The personnel appears to be in place for a solid 2017 push as Midland Trail tries to end a postseason drought that stretches back to 2008.
The Midland Trail roster features a "good group of kids" with "high energy" and "great attitude," says third-year head coach Frank Isaacs.
And things started off well in August. In talking with his fellow coaches, Isaacs said the team has had "probably the best practices we've had the three years that we've been here," adding that the staff is "very excited."
Reflecting on a so-so 2016 season that ended at 5-5, Isaacs said the Patriots didn't make the proper adjustments to maintain momentum from a 6-4 finish in his first year as head coach.
"Everybody says your second year is going to be easier than your first," said Isaacs. "I want to disagree with that.
"We had some success our first year."
The 2016 campaign, though, was a little more of a struggle. "Our second year, we had to battle complacency, with the players as well as the coaches," said Isaacs. "We learned that we weren't as good as we thought we may have been."
It all started at the top, he admitted.
"As a coaching staff, we had to work a little better to bring the best out of the kids," said Isaacs. "We probably didn't do a great job of that, and that's all on me."
"I learned that I have to keep learning, and I've done that this year," Isaacs continued. "I learned I had to be a better manager of individuals.
"That was a tough thing for me to actually learn, because I'm a hard-headed guy."
A "very young" coaching staff (with Isaacs and assistant head coach Jason Russell being the most experienced) is continually adjusting, the boss said. "We are so much better off this year, attitude-wise and experience-wise, because they are learning."
On the field, the Patriots will have multiple weapons from which to choose.
"Our entire backfield, all of our skill players, are back, with the exception of the quarterback," Isaacs said. Leading the ground corps is senior back Thomas Ferris, who amassed over 1,200 yards last fall. Isaacs said he expects Ferris to be stronger and more durable, and he said the offense will utilize Ferris more in different positions.
"We feel like we're pretty settled in there (quarterback), as well, with Austin Isaacs," the coach said. "He's taken a leadership role ... and he's probably given us a little bit of athleticism that we didn't have in the past."
The play in the trenches is always important, and Isaacs is confident with the guys who will be blocking for Ferris and crew.
"Our offensive line is tough; we're big, we're strong and we're actually pretty athletic," Isaacs said. Leading the way will be junior Trevor Harrell.
Harrell is "doing a great job of being the leader at center this year. He was thrown into that mix last year as a sophomore. He played well, but didn't lead well. This year, he's really taken that leadership role seriously."
Two other returning senior starters — Dillon Brasse and Levi Lesher — will also help anchor the line play. And junior Hunter Jones will be counted on for solid contributions. "We're pretty set on the offensive line."
Midland Trail must see improved play from its largely-untested linebacker corps this year. In 2016, losing linebacker Todd Neal to injury in the second quarter of the first game "was a huge hit," Isaacs said.
The defensive line must improve, too.
"If we had played better defense at times last year, we may have been setting at 7-3 instead of 5-5," said Isaacs. "That's no fault of anybody."
Isaacs said having to rely on some younger players last year for leadership posed problems at times.
"Honestly, it's hard to put a 15-year-old kid in a leadership role (and trying to lead older players). It's hard on both sides. There are some kids that are leaders and some that are followers; it's hard to follow a kid that's 15 years old."
At one point, Isaacs said he was a little disappointed with the way preparations for 2017 were unfolding.
"We were very upset during the offseason because I wasn't seeing them as much in the weightroom." That led coaches to question the players' loyalty and commitment to the program, said Isaacs.
It took Isaacs' wife, Michelle, to help put things in perspective. "My wife, the wise woman she is, ... she puts me in check sometime," said Isaacs. "You are doing what you set out to do," she told her husband.
And that was to instill in the players "to be men, to own up to responsibilities and be productive citizens of society," he said. "They're working, they're helping mom and dad, they're out earning a job and paying for vehicles and insurance ....and I can't fault them.
"We've been preaching you do the little things right, the big things will happen. They are doing the little things right; they're being men."
Now, it's time to show progress on the field and erase some of the lingering disappointment from 2016.
"We shouldn't have been 5-5 last year," said Isaacs. "We just didn't do a great job of taking advantage of some luck that was provided for us.
"This year we will do that."
And it all starts with the Aug. 25 season opener at Hico versus Independence.
"We're going out and we've got one game, we're playing the Independence Patriots," Isaacs said. "One game up, one game down."
In their first preseason scrimmage, the Patriots triumphed over Calhoun County. According to Isaacs, Hunter Darby, Noah Minor, Todd Neal, Austin Isaacs and Cordell Lesher "all were impressive on offense." Defensively, Nathan Hanshew, Trevor Harrell, Hunter Jones and Samuel Dickerson played well.
He said the team was "aggressive and hit well. We were very physical."
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