Last fall saw the May Tigers make a run to the state championship game, losing to Sterling City, and the Strawn Greyhounds falling yards short of joining the Tigers in Arlington in a heartbreaking semifinal loss to Borden County.
While the Tigers expect to carry the flag for the Big Country in Division I this fall, May will face stiff competition with Westbrook looking to prove last year’s run to the regional final was no fluke. The two squads open this fall ranked third and fourth in the state, respectively. Knox City could be a sleeper pick to make a deep run.
Even though those two figure to rule the roost in Division I, Division II will be wide open.
Perennial power Strawn leads the way, ranked No. 3 in the preseason state poll. The Greyhounds will also be joined by Jayton, Throckmorton, Loraine, Blackwell and Gordon as early season threats. All five rank in the state’s preseason top 20 in Division II.
DISTRICT 3-1A DIVISION I
Knox City is the lone Big Country school in the district and coach Caleb Callaway’s squad could be faced with a tough year, which makes them a great sleeper pick. Tristin Baxter, Bryson Callaway, Devin Guillory, Caleb Arrieta and Ryan Shaver are team leaders that have only lost one game in the past three years of junior high and junior varsity football.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Knox City, 2. Spur, 3. Crowell, 4. Paducah, 5. Vernon Northside
DISTRICT 7-1A DIVISION I
The first district that is full of Big Country teams is in Region II and has the potential to be one of the most competitive districts in the area.
Aspermont, Hermleigh, Ira, Roby and Rotan went a combined 13 games over .500 last year, with all posting winning records with the exception of Aspermont.
The Hornets were hit hardest by graduation, losing the most starters, and will need to learn and grow quickly to compete with the talented teams they’re going to be facing in district play.
Hermleigh quarterback Jonathan Digby and Ira defensive back Cody McCowen are two of the best in the district. Digby will team with his brother Stetson to form a potent backfield for the Cardinals while McCowen leads a Bulldogs squad that returns all of their starters from last season’s bi-district finalist.
Roby and Rotan each lost just three lettermen and return nearly all of their varsity squads, leading to hope that they can crash the postseason party this year.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Ira, 2. Hermleigh, 3. Roby, 4. Rotan, 5. Aspermont
DISTRICT 8-1A DIVISION I
With the defending state champion Sterling City in this district, the four Big Country schools joining the Eagles could all have their hands full this year.
Westbrook is perhaps the best suited to contend for, and potentially steal, the district championship as the Wildcats made a shocking run to the regional finals in 2020. Coach Homer Matlock’s team lost six seniors but is loaded with juniors and seniors, including preseason Defensive MVP Jimmy Roberts.
Youth from last fall is also going to serve Robert Lee and Bronte well this year as both squads lost just a single letterman from teams that were a respective 2-7 and 1-8.
Highland, which is having to replace half of its defensive starters, will reap the benefits of having had a full offseason under coach Ben Smith.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Sterling City, 2. Westbrook, 3. Bronte, 4. Roscoe Highland, 5. Robert Lee
DISTRICT 13-1A DIVISION I
This district is full of a pantheon of big names of schools that have made noise in the six-man ranks.
That starts with the May Tigers who are coming off a run to the state championship game after which they were decimated by graduation. May returns just two starters from each side of the ball but have one of the best players in Class 1A in the state in Kaden Halk.
Baird, which won the independent state championship in 2019, made a brief playoff run last year despite fielding a young squad. With two years of six-man experience, the Bears are poised to have their best year to date since dropping from 11-man football three years ago.
Gorman is coming off a 5-5 season and returns its entire defense which could mean the Panthers could make a surprising run at playoff contention, potentially coming down to its regular season finale at home against Baird.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. May, 2. Baird, 3. Gorman, 4. Santa Anna, 5. Lingleville
DISTRICT 15-1A DIVISION I
Zephyr is the lone area representative in the district and is coming off a 1-8 season last fall. Coach Jeremy Phillips’ squad returns just two lettermen from last year’s team and they’re both two-way starters, led by Jayden Millican.
Phillips is tasked with helping turn around the program while trying to overcome low numbers due to a dwindling enrollment as Zephyr is the smallest school in the district.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Jonesboro, 2. Lometa, 3. Evant, 4. Zephyr
district 6-1a division ii
Loraine and Blackwell have been the class of the district for the past two years and 2021 looks to be no different, unless the Eagles of Abilene TLCA have something to say.
The Eagles are led by first-time head coach Jeremy Kirk and you can read more about one of Big Country Preps’ newest schools here.
Loraine made it to the postseason last year, falling in the bi-district round of the playoffs, and have a loaded squad back, led by Davion Walthall. Walthall was named the preseason Offensive MVP for the district by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. The junior is one of four that is expected to be a team leader with several sophomores expected to see significant playing time.
Blackwell has put together consecutive solid seasons and the Hornets are going to need Blade Wood’s leadership on both offense and defense to continue that run. Wood is the lone returning offensive starter and one of just two on defensive for Clint Lowry’s team.
Trent is one of the district’s most experienced teams with seven returning lettermen that saw plenty of playing time as freshmen. That experience could pay dividends this fall and allow the Gorillas and Eagles to both challenge Blackwell and Loraine for the two playoff berths.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Blackwell, 2. Abilene TLCA, 3. Loraine, 4. Olfen, 5. Trent
DISTRICT 7-1A DIVISION II
Jayton is the Big Country’s lone representative in the district and had a somewhat disappointing end to 2020 in the second round of the playoffs after having been a preseason favorite for the state championship.
The Jaybirds enter this fall ranked No. 9 in the state and coach Josh Stanaland is expecting to have perhaps his youngest squad in a decade. Despite losing just five lettermen (with 12 returning), Jayton has just two offensive and one defensive starter back.
Stanaland expects that he could have as many as five starters on each side of the ball that are juniors and the veteran coach will lean on senior Joel Williams to lead the offense.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Motley County, 2. Jayton, 3. Guthrie, 4. Patton Springs, 5. Southland
DISTRICT 8-1A DIVISION II
Experience at all levels is key and that’s something that will come in droves in this district this fall as only Chillicothe doesn’t return all of its starters on both offense and defense.
For the Big Country, that means that Rule and Benjamin have a shot to not just make the playoffs as the two representatives from the district, but they could also make playoff runs if they qualify.
Despite missing the postseason in 2020, Kade Kittley’s Bobcats have 14 returning lettermen from a 6-4 squad. Since taking over Rule, Kittley has always had his eyes on this fall and has been building towards this point.
Rule’s chief competition should come from the Mustangs. Benjamin’s quick playoff exit last year fueled the team throughout the offseason and the Mustangs have plans to use a strong junior class to propel a deeper playoff run.
No matter who wins the district, the playoff teams will have their hands full in the bi-district round of the playoffs if Motley County and Jayton take the two spots from District 7.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Rule, 2. Benjamin, 3. Chillicothe, 4. Harrold
DISTRICT 9-1A DIVISION II
On paper, this district looks like it will be Throckmorton and everybody else.
The Greyhounds have a balanced offensive attack that Josh Woods, Braden Crow and Carson Myer are going to form a three-headed attack that could prove difficult to stop.
Outside of Throckmorton, however, it’s a complete toss-up as Lueders-Avoca, Moran and Woodson combined for three wins in 2020, while Paint Creek hasn’t fielded a team since the 2018 season.
The Raiders got a taste of the playoffs last year and have sophomores Zae Mays, Jacob Gaspar and Joel O’Con leading the way this fall. Woodson, meanwhile, will look to dominate opposing teams along the lines to allow for its playmakers to try and get into open space.
Moran returns four starters on offense and defense but will see freshman Ellis Hise taking over as their signal caller. The Bulldogs will need him to adjust to the different pace of Friday nights compared to junior high in order to be successful.
For the Pirates, health will be key as a low enrollment could make it tough to keep a team on the field if injuries hit. Nevertheless, it’s a win for Paint Creek to have a varsity squad playing for the first time in three years.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Throckmorton, 2. Woodson, 3. Lueders-Avoca, 4. Moran, 5. Paint Creek
DISTRICT 11-1A DIVISION II
Oh the drama that oozes out of this district is probably unlike any other district in the entire state.
Dewaine Lee, who led Strawn to the state semifinals in 2020, announced over the spring that he was taking the head coaching job at Aquilla … just to later come back to Strawn as the superintendent, while reclaiming his role as the head football coach.
With Lee back at the helm, the Greyhounds will be a popular pick to make it back to the state championship game and will use a punishing ground game to make a deep run.
Standing in their way, and a potential regional championship matchup, is longtime rival Gordon. Mike Reed’s squad went two rounds deep in the playoffs last year and are hungry. The Longhorns will throw six athletes on the field and just say “Catch us if you can” and that makes them a dangerous matchup.
Stephenville Three Way, a Big Country Preps newcomer, may not have much offensive firepower this year but what has new head coach Bryce Haney fired up is a salty defense. The Braves have a menacing defensive line that could cause headaches for opposing coaches.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Gordon, 2. Strawn, 3. Bluff Dale, 4. Three Way, 5. Gustine.
DISTRICT 15-1A DIVISION II
Blanket and Brookesmith were playoff teams a year ago and the question heading into the season is if anyone can pull a rabbit out of the hat and upset one (or both) of them to steal a postseason berth.
My money is on no.
The Tigers and Mustangs both return a ton of experience and that is something that will prove beneficial if a game is coming down to the wire.
The one team that could be a dark horse and turn some heads is coach Clint Miller’s Rising Star Wildcats. Rising Star lost just two lettermen from a young 4-6 team and will be sophomore heavy. That youth could turn out to be a blessing in disguise and they don’t know that they’re supposed to just watch from the sideline.
Brandon McAuliffe’s district prediction: 1. Brookesmith, 2. Blanket, 3. Rising Star, 4. Sidney, 5. Panther Creek