It’s that time again, when everything stops for Friday night high school football. The regular-season fun starts Aug. 30 and runs through Nov. 8.
Melissa has a new head coach and Anna will have a new quarterback for this year’s slate of hard-hitting gridiron action. Also known for certain is this: District 7-4A Division I is again maybe the toughest 4A grouping in Texas, with Argyle, Paris, Melissa and Celina all perched among the state’s Top 25 teams. But don’t forget Sanger — with its new head coach — or North Lamar — with its new slot-T offense.
It all portends plenty of thrilling plays, momentum swings and heart-breaking turnovers — the stuff that makes Texas high school football a happening like no other.
We spoke with our local head coaches recently about where the Coyotes and Cardinals have been and where they’re headed this fall. Read on and prepare to back your favorite squad.
Head coach: Matt Nally / 1st year
2018 record: 8-4 overall, 4-2 District 7-4A(I), 3rd place; bi-district win over Alvarado
Season-opener: Aug. 30 at Liberty Christian (Argyle)
District-opener: Sept. 27 v. Paris
Furthest road trip: Nov. 8 at Paris North Lamar (73 miles, one-way)
Game you shouldn’t miss: Oct. 25 at Argyle
Matt Nally takes the reins after three years as offensive coordinator on the staff of former Melissa head coach Seth Stinton. Stinton, after 10 years at the helm — with nine playoff appearances, three district titles and a state championship — moves on to full-time MISD boys athletic director duties.
His transition from OC to head coach has been seamless, Nally said recently at Melissa High School.
“First off, Seth was awesome to work for, so that part of it was really simple. He was so supportive of me, allowing me to put in my program. I didn’t have to do it the way he did it.”
Jason Russell, last year’s quarterbacks coach, moves to OC and Nate Hemsley, the Cards’ defensive secondary coach a year ago, is now defensive coordinator. New assistant coaches have come aboard as well.
“The hiring was not difficult at all,” said Nally, who was head coach at Class 3A Frankston prior to coming to Melissa in 2015. “When I was at Frankston we might have three people apply for a job. Here you’re going to have 100 people apply for a job. Finding really good people was not hard either. We lost some great coaches and the coaches that we got, we’re lucky to have them.”
Over his 16-year coaching career, Nally has developed an affinity for the high-flying spread offense and hard-core toughness across the board. His plan is to instill an “old school” culture at Melissa, one that produces a relentlessly physical brand of football.
“I’m not saying that hasn’t been here before,” Nally said, “but it’s just my way of doing that.”
He pointed to a new weight-training circuit the Cards have started - and taken to quite readily. “We’ve had kids throwing up,” Nally said, “and just hustling back in the rack and getting after it.” He added, “We scrimmage every single day. … People say, ‘Man, that’s old school.’ To me, that’s just building toughness and physicality and competing.”
Nally said he doesn’t ascribe to “new-age thinking” that over-worries about injuries. “That’s not game-like. We’re not going to live in our fears.”
Two things are clear after speaking with Nally: He believes the 2019 Cards are loaded — and he’s not bashful about it.
“It’s going to be a great season for us,” Nally said. “The district is going to have to be prepped because the Melissa Cardinals are going to give them all they’ve got — I’ll put it that way.”
Senior Brendon Lewis returns at quarterback — and that spells trouble for defensive coordinators up and down the Cards’ schedule, especially since he’ll be handing off to senior speedster Ja’Bray Young.
Lewis was a First-Team All-District pick selection last year and the district’s Offensive MVP in 2017. Last fall, he threw for 2,983 yards and 30 touchdowns with two interceptions. The Colorado-commit also carried the ball 100 times for 1,069 yards and 11 TDs.
Young, a state sprinter who runs a 4.4-second 40, was also a First-Team All-District pick in 2018, roaming for over 1,800 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. He caught 13 passes as well for 376 yards and six TDs.
“When you’ve got Brendon Lewis directing things, you’re pretty fortunate right there,” Nally said. “Then you get to hand it off to Ja’Bray Young, you’re pretty fortunate.”
Junior Parker Taylor moves into the back-up role at quarterback.
Young will be paired in the backfield with senior Denton High move-in Xylon Posey. “Coach Russell has done a great job of incorporating both of those kids at the same time,” Nally said. “Our thinking is, you’ve got Brendon Lewis playing quarterback, you’ve got Ja’Bray on one side and Posey on the other side. What are defenses going to do?”
Other top running back options for Melissa include senior Chance Mapps, junior Braedan Smith and sophomore Ashton Mitchell-Jones.
At receiver, the Cards lost some big-time talent with the departure of First-Team All-District playmakers Kennedy Lewis and Kenneth Castleberry, Jr., but the corps appears to be stacked again. Seniors Tyler Burton, Ian Keever and Ezra Monroe along with junior Antonio Robinson are ready for break-out seasons.
Then there’s sophomore Damon Youngblood, who missed last season due to injury. Nally calls him “extremely dynamic.”
In the trenches, the Cards graduated All-District talent in Trevor Duggan, Austin Sanders, Ryan Humphries and Jack Greer. But the cupboard is hardly bare with senior guard Garrett Bowen, senior center Zack Wilkie, senior guard Brian Blackwell and junior guard Bryce Martin in the house.
Nally said Martin is “one of the most athletic big kids you’ll meet.”
Then, junior tackle Hayden Nofziger and junior guard Bryson Zufelt – accomplished wrestlers both – are what Nally calls “na-a-a-a-sty.”
Juniors Blake Carrico and Sebastian Cisneros provide solid back-up.
“As a whole, there’s not a weak link,” Nally said.
Moving to defense, Nally said, “I really expect our defense to be one of the best defenses in the state when it’s all said and done. As far as being physical, we’re so far ahead of where I thought we would be at this time. The defensive side of the ball is as physical as I’ve seen in a long time, even our safeties, even our corners.”
The Cards will work from a base 3-4 defense, with multiple looks.
Gone from last year’s linebacker corps are Connor Newberry and Javier Collins but the Cards return last year’s District Defensive Newcomer of the Year, junior Braylon Brown. And watch for junior Caden Hayes, who’s back after suffering a torn ACL last season. Nally reports that Hayes has more than held his own when faced with tackling the 215-pound Young in practice.
Also look for Keever, senior Kaleb Melvin and Mitchell-Johnson to contribute.
On the D-line, defensive end Collin O’Neal — last season’s District Defensive Lineman of the Year - and tackle Jacob Ashley leave holes. But senior All-District defensive end Caleb Kroese and senior Ethan McCollum are experienced returnees who, along with senior Khaleb Ware and sophomore Zander Gonzalez, should ably fill the void.
Seniors Mason Carney and Liam Stone “are going to be good ones” too, Nally said.
In the secondary, the Cards lose Jaylynn Jones and BJ Lewis but remain deep here. Junior Chanse Holliday will hold down one safety spot and may play some corner while senior Kenady Markray and Chase Mapps are other strong options at safety.
At cornerback, junior Chance Mapps — with 72 stops, five picks and 11 pass-breakups last year - returns at one corner and junior Carlos Branch “came out of nowhere in the spring,” Nally said.
Monroe, Robinson and junior Jack Richardson will also see plenty of action.
Punters Keever and junior Damian Weiderman are still competing for the top job. Junior soccer standout Luke Hansen will handle field goals and Youngblood is the kickoff specialist.
Nally praised Stinton for crafting another stout non-district schedule. “We will be calloused going into district play,” Nally said.
That lineup includes Liberty Christian, a TAPPS state-semifinalist last year; 5A Frisco, a second-round playoff team; 5A defending district champ Whitehouse; and TAPPS state champion Trinity Christian. “I fully expect to win those four ballgames,” Nally added.
Regarding district play, Nally said, “I’m kind of getting tweaked just talking about it. Our goal is to win the district championship, and right now the district championship rolls through Argyle. … I just found out that Melissa has never beaten Argyle. This is the first year we’re going to do it.
“Every year you want to beat Anna — because it’s Anna. That’s a huge game for our kids. Next, it’s Celina. Those two ball games are really big.”
The Cards posted their first-ever win at Celina last year — and won that contest at home the year before. “People say Celina’s not the team of old,” Nally said. “It’s still Celina. They do it the right way and they’re always prepped for us. But we’re going to make it three in a row.”
As for one that got away last year, Nally said, “We’ve got something to prove against Paris.”
(non-district start times, 7:30 p.m.; *district, 7 p.m.)
8/30 @ Liberty Christian
9/6 Frisco (Homecoming)
9/13 Whitehouse @ Emory
9/20 @Trinity Christian
*11/8 @North Lamar