so if the kids show that it's a positive thing going forward we can build on.”
The Bulldogs will attempt to bounce back in Week 2 as they host Granbury NCTA at 7:30 p.m. Friday in their home opener.