Talking conspiracy theories and District 5-3A

The tin foil crowd may have to find a new knock on Wylie because the conspiracy theories that have existed for decades about doctored enrollment numbers are starting to look silly. Or maybe I should say sillier, since the insinuation has never held any water.

But looking at the numbers turned in for Monday's UIL realignment, Wylie's reported enrollment of 940 puts the Bulldogs 50 students below the new 4A requirement of 990. And if that's not evidence enough, Wylie won't even be the biggest school in its new district. Big Spring, which dropped from 4A and was placed in District 5-3A with Wylie, Brownwood, Snyder and Sweetwater, turned in an enrollment of 974.

To put that in perspective, were Wylie and Big Spring to make the football playoffs next fall, Wylie would play in the Division II playoffs for the first time ever. And while you can argue about the logic of a school with 940 students playing in the "small school division," it may be time stop arguing that Wylie's hiding kids to stay 3A. Because it would take one heck of a big broom closet to fit 50 students.

On now to a lighter topic, District 5-3A may not cause the same reaction (dropping jaws and gasps) that the announcement of 2-3A did in 2009, but it should prove to be just as tough for the its football teams.

In Wylie, Brownwood and Snyder, you have what should be three quality playoff teams. Now add Big Spring, which won 10 games at the 4A level last season, and an improved Sweetwater club and whoever makes it out of district and into the playoffs will have certainly earned it.

Some of the coaches were frustrated that a five-team district will make things tough with scheduling non-district games, and they certainly have a point. But it could actually work out well for fans.

If the only teams willing to play our area 3A schools in the non-district are other successful 3A's struggling to find opponents and 4A schools, then we'll all have some great games to watch over the next two seasons. Of course, that's a moot point until the schools get their six nondistrict slots filled.

"Our district's going to be tough just like it always is," said Wylie coach Hugh Sandifer, who already secured a game with former district mate Graham. "I just hope we have more than one game to get ready for it." 

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The new and improved Matt Preston

Watching Wylie's 37-14 victory over Vernon on Friday, there were several things jumped out at me. But the thing that impressed me most was how much more comfortable Matt Preston looked under center this season.

That's not to downplay what Preston did last year, because I thought he did a good job in his first year as the team's starter. But he made some plays in the first start of his senior year that I'm not sure he had the confidence to make a year ago. In one half of football, Preston hit on 14 of 17 passes for 163 yards and two TDs and he added a nice 29-yard option keeper in the the second half to cap a fantastic 2009 debut.  

Sure, he has quite a few weapons to work with this year, and a brand new offensive line deserves a lot of credit for holding up as well it did against Vernon. But if this is what Wylie fans can expect the rest of the season out of their QB, they could be in for quite a treat this season.

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Sky's the limit for HSU

Long before practices started, I looked at what the Hardin-Simmons football team did last season, peeked at what the Cowboys had coming back and decided this may be the year the Cowboys topple Mary Hardin-Baylor and make a nice playoff run. And after watching the Cowboys dismantle Cisco College 46-7 in a camp-ending practice game Saturday, I'm convinced HSU may be the team to beat in the ASC. Obviously the Cowboys, who have dropped seven straight games to UMHB, will have to beat the Crusaders before they can entertain these types of thoughts. But it's clear from talking to the coaches and players and watching them work, that this year's team believes it has a big season ahead of it.

The Cowboys took care of business in their first intersquad action, with a strong performance against Cisco. Here are a few things that caught my eye from that scrimmage.

* In a half of work, senior quarterback Justin Feaster -- the preseason ASC offensive player of the year -- completed 15 of 22 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns while helping the Cowboys to a 26-7 halftime lead. The multi-talented Feaster showed once again his knack for ad-libbing and turning nothing into big plays.

* Hawaii transfer Daniel Lofton, the son of Hall of Famer James Lofton, is the real deal. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound receiver certainly looks the part, and judging from the four catches he made for 62 yards Saturday, including a nice touchdown grab on a 15-yard fade, he will join ZaVious Robbins and Justice Baker as nice weapons for Feaster.

* The team's defense looks improved. That unit showed massive improvement last year, and with eight starters back, it appears to ready to make the next step this season. HSU allowed just one first-quarter touchdown Saturday before settling in and bottling up the Wranglers.

* The Cowboys still need to find consistency at placekicker. Freshmen Scott Newberry and Alexander Wymore split time Saturday but combined to go just 4-of-7 on extra point attempts and didn't appear to have a whole lot leg behind their kickoffs.

* There was a nice crowd for a practice game. Fans nearly filled up the home side, which was kind of surprising considering it was just a scrimmage.

That's all I've got for now. But be sure to show up for the team's opener against Whitworth on Sept. 5. It should be a fun season.

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Where are they now?

The Hardin-Simmons football team will be getting a boost from a couple of former Big Country high school standouts this season, as former Clyde running back Curtis Kevil and former Cisco quarterback/safety Jacob West transferred to the school and participated in the team's first practice Thursday.

Kevil, a two-time all-Big Country selection who rushed for 3,762 yards and 42 TDs in three years as a starter at Clyde, will join the Cowboys after spending a year at Angelo State. The redshirt freshman will have to compete for time at running back with established sophomores Derrick Grant (83-547, 5 TDs) and Steven Rockwell (63-454, 4 TDs).

West, a two-time all-state selection who racked up 2,287 total yards and 35 total touchdowns as a senior quarterback at Cisco, is coming to Hardin-Simmons after walking on at Texas Tech as a true freshman in 2007 and spending his redshirt freshman season at Cisco Junior College. The sophomore will play safety for the Cowboys.  

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...when Bulldogs fly

Wylie football coach Hugh Sandifer hasn't made any bold statements about his offense this offseason, but a couple of his biggest weapons on that side of the ball seem to think that the Bulldogs may take to the air a little more often this season. That shouldn't surprise anyone considering the affinity Sandifer has for a balanced attack, but it could be fun to watch (even if it does push me up against my deadline a time or two).

In 2008, the Bulldogs ran the ball 67 percent of the time (483 rushes to 238 pass attempts). But they're returning a seasoned vet at quarterback in second-year starter Matt Preston (96-180-12, 12 TDs), a stable of versatile backs and standout receiver Austin Gray (14-311 and four TDs), so there's no reason they won't be able to test defenses through the air a little more this year.

At least that's what Gray's hoping.

"In the years past, we've been more of a run-oriented offense," he said. "But I think this year that we'll be able to open it up and teams won't know if we're going to run or pass because we've got threats in both aspects of the offense."

Sandifer has certainly never been afraid to call a pass play in crucial situations in the past and I'm sure he has always had full confidence in his personnel, but it has to be nice to have first-hand knowledge of what your players can do at the varsity level. After reaching the state quarterfinals last season making their first trip to the 7-on-7 state championships in College Station this summer, the players seem to have more confidence in their ability to move the ball through the air. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how that added confidence will manifest itself in game situations. 

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Wylie ... clap! clap! ... Bulldogs

After nearly a month of tracking down coaches and piecing together "football tab" stories, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most of my 20 or so assignments (all Pulitzer-worthy, I assure you) have been finished and are making their way onto pages. But if you think I can finally let out a sigh of relief, you're wrong.

In less than a week now, I'll be covering Wylie volleyball and in a little more than three weeks, I'll be watching coach Hugh Sandifer's Bulldogs from the plush new press box at Bulldog Stadium, which brings me to the topic of this blog. After covering Wylie football the past two seasons, I've been spoiled with all the great games I've gotten to watch. And with one great matchup after another on Wylie's schedule this year, suffice it to say I'm ready for some football. But as excited as I am about watching the Bulldogs' non-district rematches against Liberty Hill, Waco La Vega and Wolfforth Frenship and taking in Wylie's district games against Sweetwater, Snyder, Brownwood and Graham, I may be even more excited about the Bulldog Stadium additions and the new press box accomodations.

Don't get me wrong, getting to watch those kinds of matchups is one reason I got into sports writing. But having a little more room to work will be as nice for me as getting to sit in those sweet stadium seats and watching the replays on that massive jumbotron will be for fans. As much as I enjoyed sitting in the visiting side stands in the past when the four-person press area was full and being subjected to uber-professional visiting radio crews when a seat was available, I think I'll be able to get used to watching a game without some of the outstanding commentary I've absorbed over the past two seasons.

But all kidding aside, I can see why those affiliated with Wylie are proud of their "new" stadium. And I look forward to spending the next several seasons getting used to the new press box view.

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No place like home

Well we're finally back in Abilene, and I'm not sure I've ever been happier to see this place. Trying to sleep in a bus, with your head against a window without a pillow is no easy task. My neck may be sore for awhile. Tommy Metthe, our photographer, didn't seem to have as much trouble sleeping, although his snoring may have slightly hindered others' ability to do so.

While I was very glad to get home, I have to say that this trip has been a lot of fun and a learning experience. I definitely appreciate the team's front office, coaches and players letting us tag along and to get a glimpse at what they do on a weekly basis as part of the Indoor Football League.

It is a shame, though, that the game got as out of control as it did. I have to agree with Riders coach Gerald Dockery that the refs let that one get away from them. I've commented several times to different people that they let guys get away with way too much jawing and shoving after plays in this league and for the first time in the four games I've covered, that stuff escalated into something much bigger. When you have 11 personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, six ejections (including two for one person, oddly enough) and a player punching an official, you've got a major problem.

During the Riders' team meetings on Friday, Dockery talked to his players about keeping their cool and not allowing themselves to be provoked by the Hammerheads' extracurricular activity. I think both teams would say they would have preferred to do a better job in that area. Randy Hymes, a former NFL receiver who caught a pair of touchdown passes for Abilene Saturday, gave a great speech to his teammates on that subject after the game in the locker room. I thought that showed great leadership, especially for a guy that's only been with the team a few weeks.

I'll close with a little clarification from Sunday morning's game story about the Corpus Christi player that punched the referee. I didn't get a great look at it. In fact no one really seemed to see the whole thing unfold, but after talking to several of the players on the bus after the game, I have a much better idea of what happened. After being ejected for a post-play cheap shot on the Ruff Riders second drive, Corpus Christi's 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive lineman Eli Abraham came back onto the field after a Hammerhead field goal was blocked on their next possession. He floored the umpire with a shot to the face and shoved another official before being ejected for a second time. After spending a couple of minutes on the ground, the umpire seemed to be OK and he finished the game. But just a play or two after the incident, he was called off the field to talk to police officers before returning shortly thereafter. I think Abraham may have bigger problems than IFL ejections in his future. 

Well I need to wrap this up because it's almost seven and I'm really tired. I'm back in my own bed, and I may stay there awhile. I hope you all enjoyed this account of our trip as much as I enjoyed getting to spend some time with Coach Dockery, his staff and all the Ruff Riders players.

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Our arrival

I missed the team meetings at 10 a.m. today but I did manage to catch the bus and make it to the arena, which was my biggest focus. We had lunch (salad, garlic bread and pasta salad) when we arrived and the players and coaches have just been hanging out since.

The arena Corpus Christi plays is on the fair grounds out here and it's more or less a glorified horse barn. From talking to some of the players, I think they feel pretty good about their set up at the Taylor County Coliseum. The Hammerheads home arena has bleachers in each end zone (but only utilizes those in one of them) and on the side opposite of the team areas. The ceiling, which angles up on each side to a point in the middle, has low hanging pipes and air vents that will surely be a factor in the kicking game. Riders kicker Nich Pertuit, who kicked here earlier this season and studied the set up when he arrived at the arena, said this is not his favorite place to kick because of the challenges the low ceilings provide.

The Ruff Riders "locker room" is much worse than the arena, however. The visiting team has to dress in a curtained off square in an adjacent building. I'm not sure if it has air conditioning or not but if it does, I don't think they've turned it on.

The Hammerheads facilities may not be top notch, but I've been told their fans are. Riders offensive line coach Robert Beebe said the Corpus Christi fans are some of the best in the league. That should make for a fun atmosphere tonight, considering how many times I've heard coaches and players, especially safety Joey Longoria, talk about how much trash talking the Hammerheads' players and coaches do.

With three more hours until game time, I guess I'll be sitting tight for awhile. But stay tuned, I'm sure things will start getting interesting once the Riders start warming up and the Corpus players arive. 

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Crawdaddy's and long walks on the beach

After spending the day on a bus with the Ruff Riders players, Tommy and I got a taste of the Corpus Christi cuisine this evening with the team's coaching staff. Gerald Dockery and his staff members graciously invited us to dinner, and man can those gentlemen eat! We went to a Cajun restaurant called Crawdaddy's and as a Shreveport, La., native that was right up my alley.

A half tray of SPICY crawfish, sausage, potatoes and corn was plenty for me, but Dockery and offensive line coach Robert Beebe opted for and conquered the crawfish feast, a full tray of the same great food. In fact Dockery ended up taking on food others couldn't finish. It was a performance Man Vs. Food host Adam Richman would have been proud of.

After dinner, which gave us a good chance to get to know the guys who roam the Abilene sidelines every Saturday, we walked to the pier to get a good look at Corpus' ocean view. About three steps out onto the pier I found myself calling my wife to plant the seed for a 2010 Corpus vacation.

We hung out there for about an hour and half, and after the coaches got a chance to walk down the pier and get some pictures of the ocean, Dockery and some of his staff members, who had made quick friends with a couple of kids who were fishing there, grabbed the poles and did some fishing of their own. Only Dockery caught anything, and the one tiny fish he caught brought more ridicule than praise from his assistants. The fish, which Dockery jokingly said would render "a fish nugget" if cooked, was thrown back and spared its life. But Dockery wasn't spared some good-natured ribbing.

It's obvious the Riders' staff is close-knit and the coaches all get along. It's fun watching them interact because they have no problem ripping on each other or laughing at themselves.  

As a blogging novice, I don't know all the rules yet. But I think we're supposed to keep these things pretty short, so I'll wrap this up now. The team has meetings at 10 a.m. tomorrow and will eat their pregame meal at 3 p.m. I'm just focusing on catching the bus when it leaves the hotel tomorrow. I might get into some trouble if I miss the game.

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The newest Ruff Rider

Reporter-News photographer Tommy Metthe and I weren't the only ones making our first road trip with the Ruff Riders Friday. The seven-hour bus ride to Corpus Christi was also a first for John Machado, who will be donning the red and black for the first time Saturday against the Hammerheads.

Machado, a defensive end out of Iowa State who played in the Indoor Football League for the now defunct CenTex Barracudas in 2008, was introduced to his new teammates right before the bus left for Corpus.

"It's always exciting to be part of a team, and this is a good team from what I saw and what I read about them," Machado said. "I'm just real excited to play."

Machado, who recorded 34 tackles and 6.5 sacks for the Belton-based Barracudas last season, joined the Ruff Riders after completing his school year as a high school science teacher in Miami.

"I work as a teacher at home and when my job was with and everybody at the high school graduated and I was out of a job for the summer," he said. "So I decided to play football." 

Machado said Friday's bus ride didn't give him much time to talk with his new teammates. But he doesn't think he'll need a long transition time before he can start making a difference on the field.

"Arena football is pretty simple as far as defense goes," he said. "It's a lot of the same things. It's pretty simple concepts."

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