The season has barely gotten underway but now things really start to get serious for the Denison Yellow Jackets.
With a pair of mixed results — starting strong with a victory in the Battle of the Ax followed by a close loss in the final minute — Denison is already entering district play despite the calendar barely hitting the middle of the September.
It will be a long, and what the Jackets hope will be a successful, road back to the postseason as Denison (1-1) hosts Frisco Lebanon Trail (1-1) in the District 7-5A (II) opener at Dr. Rene and Eva Gerard Field at Munson Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday night.
“We’re expecting to be in the playoffs again and the older guys are trying to keep that tradition going,” senior tackle Kaleb McAlester said. “It’s a great experience and we want everybody to feel it, especially the younger guys so they can continue it in the future.”
Realignment sent Denison closer to home but with a bigger district and a newer format than it is used to. Class 5A has been split to group teams by size before the playoffs instead of for it. The Jackets were the runner-up in the standings last year but were the top seed for the Division II bracket. Now if they finished second, they are the second seed for the the playoffs.
Denison is paired with some familiar faces in District 7-5A (II), including Denton Braswell, a district opponent the past two years, and Frisco, which was on the non-district slate. Joining along with Lebanon Trail are two other Frisco schools, Reedy and Memorial, as well as Lake Dallas, Lovejoy and Princeton, which moved up from 4A.
“Usually it’s a little bit clearer. I don’t think it’s very clear right now,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “I think there will be a separation but I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. Our approach is always the same — get better every game. I thought we did that last year.”
One team that made the playoffs in 2017 is going to be left out. Denison is trying to extend its streak to three consecutive berths while Reedy, Lake Dallas, Lovejoy and Princeton all made it as well last fall and only four can advance.
Only three district opponents made it through the first two weeks without a loss — Reedy and Lake Dallas are 2-0 while Lovejoy is 1-0 after its game last Friday against Sulphur Springs was cancelled due to weather. On the flip side, Frisco, Braswell and Memorial are off to 0-2 starts.
The Jackets closed out non-district play with a 52-49 shootout loss against Burleson Centennial when the Spartans kicked a disputed field goal with 32 seconds left to provide the winning points. Denison fought back from a 14-point deficit in the second quarter to tie the game four times in the second half but could never pull ahead.
“We’ve already put that in the past. It was a hard-fought game,” senior running back Kyrion Rosser said. “Now we’re getting ready for Lebanon Trail and district. We plan on getting better every day and I feel we do that in practice.”
Jadarian Price led the way with 24 carries for 175 yards and four touchdowns, including the one that tied the game at 49 with 2:41 remaining. Rosser added 16 carries for 77 yards and two touchdowns and Cayden Earnhart caught a 34-yard TD pass from Cade Gordy as the Jackets finished with just over 450 yards.
Denison has scored 90 points through two games, the most since it had 123 through two games in 1995.
“What they’re doing right now is ahead of what I thought it’d be,” Rogers said. “There’s great attention to detail. You can see Cade getting better and better.”
But the defense struggled against Centennial’s flexbone attack, giving up more than 400 yards — 314 coming on the ground — and was unable to stop the Spartans in several long down-and-distances.
“Playing a team like that, you have to trust your teammates on defense and do your job. We always seem to have that one game and then we settle back down and do what we’re coached to do,” Rogers said. “I think they take it as a challenge that wasn’t us.”
Lebanon Trail is one of two brand-new Frisco schools in the district, joining Frisco Memorial, and kicked off its varsity program with a victory in the opener, 28-14, against Fort Worth Southwest.
The Trail Blazers then lost last week, 38-14, at Fort Worth Arlington Heights.
“They’re athletic. They’re obviously young — that’s a given,” Rogers said. “They fly to the ball. They have a lot of enthusiasm.”
Against Arlington Heights, Lebanon Trail was down 28-0 at half-time before returning an interception 48 yards for a score to get on the board and then was down 38-7 when Lucas Rexin had a seven-yard TD run with 4:09 remaining.
It was a balanced attack by Lebanon Trail with 150 yards passing and 130 rushing. Alec Zorrilla completed 10-of-15 attempts for 91 yards, Princeton Parker had 14 carried for 59 yards and Keaton Belew finished with five catches for 66 yards.
The Trail Blazers had three players throw at least three passes — in addition to Zorrilla and Rexin, Wilson Simons also saw time at quarterback.
It was the opposite of the first game when Rexin saw most of the snaps and was 15-of-23 for 156 yards with two touchdowns and an interception and led the team in rushing.
“You can tell they’re still moving kids around to find right fits,” Rogers said.
The defense has been pretty good for the first couple weeks of a first-year program, allowing 26 points and 348 yards per game and forcing three turnovers.