By Rick Atkinson, For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

Most everyone around here knew that Melissa senior linebacker Caden Hayes was one heck of a defender – but now all of Texas knows.

On Dec. 17, the Associated Press Sports Editors named Hayes the state’s Class 4A Defensive Player of the Year.

Hayes and the Cards notched a 7-3 record in 2019, reaching the third round of the Class 4A Region II playoffs where they were edged out by state-finalist Waco La Vega on the last play of the game. Along the way, Hayes posted 180 tackles and 39 tackles for a loss.

“It couldn’t happen to a better young man,” Melissa Defensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hemsley said by phone. “He completely dedicated himself to the craft of playing the linebacker position this year. He also committed himself to being a great teammate. It’s not an easy game to play. … Caden spent countless hours in the gym, on the field - working on footwork, understanding where he’s supposed to be and being there at the right time. I couldn’t be more proud of his accomplishment.”

Hemsley recalled that Hayes suffered a torn ACL his sophomore year. “When you have an injury like that, it normally takes you a year and half or two years to recover. … If that injury hadn’t happened, Caden probably would have been All-State last year.”

Cards junior offensive lineman Bryson Zufelt made All-State Honorable Mention.

“I’m super-excited for him,” Melissa Offensive Coordinator Jason Russell said, also by phone. “The guy works extremely hard. He’s an extremely physical kid on the field. And he’s a polar-opposite, on and off the field. He turns that switch on and that sucker is nasty. Then he gets off the field and he’s the most fun-loving kid. … He’s extremely smart, that obviously helps. But he’s such a good wrestler he can get his body in some tough positions and his hand placement is so good.”