A thunder(bird)ous opener

Football will open district play Friday against Wagner

The+offensive+line+sets+up+against+Harker+Heights.+Football+will+kick+off+district+play+this+Friday+at+Wagner.

Colin Schreckenbach

The offensive line sets up against Harker Heights. Football will kick off district play this Friday at Wagner.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

District 27-6A is pretty tough. Six teams are squabbling over four playoff spots, and football opens their season against arguably the most intriguing of that group: the Wagner Thunderbirds.

Wagner is an interesting squad, to say the least. They cleared the class 6A enrollment cutoff of 2,200 students by 133 students, and were thus realigned into the state’s highest bracket.

It’s an unfortunate turn of events for the Thunderbirds, who won 13 games in each of the past two seasons in class 5A, including a state semifinal loss to the preeminent Alvin Shadow Creek. Now, they’ll bring their triple-option attack to the ‘Little SEC’, where their battle-tested offense will face its toughest challenge yet.

“Well, it’s tough, because you don’t see it,” head coach Larry Hill said of his soon-to-be-foe’s offense. “You see it in the Army-Navy game every December, and then other than that you don’t see it.

“To be different and off-schedule is one thing. To be different and off-schedule, and well-coached and well-drilled and well-disciplined on doing it, that’s another thing. And then all of that and to have talented athletes running it, that’s yet another thing. It’s just like any other offense: ‘Okay, even if you defended well, can you tackle those kids in space? And obviously, 13 times each season, the last couple of years, no one’s been able to do that.”

The offense is headed by a couple of upperclassmen who have started since their respective freshman years: junior quarterback Isaiah Williams and senior running back LJ Butler. Williams, who compiled over 1,500 total yards last season, is a multi-sport athlete who has excelled as the Thunderbirds’ signal caller. But it’s Butler who will draw the headlines. And it’s not his two straight seasons with over 2,000 yards rushing; it is, unfortunately, the off-field drama.

Judson ISD’s rules state that students can attend whichever district school they want to. Butler, then, used that loophole to transfer from Wagner to Judson. But the District Executive Committee shut him down, along with fellow would-be Rocket and former Brandeis quarterback Jordan Battles. Both players appealed to the UIL, and both were shut down.

Battles transferred to Holy Cross, the private school his father attended when he was in high school. Butler went back to Wagner, where he is eligible to play and has apparently mended his relationships with the teammates he left behind.

The coronavirus forcing an abbreviated offseason may be a blessing in disguise, as the experienced Thunderbird roster gets to keep the good times rolling without much personnel turnover.

And that offense is dangerous: a triple-option attack, a rarity and any level but especially in the increasingly spread-heavy 27-6A.

“We’re seeing something we’re not familiar with, [that] we haven’t defended lately [and] we won’t defend again the rest of the year,” Hill said. “[They’ve] got a four-year starter and three-year starter executing it. So it’s a tall order.”

However, that isn’t to say everything is sunshine and roses for the Thunderbirds and their seven returning starters. The defense gave up 30+ points in a third of their games last year, and although they shut out all but one district foe (Veterans Memorial), their slate of opponents is much tougher now.

Hill’s squad enters the game with the district’s highest point differential and a 2-0 record after beating two incumbent playoff teams by 18 and 25 points, respectively. But continued resilience is key. Garrett Brooks broke his leg in the second quarter of the Madison game, an injury which will sideline him for most if not all of the season. Kyler Clarke hasn’t played since his impressive week one performance. And the offensive line is starting their third configuration in as many weeks. But if Jalen Nutt and Gabe Hoskins can continue to frustrate defenses like they have all season, and the defense can force another turnover or two, this should be a comfortable victory for the Rangers.