by Chad McDuffee
When the Ballinger Bearcats take the field against The Brady Bulldogs on Friday, August 31st they will be a much different team than the one that ended the season with a 41-13 loss against Cisco. Despite what the final score was this was a slugfest for three quarters when the Lobos experience began to wear the Bearcats down.
Multi-year standouts Jace King, Divad Briones-Mata and Caleb Ornelaz are now gone. After playing for three different Head Coaches in their high school careers they have passed the torch on to the returning Bearcats ready for some continuity. The coaching staff returns mostly intact, while bringing on defensive line coach Greg Vaughn from Brady.
After losing a player such as Jace King that has been named to the all-district offensive and defensive 1st team four years in a row, or losing a player like Divad Briones-Mata, who was the Bearcats center and a standout defensive lineman for the last three seasons you would expect some drop off. This year, however, might be the exception to the rule.
Last year, due to a smaller than usual Senior class the Bearcats had to move up a large number of Sophomores. Headlining that group of upcoming Juniors is do it all playmaker, Edgar Nunez. As a Sophomore Edgar was Ballinger’s third leading rusher, second leading receiver and finished the season at quarterback where he performed admirably against Cisco. Edgar is in the conversation for the best receiver on the team, but he will start the season at quarterback. It would be easy to lock him in if you didn’t know who the other quarterback was. Super Sophomore and transfer from Brady, Tyler Vaughn, is slated to be the Bearcats other quarterback to start the year. All Vaughn did was start at quarterback for the Brady Bulldogs last season while completing 60% of his passes. Both feats would be impressive on their own, that he did that while being a Freshman is doubly impressive. Expect to see both quarterbacks early and often for the Bearcats.
Cooper Bean also returns for the Bearcats after a terrific Sophomore season that had him named as the District Newcomer of the Year. Bean led the Bearcats in rushing yards on offense while also leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks.
Also returning for the Bearcats is Senior Jayden Rivera-McDuffee. Jayden is two years removed from an ACL injury that saw him miss his entire Sophomore season after he injured his knee two days before Ballinger’s first game, where he was slotted to be the Bearcats starter at running back. In his first year back from injury Jayden was the Bearcats third leading tackler, third in tackles for loss and second on the team in sacks behind Bean. Jayden was also one of just four Bearcats, and the only returning player, to record an interception on the season. With a pick returned for a score against Eldorado in the Bearcats second scrimmage he has proved that he still has a nose for the ball. Jayden recorded these stats despite missing three games and parts of two more. Now fully healthy, expect he and Cooper Bean to give the Bearcats a serious combination on defense as well as offense.
Adolph Medina and Ashton ‘Smiley’ Belk will be returning as starters on offense and defense after turning in all-district seasons last year. Adolph is a do it all player on both sides of the line while Belk will be continuing as the Bearcats center and an outside linebacker. Both players are long and athletic, which is very important in Coach Marvin Wilson’s primarily 3-4 defense.
Ballinger will again move up some Sophomores, but this time it’s not as much out of necessity. When your best players on Junior Varsity are Freshman there isn’t much left for them to prove in their second year. On top of huge contributions on the gridiron players like JoeMarcus Contreras-Guerrero and Weston Rollwitz were also Area Track qualifiers as Freshman. They along with players like Adam Winn and Eric Toliver look to give the Bearcats an infusion of talent from the underclass. Winn looks to be a starter on both sides of the line as a Sophomore. This is a tall task, but he has talent to back it up. Winn is strong enough to throw the shotput for Ballinger, but a true athlete, he also runs the 300 meter hurdle as a lineman.
Ballinger will open the season on the road against a young, but expectedly improved Brady Bulldog team. Their next two contests will be against Reagan County and then Colorado City, coming off an 11-2 season, before they open district against favorite Cisco. Each game looks to be a step up in difficulty from week to week for the Bearcats. Outside of Cisco there is no clear cut top two team in the district at this point. Merkel can make a claim, but after heavy losses last season they have had to move dynamic athlete Jonah White from receiver to quarterback. It is good for the Badgers to have the ball in White’s hands every play, but they don’t seem to have anyone that can replicate his skillset outside. The scariest place for an opposing DB last season was covering White on an island. Without that threat DB’s will be able to play more man to man defense while putting another defender in the box to stop him. Ballinger also won’t play Merkel until the last Friday of October. By that point there will be a lot of wear and tear on the new QB as it looks like the plan in Merkel is to ride him for as long as he can carry them.
Four other opponents on the Bearcat district schedule, Grape Creek, TLCA, Coleman and Bangs, have a combined eight wins returning from a season ago. TLCA had wins over 2A Winters in a 7-6 mud bowl contest, now 6-man Bronte and Grape Creek. Grape Creek had wins over Baird 3-0, in a weather shortened game, and Tornillo. Colemans most impressive win was over 3-7 Dublin, but they were also able to beat 0-10 Brady, as well as 0-10 Bangs. Outside of Cisco, Merkel and Ballinger the only other team that looks to be a contender for a playoff spot at this time is Anson, who is coming off a 5-6 season, but it is yet to be seen how the Tigers are able to hold up under their move to 3A this season.
All in all it looks to be a very exciting season for the Bearcats. Follow BallingerNews.com for every game throughout the season as we cover your Ballinger Bearcats from the opening kickoff all the way to the final whistle of the year.