MARLIN – Stephen Hodge stood in the middle of the practice field and surveyed the puzzle pieces he will use to piece this 2018 season together.
Marlin’s second-year head football coach, who led the Bulldogs to the playoffs last season, said that he already has a stronger relationship and understanding with his coaching staff. Then his gaze shifted over to his players. All 20 of them.
“We’re still waiting on our numbers to increase,” Hodge said during the first week of preseason practice. “We’ve only got two seniors. We’re really young.”
In February’s UIL realignment, Marlin bumped down from 3A Division II to 2A Division I. Enrollment dropped from 229 to 218 in that two-year period. Now, for the first time in this century, the Bulldogs are in the smallest non-six-man classification.
They’re in the same district as Rosebud-Lott and Thorndale. Across the postseason bracket from them, if they advance to the playoffs this season, will be the likes of Crawford and Bosqueville.
Keep in mind, Marlin is 15 years removed from its state finalist season where the Bulldogs fell to Atlanta in the title game in Class 3A, which is what 4A is today. In that deep postseason run, Marlin beat La Vega (30-14), Newton (37-7), La Grange (21-0), Bellville (19-17) and Port Isabel (41-10). During that two-year realignment period of 2002 and ‘03, Marlin submitted an average enrollment of 482 to the UIL.
La Vega, La Grange, Bellville and Port Isabel are still in 4A – with the Pirates being the lone team in Division I. Newton is in Class 3A Div. II.
It wasn’t until 2010 that 2A and 3A split up their classifications into Division I and Division II before the season started. Before that, they competed in a district that, whenever teams made the playoffs, the two biggest schools moved to the Div. I bracket while the two smallest went the Div. II route.
Additionally, remember that when Marlin competed in the 3A title game, that would be the equivalent of what is now 4A since six-man became 1A and Class 6A was introduced in 2014.
Marlin’s dwindling football roster is a byproduct of the school district’s overall struggles. Marlin ISD has failed to meet state academic standards for six straight years, and in March the district reached an abatement agreement with the Texas Education Agency to halt the potential closing of the district for a second straight year.
With only 20 players coming out for football, Marlin will have to overcome a bunch of inexperience. Hodge was glad to see new freshmen come out to practice, but instead of getting them some game play on the junior varsity, they’ll be thrown into the fire on varsity.
“We’ve got a lot of eighth graders that are going to be freshmen. They have to play,” Hodge said. “In junior high, they didn’t lose a game, so they can play football now we tell them, ‘It’s not just run left and run right.’ They have to study the technique.”
When Hodge was asked about his freshmen and what he had to work with for this season, he grinned before he answered.
“I compare them cats to the best version of Dallas Carter,” Hodge said. “They aren’t out robbin’ and stealin’ and killin’ nobody. But as far as athletic-wise, they’ll be just fine.
“Us dropping to 2A when we did was the perfect time. In our district, we’ll have people probably trying to play us in a 3-4 defense. Try to run over us because we’re small. I think we hit the weight room well. We’ll be ready.”