TIOGA — Things have gotten a little bit tougher for Tioga since last season, but don’t expect the Bulldogs to back down from a challenge.
Two years ago the program made the jump from the six-man ranks and continued its playoff streak during its first few forays as an 11-man outfit. Now Tioga is making another jump, this time in divisions, as it looks to get to the postseason for a fifth straight year.
The Bulldogs tripled their win total from 2018 and finished 3-7 overall and 1-2 in the 9-2A (II) standings before bowing out of the playoffs in a 66-42 shootout loss against Detroit in the bi-district round.
Growth in that part of Grayson County put Tioga on its path to Division I in Class 2A — a place that could just be a pit stop by the next realignment — but the Bulldogs aren’t worried about a step up in competition.
"I think the big thing for us is we have some big, strong kids that got playing time last year and are now sophomores," Tioga head coach Cody Patton said. "It’s going to be one of those things where we put it on the kids to bring it every day, to be better every day."
For the most part, the Bulldogs still have a young roster thanks to injuries throughout the season (forcing underclassment into the lineup) but the seven seniors Tioga did lose played big roles. Kaleb Scott was first-team all-district at running back (127 carries for 631 yards and two TDs), linebacker and punter; Marshall Lease was first-team all-district at receiver (46 receptions for 674 yards and nine TDs); and linebacker and Austin Sotelo was second-team all-district on the offensive line.
Tioga also has to deal with losing a pair of transfers. Caleb McKinney, who did a little bit of everything as a junior— completing 41-of-94 passes for 564 yards and seven touchdowns, running for 229 yards and three TDs on 61 carries and totaling 24 catches for 397 yards and seven scores — is now at Lindsay, and Reagan Mejia, who completed 75-of-133 attempts for 932 yards and 11 touchdowns with nine interceptions as a sophomore, is at San Saba.
Part of the adjustment in personnel will see a switch from the power spread to the Wing-T.
"I’m an old Wing-T guy," Patton said. "We’ve got some bigger kids and we’re going to set a mentality of a tough-nosed team."
The quarterback spot will now come down to either junior Logan Westbrook, who was first-team all-district at wide receiver with 16 receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns, or senior Landon Miller, who did not play last year. Miller could also factor at running back or fullback.
Senior Ryan Montgomery gets the nod at fullback after finishing with 20 carries for 91 yards and two scores and five catches for 45 yards and a touchdown in a reserve role last season while sophomore Chase Evans is slated to be the half-back. The wingback slot is a battle between sophomores Elijah Deleon and Alex Catarino.
"Our backs are going to have to step up and fill some holes," Patton said.
Options at wide receiver include senior Luis Rubi and junior J.T. Galetko, while senior Tanner Binyon, who transferred from Pilot Point, is the starting tight end.
Because of the injuries throughout the 2019 campaign, several freshmen had to see significant varsity snaps and a lot of that experience comes in the trenches. Four members of this year’s starting offensive line will be sophomores— Caden Pelley was first-team all-district and will be the left tackle, Christian Case is the center, Caden Case is the right tackle and Drew Drees is a guard.
The only upperclassmen is senior guard Austin Hays, who was first-team all-district. Providing depth is junior Dalton Stanley.
On defense, Stanley was second-team all-district at nose guard and there will be some rotation which involves Pelley, Binyon, Drees, Christian Case, junior Canyon Maness and senior Ethan Quintero, who transferred from Celina.
"We’ve got a little bit of depth with those guys," Patton said.
At the linebacker spots, Hays or junior Cody Dutton will be in the middle and flanked by Catarino and Evans. Westbrook heads up the secondary after being a second-team all-district safety. Rubi and Galetko are the corners and Montgomery and Miller are the other safeties.
The kicking and punting jobs are still being decided. Patton said Catarino could be the kicker, or there is a chance Tioga would go for two-point conversions a majority of the time.
While the Bulldogs knew they were locks for the postseason last season as part of a four-team district, this year Tioga will be in for quite a battle thanks to its new district in the latest realignment. 5-2A (I) will house six teams and every school made the playoffs last year. That means at least two teams are going to miss out on returning. and the Bulldogs take on Lindsay, Alvord, Trenton, Tom Bean and Collinsville in a race that should most likely go down to the wire to claim those berths.