Brothers for life

Football players reflect on the year, their team, themselves

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Brothers for life

CB Jalen Nutt looks on during a 35-10 loss to Steele. Nutt finished the season with three interceptions.

CB Jalen Nutt looks on during a 35-10 loss to Steele. Nutt finished the season with three interceptions.

Danielle Esperiqueta

CB Jalen Nutt looks on during a 35-10 loss to Steele. Nutt finished the season with three interceptions.

Danielle Esperiqueta

Danielle Esperiqueta

CB Jalen Nutt looks on during a 35-10 loss to Steele. Nutt finished the season with three interceptions.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

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Months of preparation went into the Rangers’ 21-3 playoff loss this past week, all of it seemingly for naught. From an outsider’s perspective, wins are the only thing that seem to matter. But to those on the inside, to those actually playing games, there was something bigger.

“Knowing me and my teammates gave everything we got,” senior safety Mason Livingston said. “[We] left it all out on the field, [which] lets me rest easy, knowing we [gave] our all. That’s all I could ask [for] from my brothers.”

Livingston’s takeaway was the “brotherhood,” an atmosphere of camaraderie whose vitality was echoed by everyone from dominant linemen to a star receiver and everyone in between.

“It was scary, depressing, life changing,” senior defensive tackle Trey Witcher (4.5 sacks) said of his final season ending. “Knowing that [the Lake Travis] game [was] the last time I put on that Ranger jersey, played with [this] group of guys… It’s completely mind boggling. I’m speechless, no words can describe that feeling.”

Senior WR/RB Greg Eggleston, who paced the team with 1,695 total yards and 15 touchdowns, echoed Witcher’s sentiment, saying he’d “be very lucky if I find something like that on another team.”

And that was the consensus among every player I’ve spoken to: as much as they enjoyed what happened on the field, they loved what happened off of it even more. Head coach Larry Hill, who has coached at Smithson Valley for 27 years, agreed.

“What a great group of kids,” Hill said. “I don’t think we’ve ever really had a team that’s done it – the ‘it’ being the process – as well as this group. You start talking about attention to detail, attention in meetings, practicing a certain way, approaching the game at a certain level, and with a sense of maturity that most ball clubs don’t have. I’m not sure [if] in 27 years we’ve had one better.”

That dog-pound mentality – outwork, outmuscle, out-hustle – led to plenty of success for the Rangers. Despite playing six of 11 games against teams that went at least 8-2, the Rangers still managed to eke out a couple of big wins, including a 44-0 beatdown of District 27-6A champion San Antonio Madison (9-2, 1-0 in playoffs) and a 42-28 victory over New Braunfels (5-5) to lock in a playoff berth.

Up seven with the fourth quarter ticking away, Peyton Driggers and the Unicorns began marching down the field. They got as far as the Ranger 30-yard line before junior defensive end Trey Moore (four forced fumbles, two blocked punts) ripped the ball out of Driggers’ hands and rumbled 70 yards to pick up six points and a spot in the playoffs.

Both Eggleston and Moore counted the play among their favorite moments of the season. But the play isn’t what Moore will remember from this season. It’s how close the team was that will stick with him.

“Not to be cheesy, but [the most memorable part was] just how close the team was.,” Moore said. “We were all dedicated to a common goal, and we were in it together, more than any other team I’ve ever been apart of. So in that I will always cherish this season and this team.”

Aside from the pain of this season ending, Moore has another splinter to deal with. After starting on varsity last year as a sophomore, the graduation of his senior teammates now tasks him with being the eldest voice in the locker room.

“I’ve been playing with a lot of those guys for two years now,” he said. “There’s a bond created when you’re all involved in the commitment we had to the team and to each other. So in all honesty, that was probably the toughest part of [it] all.”

Senior running back Jacob Forton, whose team-leading 195 touches resulted in 929 yards and 10 touchdowns, also felt the weight of his final season coming to a close.

“It’s sad knowing that I won’t get to play with my brothers who I’ve been playing with since I was in elementary school,” Forton said.

Forton took a roundabout path to becoming the team’s starting halfback. Last season, blocked at the position by then-senior Marc Franco and current middle linebacker Darlington Frasch, Forton lined up at fullback and played well enough to earn all-district honors at the position. But that’s not where his heart was. 

“[Switching to halfback was] the transition I wanted,” Forton said. “I have always been a running back since youth football, and at fullback I felt like I never got the chance to show what I could do with the football.”

Well, he certainly showed what he could do this season. Hill called him “steady” and “punishing” and compared his reliability to “sun comes up, sun goes down.”

And that sunrise was certainly helped by heat lightning, in this case coming in the form of Eggleston. His struggles against Lake Travis aside – no running back could have success against that wide-nine formation – he was the most consistent big-play threat on the team, and that was evident throughout the season. 

“[Eggleston] gave us a level of explosiveness,” Hill said. “We didn’t have a ton of explosive plays, but he was at the heart of most of them. And to see him blossom as a player was neat to watch. He kinda had an injury-filled two years, moving around from position to position, and we finally got him where he seemed to fit, and he flourished.”

The former linebacker made a name for himself in contests against Hendrickson (11 touches, 219 yards, two touchdowns), Madison (10 touches, 182 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Canyon (11 touches, 232 yards, one touchdown), but his explosiveness carried a consistently inconsistent offense throughout much of the season. 

“I expected myself to play [well] and contribute a lot to the team, but I didn’t expect myself to do as well as I did,” Eggleston said.

As the season progressed, the senior took note, but never became complacent.

“I did realize [how well I was playing], and I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep getting better and better as the season went on,” Eggleston said.

As athletic as Eggleston is – according to his Hudl page, he runs a 4.38 second 40-yard dash – he was given plenty of help. An upperclassmen-laden offensive line was monstrously good all season, which contributed to an awe-inspiring 2,413 team rushing yards. 

“It’s really the end of an era for anyone who went all four years in the program,” senior center Taylor Brooks said. “People really don’t realize how much it means to us to get to strap on the blue and white and represent the school. You truly can’t understand or describe the brotherhood unless you’ve been in the room through it all.”

When discussing a team, most coaches will talk about the flashiest players, or the guys with the biggest numbers. But not coach Hill. He knew what his strengths were.

“You have a couple of linemen, [Taylor] Brooks and [Donny] Bell and [Ryan] Benca, who really played extremely well, played above themselves,” Hill said. “And of course, in [Brooks’] case, provided so much leadership for that group. Most people don’t start with the O-Line, but I thought those three guys were really instrumental.”

Instrumental they were. And those instruments were music to Luke Gombert’s ears. The senior quarterback had a unique skill set that was almost Kirk Cousins-y, in that he was a nominal pocket passer who spent an adverse amount of snaps working out of bootlegs. It worked pretty well, resulting in 1,261 passing yards and 11 touchdowns. But without a strong offensive line, the pressure can crater the confidence of even the most even-keeled of signal-callers. But not this offensive line, and not this quarterback. Gombert remained steady, and the line gave him plenty of time to run through his progressions.

“[Gombert] waited a long time for his opportunity at quarterback,” Hill said of the former ball boy. “He made some big throws for us.”

On the other side of the ball, someone who caught some big throws was Cullen Betsey. The senior cornerback led District 26-6A with five interceptions, including two against star Judson quarterback Mike Chandler II, but the accolades and achievements aren’t what stand out to Betsey. Like his teammates, he was just grateful for his brothers.

“I just realized how blessed I was to experience it all,” Betsey said. “I was sad it was over, but still grateful. I believe we have the best football program, because through it I’ve gained brothers that are with me for life, and I learned things from the coaches that will take me beyond just football.”

Betsey wasn’t alone back there. He was a cog in a greater wheel, with junior cornerback Jalen Nutt (three picks), Livingston (two picks), and senior safety Jackson Sennie (one forced fumble) combined to lead a devastating secondary that held opposing offenses to three or fewer scores six times. Hill was proud of “all those secondary guys.”

“Mason Livingston? I don’t know if anyone played their position as well as he played his position,” Hill said. “And Cullen Betsey and Jackson Sennie on the back end, you know, those safeties that we had on the back end… You mentioned [that] Jalen [played well], and I thought Blake Bowman at safety, as the year the year went on, his contributions got higher and higher and higher.”

Obviously, the front seven played a big role in that as well. Between contributions from Witcher, linebacker Tom Zeug (team-high 96 tackles), and Moore, running the ball seemed to be a lost cause for the opposing team just about every week.

Hill had plenty to say when discussing the strengths of his stars, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

“Trey Witcher being a three-year starter, being such a presence inside, a guy [other teams had to account for,” Hill said. “And he battled some injuries and illnesses, [but] when he was healthy, just being a force, like he was.

“Tom Zeug staying healthy all year [was big],” the coach said. “Being able to be out there all 11 games, making a move to middle linebacker once [Frasch] went down. He’s probably as complete a player as you’ll see out there.

“[Moore] is going to be one of the premier players around. He may already be that, but with another year, he’s gonna be really good.”

As well as this team played, all good things must come to an end. And this one is bittersweet. The players fought to get to where they are today, but the trial was not in vain. 

Somewhere, someday, two men are going to bump into each other in a parking lot. And the memories will flood back.

Someday, somewhere, a father is going to tell his son about how he picked off Michael Chandler II twice in the same game, or how he strip-sacked Peyton Driggers to make the playoffs.

Someday, somewhere, a grandfather will tell his grandchildren about the bonds he formed when he was still in high school.

And someday, somewhere, two old men will make eye contact in a retirement home, a flicker of recognition reminding them of how things had once been.

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