COLLINSVILLE — When it came to close games, the Pirates got plenty of experience — both good and bad — in 2019.
Half of their games were decided by nine points or less, and of those six contests three were either one or two-point margins. So while there was a bit of a learning curve under new head coach Garrett Patterson, Collinsville hopes those lessons can carry over to an even more successful season this fall.
Despite the nail-biters the Pirates fared well, finishing with a 6-6 overall record and tying for second in the district standings but getting the third seed for the playoffs. After a last-second field goal block to beat Wolfe City, 15-14, in the bi-district round, Collinsville was eliminated by region runner-up San Saba.
The Pirates will need to replace, among others their leading rusher, Trey Shelby, who shared the district’s Offensive Player of the Year honors after 1,097 yards and eight touchdowns on 164 carries and was a first-team all-district linebacker, as well as Jack Boswell, who was first-team all-district at defensive end and a second-team all-district offensive lineman.
But they do bring back a large share of their starters — eight on defense and seven on offense.
"I think we’re going to be a competitive program. We want to take that next step. Their aspirations are definitely three rounds," Patterson said. "The thing was the lack of consistency. Just be more consistent. And I think we will be. Numbers-wise, being the smallest Division I school in the state, that can hurt us."
Senior Luis Hernandez returns at quarterback for a third season. He completed 81-of-203 passes for 1,107 yards and nine touchdowns with nine interceptions and also ran for 442 yards and six TDs as a second-team all-district pick.
"For him, he’s got to be more consistent," Patterson said. "Coming from the Slot-T it was a complete 180. The last three games he played really good and we want to see that carry over."
Senior Jacory Sheppard will take over as the lead running back after finishing last season with 79 carries for 364 yards and three TDs.
Sophomore Nathen Bocanegra jumped right into the lineup a year ago and went on to share the district’s Newcomer of the Year award with 20 catches for 337 yards and two touchdowns in addition to his work on defense. He is part of an experienced wideout corps. Seniors Justin Hernandez (37 catches for 363 yards and five TDs) and Jace Crisp round out the returners. Junior Grayson Ward is the newcomer to the group.
Freshman Colin Barnes could find himself in the role Bocanegra filled as a ninth-grader — a utility player lining up in several spots with immediate contributions on both sides of the ball.
Senior Brayden Ward was second-team all-district at tight end and will shift over to be part of the offensive line. Brady Knabe is also back up front, but the Pirates do have to find four new starters as Rowdy Bates, who was first-team all-district, and Joan Carillo are not playing their senior year.
The newcomers are junior Andrew Wells, sophomore Zeke Munoz and Collin Knabe, and will look to quickly get up to speed.
"That’s huge for us," Patterson said. "Linemen lead the way. Linemen win games."
On the defensive line, senior Dreyton Stewart was second-team all-district and Brayden Ward is also back on the interior. Wells, Munoz and sophomore Tyler Fogle will be added to the mix in a battle to start at defensive end. Seniors Thomas Mendell and Sheppard were first-team all-district linebackers and Grayson Ward was second-team all-district. Luis Hernandez rounds out that unit.
In the secondary, Justin Hernandez was first-team all-district and is a four-year starter, while Crisp was second-team all-district and Bocanegra was also recoginized for his efforts as part of his superlative award.
"We started playing our best defense towards the end of the year. You can see how much they’ve retained," Patterson said. "The kids know the defense a lot better so we’re trying to work on technique and tackling more."
Luis Hernandez will handle kicking duties while either Barnes or senior Gavin Giasson will take over at punter for Micah Jenkins, who was first-team all-district as a senior.
Collinsville’s usual lock on the playoffs — the Pirates have missed only twice since 2005 — will be severely tested thanks to realignment. The new District 5-2A (I) is similar to the last one, as Tom Bean and Trenton stuck around with Collinsville but Tioga, Lindsay and Alvord were added.
Not only is an extra team in the mix after Celeste and Valley View moved out, all six programs were playoff qualifiers a year ago, so the battle to get one of the four berths should be a good one. Collinsville expects to be right in the thick of a chase for its third district crown in five seasons.
And as part of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the teams agreed to put a pair of bye weeks at the end of the schedule in case district games need to be postponed.
"We wanted to be proactive rather than reactive," Patterson said. "It was the only fair way to allow seniors to have a senior year and make the playoffs and not have it be a coin flip or something ridiculous."