Optimism Runs High In Palestine
Wildcats Expected to Challenge for Playoff Berth
By Will Johnson
PALESTINE – District 9A-DI has been dubbed the “District of Doom” by some. With teams like Carthage (four state championships in the last eight years), Center (2015 district champs and 2015 regional quarterfinalist), Henderson (2010 State Champs) and Kilgore (made playoffs 24 out of the past 30 years), it’s no wonder. Carthage, Henderson and Kilgore are also pre-season Top 20 picks.
So, when a team that went 1-9 in 2015 starts talking about going to the playoffs in 2016 – from the District of Doom – you can almost hear Jim Mora in the background saying, “Playoffs?! Don’t talk about playoffs! Are you kidding me? Playoffs?”
The Palestine Wildcats, however, are doing just that and they have a valid case. Athletic Director/Head Coach Robby Clark took over the athletic program in Palestine last year and seems to have righted the ship. Players have a positive attitude and they’re buying into Coach Clark’s plan. A very successful 7 on 7 state tournament run has also helped fuel postseason hopes.
With 21 players returning to the team, including nine starters on offense and six starters on defense, the experience of the returners and the continued development of younger players may just put the Wildcats right back into the postseason.
“At quarterback we have Claude Rodgers. He’s coming in as the starter. He played QB last year. We didn’t start with him as our quarterback but he really came on as the season progressed and really played well for us. He had a great off-season and he was a big part of why we had a successful 7 on 7,” Coach Clark said.
Joining Rogers in the backfield will be Irric Deyon who was a starter for the Wildcats last year and had 73 rushes for 284 yards, He also caught seven passes for 77 yards and found the end zone three times.
“On the wide-outs,” the coach added, “we return Jhamonte Milton who will also be a senior. We’ve also got a very explosive young sophomore named Tyler Gray and should be an exceptional wide receiver for us. Our tight end/H-back will also be a sophomore and that’s Toney Dever. We’re expecting big things from him as well.”
The line will be anchored by senior Jake Neal who “… is a college prospect. He is a really good football player. At center, we will have Jesus Garcia-Castillo who’s also a returning starter. He brings a lot of experience back with him which will help. The other three positions, we have three or four kids still competing for them,” the coach said
Depth-wise, Clark said, “I think everybody would like to be deeper than they are. Our depth is in much better shape than it was a year ago. But, I’m just like any other coach and will tell you they would like to have more depth.”
Defensively, Clark said the D-line will be a strength for the Wildcats.
“We return Jake Neal, who’s a two way starter. He’s back at nose tackle and Waylon Nickerson is back at defensive end. There are a couple of guys competing for the other spot and they are both really good players for us.”
The linebackers will be led by Edward Reese and Roderick Deyon “… and we have a wealth of experience with those two guys on the inside. Our outside linebacker will most likely be a young man who just moved to Palestine named Quinn Tinley. We expect him to take the strong side outside linebacker position and really solidify that group.”
In the defensive secondary, the wildcats return All-District cornerback Karnelius Hamilton.
“He will be joined by his brother Kameron Hamilton at safety. There will also be Jhamonte Milton, who will start at corner and at wide receiver and then we will have sophomore Josh Williams.”
Special teams will also play a part in the success of Palestine this season.
“We have had back-to-back All-District kickers and have a covey of kickers that come out and practice every day who are members of our state championship soccer team. We are pretty strong in kickers and we like our two punters as well. We have about three good deep snappers, so we are expecting some solid execution on our special teams,” Clark said.
“For us, it’s about earning respect right now after a year ago. I would say a safe, quality assessment of the program was that it was in complete disarray. We are trying to build something special so that means this is the year we have to go out and earn some respect. In our district, no one is going to pick us to have any success. These kids have poured a lot of work into the season. We’re not the same program we’ve been. I believe that will show up in our non-district schedule. When district gets here, we have to pick off three or four opponents to make the playoffs and I think that is very possible,” Clark said.
HOW I SEE IT: Go ahead and pencil in Carthage, Henderson and Kilgore into the top three spots out of District 9A-DI. The fourth spot is wide open and the safe bet would be to go with Center. However, Palestine is hungry. The Wildcats are coming off of back-to-back 1-9 seasons and the athletes PHS has are way better than that record indicates. Look for the Wildcats to snag the fourth playoff spot.