TOM BEAN — There is a next step out there for the Tomcats and they are hoping to take it this fall.

For a program which had struggled to find its playoff footing with just three berths from 2005-17, Tom Bean has advanced out of district each of the past two seasons. It is their first consecutive appearances since a three-year run from 2002-04, and a trip in 2020 would be just the third time in program history the Tomcats earned three straight playoff bids.

Getting out of the first round, as well as producing a winning record for the first time since 2008, are at the top of Tom Bean’s to-do list following a 4-7 record — which included a runner-up finish in District 5-2A (I) — before a bi-district loss to Rivercrest.

"We’ve made it the past two years and the kids want to do more than that," Tom Bean head coach Zach Wood said. "We want to win a district championship. We want to win a round or two. There are several three-year starters ready to have that happen and they understand they still have to put the work in."

A large senior class of 11 Tomcats is ready to lead that charge after their contributions last season, but there are some holes to fill. The Tomcats lost Kaleb Graham, who was a first-team all-district running back with 898 yards and six touchdowns on 188 carries and a first-team pick at linebacker as well as Zach Lusk, who was second-team all-district at receiver and defensive end, and second-team all-district offensive lineman Avery Chapman.

"Most of it is second nature to a lot of them," Wood said. "We’ve been able to move a lot faster. Most of the positions are set so we can hit the ground running."

Senior Ryan Weems made the shift to quarterback during last season and ended up as the district’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year after completing 87-of-171 passes for 1,230 yards and 10 touchdowns with eight interceptions and rushing for 360 yards and seven TDs.

"He’s always been a natural leader but I think he’s embracing that a lot more," Wood said. "Coming into camp, we know who the quarterback is going to be. He came in this year knowing he has to be a leader."

The Tomcats also brings back a first-team all-district wide receiver in Lance Pauler (27 receptions for 435 yards and three touchdowns) as well as senior Bryce Clark, who chipped in eight catches for 139 yards and a TD, senior Corbin Ramey and Ethan Sanders, who missed almost all of his junior season due to injury.

Senior Patrick Fitzgerald will get the nod at tailback while classmate Caleb Higgs is the halfback. In limited touches last season Fitzgerald had 10 carries for 77 yards and a TD while Higgs totaled 27 carries for 97 yards because he did most of his work at receiver, finishing with 33 receptions for 439 yards and five touchdowns and earning all-district honors.

Junior Gage Moore and sophomore Alex Sanchez could get some time in the backfield as well depending on the personnel.

On the offensive line, Tom Bean does have to replace Gauge Cunningham, who was first-team all-district as a junior and is not playing after an injury late last season. Senior Zane McNealy is back after being second-team all-district and sophomores Dylan Chapman and Gerson Hernandez saw snaps a year ago when they had to step into the lineup at times. Senior Zach Hunt joins the group and classmate Devin Griffis is another upperclassman on the line.

Sophomore Leo Martinez and junior Angel Raygoza round out the linemen, which means depth could be an issue as the Tomcats enter the season with only a pair of backups.

Tom Bean has a large number of returners back on defense as well and hopes that will allow them to continue to show improvement there as well.

"We lost three key guys but I think the younger kids will be able to replace them just fine," Wood said. "We’ve made some changes to be more flexible on the back end."

The unit will also miss Cunningham on the defensive side of the ball, where he was also first-team all-district. But the line does bring back Weems, who was first-team all-district, and McNealy and Martinez were second-team all-district selections.

At the linebacker spot, Fitzgerald was second-team all-district while Higgs is also a returning starter. They are joined by Moore. Senior Chase Parsons and Ramey are slated to be the corners while Clark is back at free safety and Sanders and Sanchez are the strong safeties. Raygoza will be the kicker and Weems is the punter for the third straight year.

Tom Bean’s chances to get back to the playoffs took a bit of a hit with the latest realignment. Instead of needing just one win over the last-place team to reach the postseason, this time around District 5-2A (I) got tougher in a couple regards. All six schools (Lindsay, Alvord, Trenton, Tioga and Collinsville are the others) made the playoffs in 2019 and no one is going to give up their spot without a fight.

Two teams are going to be left out, and the Tomcats will do their best to make sure they don’t fall in that category.