There will be a lot more anticipation for the Bearcats this season, during a year that has been like very few, if any, we have seen before.
Getting back to work in the August heat has become a ritual observed for decades. It was a signal for a new beginning — school gets underway and the kickoff to football season is right around the corner. However, like all other Class 5A and 6A programs in 2020, Sherman is stuck waiting on the sidelines. But the silver lining is that there is something the Bearcats can be waiting for.
"We have a plan in place," Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said as he enters his fifth season leading the Bearcats. "We as coaches want the best for all our kids."
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the University Interscholastic League to make unprecedented decisions since mid-March. Spring sports were not able to finish their seasons and crown a champion and off-season activities for sports like football were delayed for months until June.
"We’re going to be real vigilant with our kids and follow the guidelines and follow the social distancing," Martinez said. "We can only do what we can to be able to play."
It wasn’t until late July that the Bearcats even knew if they would have a 2020 season to prepare for. The UIL ruling said yes to that question: football would go on, but with a caveat. All 5A and 6A teams had to wait an extra month to begin practicing while 1A-4A schools were able to start on time. Sherman’s first practice will be on Sept. 7 and a few days later they can do so in pads. There can be a scrimmage 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. All of this means the regular season will go into December and the last part of the playoffs will take place after the New Year instead of right before Christmas.
But the Bearcats will take any opportunity they can to get on the field. They hope to produce another winning record and make a postseason return to show it was all worth the wait.
Sherman was going for a third consecutive playoff appearance, which would have been the program’s longest streak since a run of five straight ended in 2012, but the Bearcats ended up on the wrong side of a third-place tie breaker in District 7-5A (I).
The Bearcats, John Tyler and Texas High all went 3-3, with Sherman getting there after an 0-3 start. Going into the last game of the season the Cats had to beat John Tyler, and coupled with Texas High beating West Mesquite, the margin of victory by SHS had to be at least 11 points. If West Mesquite had won, all Sherman needed was a victory.
The final score was 32-27 and the game ended with the Bearcats at the John Tyler 13-yard line trying to get those last points. It was bittersweet because Sherman finished with a winning record at 6-4 and didn’t advance following a year when the Bearcats had just four wins but made the postseason by finishing on the right side of a three-way tie for third place.
"We were playing our best ball. We were rolling. I would have loved to see what we could have done the next week," Martinez said. "We finished tied for third both years in a tough district. One year the points got us in, the other it got us out. Our kids know how close we’ve been."
Finishing with a better outcome this time will have to happen without some key pieces. Gage Smith, now at West Texas A&M, was the 7-5A (I) Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 90 total tackles (67 solo), three interceptions, five pass break-ups, a forced fumble and also contributed nine catches for 226 yards and a touchdown. Mike Brown, a two-year starter who is now at Southeastern, was honorable mention all-district and ran for 1,073 and 10 touchdowns on 182 carries. Defensive linemen Ivan Calvillo and Daniel Omayebu, who is now at Abilene Christian, were both named second-team all-district. Three starters on the offensive line — Tyler Smith, Jordan Lamondue and James Drenner — as well as Ethan Bedgood, a multi-year starter on defense, are also gone.
Senior Tate Bethel moved from receiver to quarterback for last season and was named first-team all-district after completing 149-of-243 passes for 1,920 yards and 17 touchdowns with four interceptions and also ran for six scores.
"I think Tate figured it out. He just had to adjust to the speed of the game," Martinez said. "He really came into his own the last month of the season. Things slowed down for him a little bit. We knew his athleticism was very good. He was a really good quarterback."
Bethel’s three favorite targets are all back. Senior receiver Sean Husband was second-team all-district after 38 catches for 413 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Elijah Chapman made an impact in the latter half of the season by totaling eight catches for 140 yards and three TDs. Senior tight end Jacoby Hunt was first-team all-district with 34 receptions for 484 yards and six touchdowns.
"We have some nice, explosive players on offense," Martinez said. "All of those guys have shown they can make plays for us."
Senior Juan Guerrero is slated to be next in line on the depth chart among the pass-catchers.
The leading receiver from a year ago will continue to get targeted, just in a different role. Senior Benji Omayebu contributed all over the field, producing touchdowns in every way except throwing one. He had 49 catches for 548 yards and five touchdowns, ran 38 times for 329 yards and four TDs and was first-team all-district at receiver. He finished with 12 total touchdowns.
"I’m not saying anything anybody doesn’t already know," Martinez said. "Benji needs to have the ball in his hands and we need to make that happen as much as possible."
His new role will be at running back, but Omayebu will remain a versatile piece of the offense. Senior Mathias Coleman will get increased snaps in the backfield after he ran nine times for 40 yards and a TD in a reserve role last fall after transferring from Texoma Christian. Sophomore Caleb Thompson could also provide help, depending on the personnel.
The returners on the offensive line are senior Matthew Parks, who takes over at center, and Dominie Johnson, who stepped into the lineup for the final six games when Cole Gibson’s senior season was cut short due to injury, is at tackle. Moving into starting roles are senior Calvin Holland and junior Daniel Clark at the guard spots, while the other tackle slot is between senior Blume Cernero and junior Jayden Lynch. Tayvian Scruggs could also see some time with the unit.
"We have some questions. All those guys are possible players," Martinez said. "Our offense will progress as the offensive line progresses. We have the pieces. We have the dudes. We have to get protection and movement up front."
On defense there will be a bevy of new faces, as graduation hit that side of the ball hard. There are no returning starters up front, but junior Armando Chavez does have some extended varsity experience from last season. There are several Bearcats working to earn one of the three spots next to him. Cernero, senior Domingo Copeland and juniors Ricky Sommers, Anthony Gionfriddo and Nolbert Sibrian are the candidates. Hunt is expected to be a factor on passing downs when he will be utilized as an edge rusher.
The most experience will come at linebacker. Coleman was second-team all-district and classmate Brandon Bonilla was honorable mention all-district. The newcomer to the group is senior Cameron Reed, who transferred from Bonham and was a two-time all-district selection for the Warriors.
"Those three backers could be pretty darn good," Martinez said.
At outside linebacker, options could include Quintaevyn Stevenson, junior Teyvian Knight and junior Juan Villalva. In the secondary, senior Jeff Banks is back after being honorable mention all-district, but is sliding over from corner back to safety.
"Him and Bonilla are in the middle of the field together," Martinez said about the top two returning tacklers. "They’re going to be running everything down."
The Bearcats in the mix at corner are seniors Braiden Speed and Braylen Garrett and junior Isaiah Jones.
Omayebu was a starter at safety a year ago but will have his time there scaled back thanks to his increased workload on offense. However, he will be called on in certain situations.
In the running to be paired with Banks are sophomores Phoenix Grant, Connor Clark and Zavery Miller.
Julian Nandin, another 10th-grader, could find himself at either corner or safety as part of a young corps working to find its way on the field this fall.
"Our sophomore class has some really good athletes," Martinez said. "We’ve just got to develop those guys and keep them together."
Dane Castleberry or Sibrian will take over kicking duties from Jose Nandin, while the front-runner to replace Gerald Clark, who was second-team all-district to finish his career, as the punter is currently Bethel.
Realignment kept a majority of District 7-5A (I) together as Sherman remained with McKinney North, West Mesquite, Tyler (formerly John Tyler before the ISD changed the school’s name in August) and Wylie East for the next two years.
The group did lose a pair of playoff teams as Mesquite Poteet and Texas High moved down to Division II. On the surface, that looked like a good move to have just North and Tyler as the returning playoff qualifiers. But there are two newcomers to the district and they happen to be two of the best programs in Class 5A — Longview and Highland Park. Both are ranked in the top four in the 5A Division I preseason statewide polls, with Highland Park having made the region semifinals after three straight state titles, while Longview was a state champion in 2018.
"Longview’s a great program. Highland Park’s a legendary program. We’re looking forward to playing both," Martinez said. "Everybody else, we’ve beaten them at least once in the past two years. I don’t think our kids fear anybody."