Five teams in the newly-created District 8-5A combined for eight wins in the playoffs last season.
Only four teams, however, can make the playoffs.
Killeen and Waco Midway, which combined for seven of the eight postseason wins, moved up from 4A to 5A in the University Interscholastic League’s realignment in February to join a handful of former 12-5A mainstays to create a monster Central Texas district.
“I spent five years of my coaching career as a head coach and four as an assistant coach in the Little Southwest Conference out in West Texas,” Temple head coach Mike Spradlin said.
“I think this district right now shakes up — as far as my coaching career — to be one of the toughest races I’ve seen. ... I think our district got much tougher with the addition of Killeen High and the addition of Midway.”
The UIL moved A&M Consolidated and Bryan into a Conroe-based district in Southeast Texas and threw Killeen and Midway, rivals in District 8-4A before the jump in classification, into 8-5A with Belton, Copperas Cove, Ellison, Harker Heights, Shoemaker and Temple, bringing classic rivalries and meaningful intra-city games back to Friday nights in Central Texas.
Midway and Copperas Cove, both reigning district champions, are considered the favorites in the new district, but after that, any of the six remaining teams have cases to be made.
“I think up and down the line, everybody has an opportunity to be in the playoffs. This district, to me, is very tough, very strong,” Copperas Cove head coach Jack Welch said. “The coaching staffs in this district are very strong, very powerful.
“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult for a team to go through the district season undefeated and it’s going to be a real battle to get into the playoffs because I think everybody’s so even.”
Belton, Harker Heights, Killeen and Temple are expected to fight it out for the final two playoff spots. Shoemaker, which snapped a 31-game losing streak in the season finale last season, and Ellison are expected to finish seventh and eighth.
“I think this is a year that a 5-2 might win it and three people may be tied at 4-3,” Belton coach Rodney Southern said. “A potential 3-4 might get you in. ... I think it’s going to be an interesting year district-wise.”
After winning its first outright district championship since 2008, Copperas Cove won a dramatic 48-47 bi-district playoff game against Mesquite Horn and returns 10 starters from last year’s 10-2 team, including linebacker Darius McClinton and an experienced offensive line led by Israel Hamm.
Midway, which shared the District 8-4A title with Stephenville and Waco, returns a trio of talented skill players — quarterback Kramer Robertson, running back B.J. Kelly and receiver Hunter Jarmon — but need to rebuild its offensive line and defense if its’ going to find success in 5A that measures against last year’s Division I-4A state finalist team which finished 13-2.
The final two playoff berths will likely come down to the three other teams that made the playoffs last season — Belton, Killeen and Temple — and a Harker Heights team that appears poised for a playoff return and features a pair of University of Texas commitments in Naashon Hughes and Darius James.
Offensively, the Tigers, who made their third-straight playoff appearance last season, are led by quarterback Peter Shelburne, receiver Derick Bates and Texas-committed tight end Durham Smythe.
But the Tigers’ greatest strength could be their defense, which returns six all-district starters from last year’s unit, including linebacker Ryan Stinson.
The Kangaroos made the playoffs for the fourth straight year and reached the Division I-4A regional round last season but, like Midway, have to replace their offensive line and the bulk of the defense.
“Our kids are hungry and they love to win and we’ve got new competition. We picked up some schools that we haven’t played, teams like Temple and Belton,” said Killeen coach Sam Jones. “I think they’re ready for the challenge. They’re excited about it because we get to play everybody and now it counts.”