Tough Schedule Awaits
By Will Johnson
GRAPELAND – The Grapeland Sandies are coming off a very good season where they claimed the district title, posted an overall record of 10-3 and reached the Regional Semifinals for the third consecutive year. The last two seasons, unfortunately, the Sandies faced the Mart Panthers in the Regional Semis. In both 2018 and 2019, the Panthers took down the Sandies on their way to back-to-back State Championship in Class 2A DII.
This year, Grapeland has moved up a notch and will play in District 11-2A DI. The Sandies will be joined in that district by the Alto Yellow Jackets, the Centerville Tigers, the Groveton Indians, the Leon Cougars and the Normangee Panthers.
Taken as a whole, the 2020 version of District 11-2A DI is perhaps one of the toughest in the state. All six teams made the playoffs last year. It boasts three 2019 district champions – Grapeland, Alto and Centerville and two district runners-up in Groveton and Normangee while Leon finished third in district competition.
Despite the tough district schedule, the hopes are high for the Sandies and big things are expected. While Grapeland lost quite a bit to graduation, the Sandies bring back a ton of senior leadership for the 2020 season.
On Monday of this week, Grapeland AD and Head Football Coach Terry Ward took time from his hectic schedule to discuss what the upcoming season has in store for Sandie football fans.
“I thought we had a really good first week of practice, especially with all the distractions and uncertainty that’s happening. I was very pleased with the way we look but, I believe like most schools, our numbers are a little bit lower than we expected. Depth will definitely be an issue, but I’m very happy with the kids who showed up,” Coach Ward said.
As of the start of the second week of practice, the coach said he had 42 players who had come out this season.
Questioned about the type of offense he planned to run this year, Ward said he planned to change up a few things but added it would still resemble last year’s potent offense which averaged right at 35 points per game in the regular season.
“We will be in the shotgun most of the time, but we will get under center every now and then. Most everything we do will be from a shotgun, spread formation,” he explained.
On the other side of the ball, Ward said the defense will be changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
“We felt like we had to change some on defense, mainly due to personnel. Last year, we based with four linebackers but this year we are going to base with three. We’re going to change some things up but we’ll base out of a 4-3,” the coach said.
As to who’s coming back, Ward said he has eight starters on offense and seven on defense.
“Obviously, we have BJ (Lamb) coming back at QB. He will also play a little defense. We have Cadarian Wiley at the running back position. KeKe Ashford will be a big part of our offense, just like he was last year. He will play multiple positions – receiver, running back. Those are probably our big three skill position players but we have a bunch of young kids who we are hoping to see step up,” Ward said.
Asked if anyone had surprised him during the first week of practice, Ward replied, “After the first week – I wouldn’t say anyone surprised us but we have had some kids live up to our expectations. I’m happy with the way our big guys – our offensive linemen – came in. They came in with really good attitudes. Jason DeCluette and Landon Jackson lead that crew and they are doing a really good job.”
“Another senior who is doing a really good job for us is (2-time All-State LB) Cooper Sheridan. He’s been doing that for a lot of years,” he said.
Because of UIL protocols, next week’s scrimmage has been cancelled but Ward said the Sandies have a three-way scrimmage the following week against Cushing and Frankston.
“We will open the season with Shelbyville and then we have a big game for us as Elkhart comes here. Unfortunately, we can’t pack the stands because of the regulations but it will be fun,” he said.
Concerning the district schedule, the coach said, “It’s definitely tougher than it has been the last couple of years. I talked to the kids about that during the first day. Anytime you have a district with Alto in it, you know you’re in for a battle. Centerville is going to be young, but they are always a playoff team and always really good. Groveton has stepped up the last couple of years and been a really good 2A football team. Normangee is coming off of a playoff berth and Leon, depending on the year, they can definitely win some football games. We don’t have any Friday nights we can just take off. We have to prepare for five straight games. It’s going to be a little difficult.”
Speaking of guidelines and regulations, Ward was asked about the Power Five conferences in college football and what affect it would have if the NCAA postponed fall sports.
“It will definitely make the UIL reconsider, but I don’t know. I think we have a pretty good plan in place. I think each school has kind of developed their own little bubble with their players and keeping in contact with them. I hope it doesn’t, but you never know. The leadership, sometimes, they feel the pressure. I’m hoping we get a chance to play. If something happens to us or any area teams once we get going, then of course, we would understand we would have to cancel. I would at least love to give it an opportunity,” Ward said.
It’s going to be an unusual season for football, to say the very least. The COVID-19 pandemic has college football on the verge of shutting down for the fall and if that happens, it would be no great surprise if the UIL follows suit. Until then, let’s enjoy the gridiron action while we still can.
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.