Circle Oct. 20 on your calendar. That’s when China Spring makes the short trip to Bellmead to take on La Vega.

The Pirates have won the district the last two years. In the 2015 playoffs, it was La Vega that topped China Spring in the regional final. A year ago, it was the Cougars who returned the favor.

Both squads have plenty of experience and talent returning. The Pirates welcome back Jamal Williams under center, who has started at quarterback on varsity since halfway through his freshman year. For China Spring, Cayden Johnson will be the starting QB. After the performance he put on during 7-on-7, China Spring’s offense looks ready to roll.

Liberty Hill finished only one game behind the Cougars last season. The Panthers — with a salty defense and talented secondary — willfi ght to battle La Vega and China Spring for the top spot.

China Spring Cougars

  • LAST SEASON — 13-2 (4-1)
  • RETURNING STARTERS — 5 offensive, 6 defensive
  • COACH MARK BELL — 202-100-1 at China Spring

All-time: 366-284-7 since 1954

Playoff history: 32-26 in 27 appearances, most recently 2016; 1 state championship (1978)

Base offense: Multiple I

Base defense: 3-4

Outlook: Mark Bell said his team has what will become the biggest surprise in Central Texas. After helping the Cougars to the semifinals of the state 7-on-7 tournament in June, Bell believes it won’t take long before everyone else takes notice of quarterback Cayden Johnson.

“He’s throwing the ball extremely well,” Ball said of his quarterback. “He’s got a big, strong arm. He’s going to be a big impact at quarterback. We’re really excited about him.”

Johnson started off two-a-days a year ago working at quarterback. Then, as Johnson put it, he “kind of just stopped.”

“I started back up at quarterback again this year,” Johnson said. “Playing in 7-on-7 was a big help. I performed decent, I guess. It just helped out.”

And from there he began throwing praise to his receivers, like tight end Tyrick James, a Tulane commit who hauled in 11 touchdown passes last year.

According to James, he was expecting to be China Spring’s quarterback in the spring. But then Johnson lit things up in 7-on-7.

“He was unbelievable,” James said. “He didn’t even think he’d be quarterback. He surprised basically everybody. We’ve definitely got that quarterback-receiver connection.”

Defensively, LB Brayden Mathis, an Air Force pledge, has led the team in tackles each of the past two years.

China Spring returns 27 lettermen from a 2016 campaign that ended in the state semifinals.

“We’re excited to get back out on the field and redeem ourselves,” Bell said. “We’ve got a lot of great kids coming back on this year’s team, and have some great young men to coach.”

Schedule

9/1 at Lorena 7:30

9/8 Huntsville 7:30

9/15 Cameron Yoe 7:30

9/22 at Troy 7:30

9/29 Fairfield 7:30

10/13 at Burnet 7:30*

10/20 at La Vega 7:30*

10/27 Gatesville 7:30*

11/3 at Liberty Hill 7:30*

11/10 Lampasas 7:30*

gatesville

Gatesville’s Austin Lee (left to right), Kipp Gellasch, T.J. Miller and Elaidjo Cedillo.

Gatesville Hornets

  • LAST SEASON — 4-6 (1-4)
  • RETURNING STARTERS — 6 offensive, 7 defensive
  • COACH KYLE COOPER — 53-55 at Gatesville

All-time: 483-431-32 since 1913

Playoff history: 19-16 in 17 trips, most recently in 2015; 1 state championship

Base offense: Multiple

Base defense: 4-3

Outlook: Hornet Fight never dies. That’s what the Gatesville football program is all about.

And it was evident on an August Friday night in Central Texas, after the band wrapped up its practice in a parking lot across the street and the stadium lights flickered on. The Hornets took the field for a Midnight Madness practice as members of the community gathered in the stands, on the track and around the fence.

“This is a community,” coach Kyle Cooper said. “Community is a lot like family. Sometimes you just love each other for who you are. You accept each other. We’ve got a brand of kid, and they’re bought into it. They play hard. The effort is always there, no matter the talent pool.”

Coming off a 4-6 season, Gatesville returns more than double (22) the amount of lettermen lost (nine). Plenty of seniors make up that total and compose the nucleus of this 2017 squad.

“We’ve got eight kids who started for our regional finalist team two years ago,” Cooper said. “Those kids are back. … We’ve got a great group of senior guys who are really excited.”

Beyond the senior class, Cooper went on to note that there are a host of kids he is excited to see suit up for the Gatesville varsity.

Back under center is quarterback Jett Truss, who finished with 1,236 yards passing, 823 yards rushing and 27 total touchdowns last season. WR Derrick Bayer should be a top target again.

“We feel like the strength of our team is up front on both sides,” Cooper said. “Our offensive line is as good as it’s been in my 11 years here. They’re a really exciting bunch.”

Schedule

9/1 Connally 7:30

9/8 at Cameron Yoe 7:30

9/15 University 7:30

9/22 at Hillsboro 7:30

9/29 Robinson 7:30

10/13 at Lampasas 7:30*

10/20 Burnet 7:30*

10/27 at China Spring 7:30*

11/3 at La Vega 7:30*

11/10 Liberty Hill 7:30*

La Vega Pirates

  • LAST SEASON — 13-1 (5-0)
  • RETURNING STARTERS — 6 offensive, 5 defensive
  • COACH WILLIE WILLIAMS — 200-68-2 at La Vega

All-time: 596-359-28 since 1932

Playoff history: 42-29 in 31 trips, most recently 2016; 1 state championship (2015)

Base offense: Spread

Base defense: 4-3

Outlook: For La Vega, it’s all about the mental aspect of the game. It’s about focus and execution.

“That’s something we’ve been doing for a while,” coach Willie Williams said. “We want to get the kids where they can execute and not make mental mistakes. They will have physical breakdowns. They may get beat off the line by the person across the line from them, but that mental capacity is what we’re really concerned about.”

The Pirates return 25 lettermen, including six offensive starters and five defensive starters, from last year’s squad that advanced to the regional finals.

The Pirates will be experienced in the skill positions, especially in the backfield with quarterback Jamal Williams (1,718 yards passing, 529 yards rushing for 24 total touchdowns) joined by running backs John Richards (1,564 yards rushing for 20 touchdowns) and Cameron Henry (979 yards rushing for eight touchdowns).

“Right now in the offensive line we have some question marks there because we have some kids there that haven’t played on Friday night,” Williams said. “As far as the skill positions, we’re pretty solid there. Other than that got some sophomores have to step it up.”

Defensively, linebacker Kemoche Hobbs (125 tackles) and corner Donta Stuart (nine interceptions) lead the way. For that unit, it’s all about playing hard and fast.

“Everything we do is hard and fast,” defensive coordinator Don Hyde said. “They know anything less is unacceptable.”

Schedule

9/1 at Fairfield 7:30

9/8 Lorena 7:30

9/14 at FW Young Men’s Leadership Academy 7:00

9/22 Mexia 7:30

9/29 at Connally 7:30

10/13 at Liberty Hill 7:30*

10/20 China Spring 7:30*

10/27 at Lampasas 7:30*

11/3 Gatesville 7:30*

11/10 at Burnet 7:30*

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