VAN ALSTYNE — It seems inevitable that Van Alstyne may experience some growing pains, especially early in the season.
The Panthers return just one starter on offense and defense from last season’s playoff team and are making a move up to Class 4A Division II, where they will be one of the smallest enrollments following the University Interscholastic League’s latest realignment. They were also placed in a district — 4-4A (II) — which has some very tough competition, including a perennial power in the Celina Bobcats.
However, Van Alstyne head coach Mikel Miller is confident his young team can get their feet under them and hit the ground running. One of the brightest points for optimism is the overall team speed and athleticism for the Panthers.
"We will be very young so every day we have to improve," Miller said. "We have very few returning varsity kids and a small senior class, but we are confident in our younger kids getting better and our older kids leading them."
Finding the right pieces to fit the established Van Alstyne system — Miller is entering his 12th year leading the program — is also one of the biggest challenges, since there will be new faces at every position after the Panthers finished 7-5 last season and 5-1 in district play, behind only 3A Division I state runner-up Pottsboro, and picked up their first playoff victory to reach the area round, where they lost to region runner-up Gladewater, after four straight bi-district losses.
There are plenty of key losses to graduation from that group.
On offense it includes quarterback Tymothe Rosenthal, who conpleted 100-of-172 passes for 2,004 yards and 20 touchdowns with just six interceptions and was second-team all-district after transferring from Texoma Christian; running back Jake Carroll, who was first-team all-district with 124 carries for 1,141 yards and 15 touchdowns; receiver Drelin Davis had 35 catches for 929 yards and eight TDs as a first-team all-district pick; and four offensive linemen were all-district selections: Jake Loganbill on the first team and Jacob Taylor, and Hunter Griffin and Cade Morgan on the second-team.
Linebacker Zach Moncier shared the district’s Defensive Player of the Year award while Griffin, Davis and Cam Montgomery were all first-team all-district defenders. Montgomery was also second on the team in receiving with 35 catches for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Sophomore Dakota Howard (6-0, 160) is expected to take snaps at quarterback.
Another sophomore, Jaden Mahan, impressed as a freshman a year ago when he rushed for 454 yards and five touchdowns on 79 carries, and is going to be counted on to lead the offense after sharing the district’s Newcomer of the Year award.
Veteran leadership will be expected in the trenches from seniors Jacob Gallardo (5-9, 260) and Jake Smallwood (5-11, 250). Other newcomers expected to contribute are sophomores Levi Copeland and Nick Loya.
Senior Conner Loftice (6-0, 165) is expected to see work at the tight end position.
A couple wide receiver positions should be filled by juniors Collin Reynolds (5-10, 165) and Gavin Montgomery (6-2, 160). Sophomore Mateen Boudoin is also expected to contribute to the receiving corps.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers will be in their normal 4-2-5 alignment.
Gallardo will line up in his familiar position on the defensive line after being chosen second-team all-district and will be joined by Smallwood. Colby Hayes is also expected to see time on the defensive front.
Mahan (64 tackles) will return to the defensive side of the ball at his linebacker spot. Loftice is expected to also see time at linebacker.
Reynolds, Montgomery and Boudoin are all being looked at to earn snaps in the secondary.
On special teams, senior Aaron Beckham will once again handle the kicking duties. He made four field goals last season.
While the Panthers have been used to being a perennial playoff team in Class 3A, the step up in classification might not hurt their chances that badly in their first foray into 4A. Van Alstyne was placed in a district with Celina, Aubrey, Sanger and Krum — which means that only one team will not make the postseason out of the five-team district. Winning two games all but clinches a berth, while it might take only one to advance.