POTTSBORO — It was the best season in school history, and the Cardinals know how close they were to making it a perfect one. Records, both individual and team-related, seem to fall on a weekly basis. Wins came in all sorts of ways, whether by blowout or by the slimmest of margins.
In the end, the only thing that could stop Pottsboro in 2019 was the team that won the Class 3A Division I state championship in 2018. Grandview defended its title by a 42-35 margin over the Cardinals in AT&T Stadium. It was the only opponent Pottsboro couldn’t solve.
"It’s nice to get back to work and be around the kids," Pottsboro head coach Matt Poe said. "The expectations are high. They’re ready to meet it head on."
The expectations are always high in Pottsboro and have been under Poe’s watch, which began in 2006. But that type of season — 15-1, including a win over eventual 3A D-II champ Gunter, and playing for it all — can bring a different type of pressure. The Cards enter the year ranked third in the Class 3A Division I preseason poll thanks to bringing back several key contributors on both sides of the ball.
It’s a different feel than in 2009, when just about every single starter from the previous best season in school history — a 13-2 state semifinalist — graduated. Pottsboro went 1-9 for the only time the Cardinals have not have a winning record in Poe’s tenure. Don’t expect that type of history to repeat itself.
There is production which needs to be replaced from a unit that set the school record for points in a season with 720, averaging 45 per contest, blowing past the 525 points scored during 12 games in 2015. The team also broke the school record for consecutive wins, which had been 12 and done four previous times. The Cardinals also returned to the top of the district standings, claiming the 5-3A (I) crown two years after their six-year run of district titles was snapped.
Pottsboro, which has made 10 straight postseason appearances, was at its best in the playoffs and won three straight one-possession contests — 38-31 against defending Region II champ Malakoff, 35-34 in double overtime against Gladewater in the region final and then 36-35 over Brock — to advance to the championship game.
"After we got in the playoffs we had some good fortune," Poe said. "We were down in those games and the kids were so resilient and played their tails off."
Among those who graduated after contributing to that success are running back Cy Shope, who was the district’s Most Valuable Player and first-team all-state after 264 carries for 2,070 yards and 35 touchdowns to go with 17 catches for 306 yards and three TDs; linebacker Zach Wideman, who shared the district’s Defensive Player of the Year honor and was first-team all-state with 206 tackles, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries; and lineman Hunter Fulton, who was first-team all-district on both sides of the ball.
"There’s a bunch we’re going to miss for sure," Poe said.
The nearly perfect season came somewhat out of nowhere after each of the previous two seasons ended with 6-5 records and bi-district losses. This group of seniors is hoping to find themselves back on the state’s biggest stage, just with a different ending.
Braden Plyler missed the first two years of his career due to injury but made up for lost time as a junior. He was the district’s Offensive Player of the Year and chosen second-team all-state by completing 177-of-274 passes for 2,725 yards and 30 TDs with seven interceptions and also ran 217 times for 1,058 yards and 19 touchdowns.
He’s a very good quarterback but he’s not perfect. We’re focusing a lot on the details with him," Poe said. "He’s one of our hardest workers. Braden’s got that attitude."
The dual-threat QB will look to continue his connection with classmate Titus Lyons, who was first-team all-district and first-team all-state after 75 catches for 1,303 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"He’s going to get a lot of attention," Poe said.
Lyons will be the focal point because the Cardinals lost a first-team all-district wideout (Ezra Fritts) and a pair of second-teamers (Jasek Hooker and Zach Talley). The trio combined for 71 catches for 1,073 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Stepping into those voids will be seniors Landon Dunaway and Jackson Lipscomb and juniors Jake Kubik, Grayson Watson, Jett Carroll, Griffin Conklin and Drake Hunter.
"We’ve got a bunch of guys we’re looking at right now," Poe said. "We’ll have four guys out there that can play."
Following Shope at running back won’t be easy, either. Junior Cooper Townsley had 46 carries for 403 yards and three touchdowns as the Cards’ third-leading rusher. Senior Colton Creswell, who missed a chunk of last season with an elbow injury, and junior Cole Bynum are also vying for snaps.
"We’re hoping Cooper will carry the load," Poe said. "They’re all getting time there right now."
Leading the way on the offensive line is senior center Daniel Graham, who was the district’s Offensive Lineman of the Year last fall. Classmates Landon Simpson and Silas Barr are also back on the right side of the line.
"Those three guys we know about. We need to find two more to join them," Poe said.
Junior Bailey May is the front-runner at left guard and senior Gage Golden, who has not played since his freshman season, could slot in at right tackle. But they are being pushed by senior Jake Alonzo and juniors Andrew Peippo and Jade Roberts.
A defense which held half its opponents to two touchdowns or less is looking to replace seven starters.
"We’ve got some work to do on that side of the ball," Poe said. "We’ve got to find some guys who can play."
Barr, who has committed to North Texas, was the district’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and third-team all-state with 106 tackles (third on the team), nine tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. He is the only returner up front, however, thanks to the graduation of Fulton, Riley Deaton and Keatyn Eitelman.
"We’re going to move him around a lot, inside and outside," Poe said.
Graham, May, Simpson, Peippo and junior Kenny Morris could be part of a rotation in the trenches.
At linebacker, Lipscomb was first-team all-district and second on the team in tackles while Dunaway was fourth on the team with 105 stops. They will be joined by Bynum and senior Collin Branch. Creswell is also an option.
Senior Tyler Farris returns at corner (although depending on how things shake out with secondary personnel Poe said Farris might wind up at safety) after being first-team all-district with a team-best six interceptions and Townsley is back at a safety spot. Lyons, Conklin or juniors Dionis Morina and Jacob Dobbs could wind up at the other corner and Kubik, Carroll and Watson might also see time at safety.
Senior Jacob McDonald is back to handle kicking duties, and for the first time without sharing them, after making 72-of-80 extra points and all three field goal attempts with a long of 37 yards, while the punter job is to be determined.
Realignment hit the Cardinals harder than most Texoma teams after the most recent version of District 5-3A (I) lost teams which either moved up in classification or down in division. Pottsboro stayed with Howe, Bonham, Commerce and Rains but the district moved well to the east with the additions of Mineola, Mount Vernon and Winnsboro; the latter two made the playoffs and Mineola just missed on a tie-breaker.
"It’s going to be tough when you throw those three in there," Poe said. "We know we have a target on our back."