With the way the past two seasons have ended, forgive the Denison Yellow Jackets for not believing in luck.
They have had winning seasons and big victories, yet the playoffs have eluded their grasp both times. Each time they were good enough to finish in the top half of District 7-5A (II). The problem is that the Jackets weren’t alone, particularly when it came to the same spot in the standings.
In 2019 Denison tied for the final playoff spot, but Lake Dallas advanced on the head-to-head tie breaker. The Jackets tried to avoid the same fate last fall but it ended in a similar fashion, except this time it was Frisco Reedy that matched Denison for fourth place. Reedy had the edge via a three-point win and kept the Jackets home again.
A seasoned group on both sides of the ball, which consists mostly of juniors, is hoping the third time’s not the charm and that Denison can instead be in the mix for its first district title since 2013 when the season gets going next month.
"Pressure’s what you feel when you think you can’t get the job done," Jackets head coach Chad Rogers said. "We’ve got all the makings to have a great football season."
The University Interscholastic League pushed back the athletic calendar for Class 5A and 6A schools due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Jackets’ first practice will be on Sept. 7, and a few days later they can do so in pads. A scrimmage can be held the following week, a cutback from the two allowed for those who don’t hold spring practice, and the season-opener — the 122nd Battle of the Ax against Denison — was rescheduled for Sept. 24. The last week of the regular season is now in December and the playoffs will finish up in early 2021. Of course, that is assuming there aren’t any stoppages or the season doesn’t start on time.
"(It’s the) strangest year I’ve ever seen, but this summer forced us to do things different than we have done before and it’s been the best time we’ve had," Rogers said. "How we deal with adversity, especially in these unsettling times, is a character thing."
Just having the opportunity to play, especially since the Jackets enter the season ranked twenty-fourth in the Class 5A Division II preseason statewide poll, is a welcomed feeling.
"They’ve dealt with everything the best we can. They want to play," Rogers said. "They’re excited. They’re hungry. I think it’s going to be a fun year."
Denison went 6-4 for the second straight season, including a seventh straight victory in the Battle of the Ax, but missed out on the playoffs thanks to that pesky tie breaker. The Jackets went 5-3 in district action and controlled its destiny, needing just one win in their final two games but came up short against third-place Lovejoy in overtime, then lost to co-champ Denton Braswell. The finish was even more frustrating because they were the only district team to beat Frisco, the other school to share the 7-5A (II) crown.
With seven Jackets back from an offense which averaged 32.9 points and 422.8 yards with most of that (272.4) coming on the ground, expectations are high for the production to continue. The biggest question with that side of the ball will come in the trenches, as the Jackets lost all five starters to graduation. Center Wesley Brooks was a two-time first-team all-district selection and Jose Conejo was first-team all-district at guard. The other three were second-team all-district: Mason Doyle at guard and tackles Drew Williams and Christian Smallwood.
When the season begins, the expectation is the starting five will come from these six Jackets: seniors Colton Mitchel, Colby Crawley and Seth Fulenchek; juniors Will Gillespe and Dameon Smallwood, who is sliding over from tight end, and sophomore Kanyon Ives.
"I feel good about them. I expect them to be ready to go and do what we need them to do," Rogers said.
They will be charged with protecting a group of skill players who return at all positions, except for tight end/H-back Cayden Earnhart, who was second-team all-district and the team’s second-team receiver with 18 catches for 203 yards and two TDs.
Junior quarterback Caleb Heavner transferred from Durant before last year and opened the season as the back-up. But senior Zaelin Wimbish was injured in the second game and Heavner was forced into duty. He thrived over the final eight games, completing 95-of-154 passes for 1,263 yards and 16 touchdowns with just four interceptions, running for 459 yards and four scores on 102 carries and being named the district’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year.
"His development was pretty good. He’s a natural leader," Rogers said. "Everything about football he loves, including practice. Maybe even more than the coaches."
Another transfer ended up making a big impact in 2019 as well. Senior Asa Osbourn returned to DHS after spending his sophomore season at Tom Bean and was named second-team all-district after running for 1,027 yards and 10 touchdowns on 196 carries.
"I think he answered all those questions," Rogers said about Osbourn’s jump from the 2A to 5A level. "He’s super talented running the ball."
Osbourn ended up as the lead back because junior Jadarian Price missed three games’ worth of time due to an ankle injury that bothered him when he did get on the field. Price still finished with 732 yards and three TDs on 151 carries, was first-team all-district and is looking to bounce back to his freshman form, when he had school records for a ninth-grader with 1,421 yards and 16 touchdowns on 210 carries. In Rivals’ preseason rankings for the Class of 2022, Price checks in at 198th in the country, the 21st-best running back and the 26th-best player in Texas, and as the third-best back in the state. Among his 15 scholarship offers include Auburn, Baylor, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech and Southern Cal.
"The stuff we have involving the three cats we have back there is pretty good. Who do you try and take away?" Rogers said. "They are all very capable. We want to create space. We have athletes that, if they get space, are going to be dangerous."
All of the wide receivers are back as well. Leading that group is senior Keleon Vaughn, who was second-team all-district after totaling 41 receptions for 578 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first significant time playing offense.
Senior Keebler Wagoner had 17 catches for 161 yards and a touchdown, junior Keegan Pruitt added six catches for 116 yards and a score and junior Trey Rhodes chipped in three catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. Senior Stone Lemming also returns, junior Yadiel Sauceda is an option after missing most of last season with an injury, and junior Dylan DeHorney could contribute to the group as well.
"A lot of experience here. They’ve grown and continue to grow," Rogers said.
The new tight end is junior Jaren Hendricks, who transferred from Durant, and is expected to slide right into the spot vacated by Earnhart’s graduation.
"He fits right into what we’re doing," Rogers said. "We might use him in a couple of spots depending on how physical he is."
There are even more returning starters on defense, as the Jackets lost senior defensive tackles Jordin Hunter, who was a four-year starter and three-time first-team all-district pick and Jessi Mireles, who was second-team all-district, while Cam Wheeler decided not to return for his senior year after being second-team all-district to focus solely on baseball after committing to Grayson over the summer.
The defensive ends will again be juniors Jakalen Fields, who led the team with eight sacks and 13 QB pressures and totaled 61 tackles and Landry Massenburg, who recovered three fumbles. Lining up inside will be the fresh faces— juniors Xzavier Washington and Jude Walters.
"It’s big shoes to fill in the middle. Jordin was a guy people were scheming against," Rogers said. "Landry has gotten bigger and stronger and Jakalen made a lot of plays last season."
At linebacker, senior Landon Ellis was first-team all-district in his first season as a starter when he collected a team-best 94 tackles, two fumble recoveries and three interceptions; senior Javonte Briscoe enters his third year as a starter after being second-team all-district and junior William Wallis was an honorable mention all-district selection. The newcomer to the group is junior De’Teaurean Johnson, who did see snaps in a reserve role. A name to watch is freshman Jakobe DeHorney, who might force his way onto the field.
"They talk, they communicate well, they know what we want to do," Rogers said. "It’s a group that can get after people."
Vaughn is a four-year starter in the secondary at corner and was named second-team all-district after first-team all-district accolades as a sophomore. He had four interceptions — a total of 11 the past two seasons — and 13 pass break-ups as a junior. Wagoner was chosen first-team all-district at safety after finishing second on the team with 76 total tackles along with two interceptions and six PBUs and junior Jalik Lewis, the other corner, was honorable mention all-district after transferring from Durant.
"There were a couple of breakdowns at times but they’ve got the experience and they continue to get better," Rogers said. "The learning curve has been really good with everybody."
Senior Reece Stange returns for his third year at kicker. He was second-team all-district after making nine field goals and is six field goals short of the program’s career mark of 19, set by Erick Harper from 1983-85. He is also tied for the second-most points scored by a kicking-only Yellow Jacket in school history and is 51 from the mark held by Dalton Hestand (164 from 2009-11). Stange will also handle punting duties again this fall.
"He’s probably one of the best I’ve had," Rogers said. "(I’m) very comfortable with him taking big kicks for us."
Realignment did not change Denison’s district very much. The Jackets remain in a nine-team group that consists of almost the same schools as the past two seasons: Frisco, Frisco Lebanon Trail, Frisco Memorial, Lake Dallas, Lovejoy and Princeton.
The two new teams in 7-5A (II) are Frisco Liberty and Prosper Rock Hill, which opens this school year and is jumping right into varsity action. They replace a pair of playoff teams as district co-champion Denton Braswell went all the way up to Class 6A and Frisco Reedy, which made the postseason both seasons, went to the 5A Division I ranks.
"I think it’s a great district. Very competitive," Rogers said. "Rock Hill’s a new school and I think Lovejoy is the only one with a new coach. I think we’ll be able to compete very well in this district."