Football preview for District 23-6A:
Depending on the day until they meet, choosing between Alief Hastings and Pearland as the district frontrunner could be a difficult task. Continuity is on Hastings' side - head coach David Martel enters his sixth season at the helm - but the Bears also return 23-6A's Offensive MVP (quarterback Javon Williams) and Defensive MVP (defensive end Jevon Leon). Williams accounted for 22 touchdowns as a junior. The biggest strength however, is an experienced defense led by Leon and defensive backs Ja'Corey Benjamin and Derred Wiltz. Road games against both Pearland and George Ranch won't make a second straight district title easy, but Hastings finally looks to be in position to be an annual contender.
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Next in line
Pearland continued its winning ways with an interim coach in 2017, and the 18-year playoff streak shouldn't end despite the Oilers' third head coach in three years. Ricky Tullos, who led George Ranch to a state championship in its fourth varsity season, takes over for James Farmer, who led Pearland to a 5-4 campaign in 2017 after he replaced longtime coach Tony Heath (195 wins from 1997-2016). There's plenty of talent for Tullos' power spread offense, including running back Jaelin Benefield, a three-year starter, and quarterback Austin Landry. Eight offensive starters return in all and how quickly the unit adjusts to a new system will determine how high the Oilers finish in the standings.
Though both Hastings and Pearland are early favorites, neither is head and shoulders above the rest of the league. That means an upset win or rivalry matchup could determine a champion. Enter the Dawson Eagles, who usher in the Mike Allison era. The Eagles' former defensive coordinator returns after a three-year stint with Clear Brook, replacing Eric Wells, now the Pearland ISD assistant athletic director. Six starters return on offense, while five are back on defense. Of those, the x-factor is senior Mason Pierce. He had 662 receiving yards in 2017 but is dynamic everywhere - Pierce was last season's All-Purpose Player of the Year.
Best of the rest
George Ranch is just three years removed from a Class 5A-DI state championship and made a successful jump to 6A with consecutive playoff appearances. The streak should continue but will come under a new head coach - former Terry defensive coordinator Nick Cavallo replaced Tullos, now at Pearland. And having 16 total returning starters back also helps. Newcomer Strake Jesuit comes over from its former Katy ISD-centric home, but does so with two playoff appearances in the previous three seasons. The Crusaders do return their top passer (Michael Hansen), rusher (Michael Wiley) and receiver (Thomas Gordon).
Players to watch
Thomas Gordon, Sr., TE, Strake Jesuit
Gordon is Strake Jesuit's and arguably the district's top target, totaling 27 catches for 455 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior is verbally committed to Northwestern, but also holds offers from not only top schools across the country, but also a number of Ivy League institutions (Harvard, Princeton and Yale).
Shea Whiting, Sr., WR, Alief Taylor
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound wideout is the latest in a line of recruits headed to the next level, following in the footsteps of 2017 teammates Brennan Eagles (Texas) and Joseph Ogunbanjo (Cal). Whiting had 556 yards and seven touchdowns receiving as a junior and should only see an increase with quarterback Charlie McFarland also back.
Jaelin Benefield, Sr., RB, Pearland
A shifty tailback, Benefield has been one of the constants during the coaching changes. He ran for 663 yards and seven scores as a sophomore and earned all-district first-team honors in 2017. With a new offensive scheme coming over with Tullos, expect Benefield to see lots of touches for the Oilers.
Games to watch
Hastings vs. Cypress Falls
6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, Pridgeon
The Bears went from two wins to district champions, and have the pieces in the place to make another run for a title. They'll get an early road test in Week 2 against a Cypress Falls program that features an explosive offense and is projected to make a run at the District 17-6A crown.
George Ranch at Strake Jesuit
7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2
With Hastings and Pearland picked to be atop the 23-6A standings, two playoff spots are left for contenders like the Longhorns, Crusaders and Dawson. Strake Jesuit will put its offense - led by Northwestern-commit Thomas Gordon - up against a George Ranch defense led by Peter Mpagi (Texas verbal commit).
Dawson vs. Pearland
7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, TDECU Stadium
One of Greater Houston's youngest rivalries has quickly become one of the area's most intriguing, as the battle is more brotherly competition than it is hated combatants. Pearland won the first two games, but Dawson evened the series with 34-32 and 38-35 wins the last two seasons.
The coaching carousel seems to pick up more and more every offseason. Half of the district's eight head coaches are new to their helms, with all four likely to be involved in the league's playoff race. Not all are brand new to their programs - Strake Jesuit promoted offensive coordinator Klay Kubiak while Mike Allison returned to Dawson where he was the longtime defensive coordinator. Tullos remains in the district, moving to Pearland from George Ranch. Nick Cavallo takes over the Longhorns following five years as an assistant at Terry.