Area football teams plug into powerful new districts this fall

To put it into superhero terms, Vandegrift will tug on Superman’s cape at least a couple of times this football season, when the Vipers will face Lake Travis and Westlake in District 25-6A matchups.

Liberty Hill, meanwhile, could use Thor’s hammer to open some holes for its Slot-T offense when the Panthers face Waco La Vega — a defending state champion — in a District 13-4A, Division I showdown set for October.

The genesis of these high-profile district clashes goes back to this past winter, when the University Interscholastic League created two of the most top-heavy football districts in Texas during its biennial realignment. Fair to all the member schools or not, 25-6A and 13-4A, Division I are super-powered districts.

Let’s start with 25-6A. Lake Travis and Westlake ranked second and fifth, respectively, in the Associated Press preseason poll for Class 6A, and both played for state championships last season. This fall, they welcome three new district rivals — former Class 5A programs Vandegrift, Vista Ridge and Leander — that have rising or historically strong football pedigrees.

Westlake's Sam Ehlinger looks for a receiver during a playoff game against North Mesquite in 2015. (Stephen Spillman/For American-Statesman)

Last fall, Vista Ridge advanced to the Class 5A, Division I state semifinals, knocking off Vandegrift in a state quarterfinal. The year before, the Vipers made their own appearance in a state semi. For its part, Leander finished 11-2 in 2012, when the Lions advanced to the third round of the playoffs.

As for for 13-4A, Division I, four of its member schools — China Spring, Gatesville, Waco La Vega and Liberty Hill — have won state championships in football, and another one, Burnet, appeared in consecutive state championship games in 2002-03. Only two years ago, Liberty Hill and Burnet clashed in a 4A, Division I state quarterfinal.

While his team has compiled a 32-9 record in the past three seasons — that’s half of Vandegrift’s six-year history as a varsity program — Vipers coach Drew Sanders understands that Westlake, an eight-time state finalist, boasts a 28-year streak of consecutive playoff appearances. Still …

“We are always eager to play the best competition,” Sanders said. “If we want to be one of the top teams in the state, then we have to beat some of the top teams in the state. It’s the same reason we elected to continue to have Cedar Park (a defending Class 5A state champion) on the schedule (on Sept. 2) and also play Odessa Permian (on Friday). We feel like our kids thrive on that competition and we improve each week.”

Watch below: Westlake QB and Longhorn commit Sam Ehlinger tells us what to expect from the Chaps this fall.

While Vandegrift, Vista Ridge and Leander enjoyed success in Class 5A before this recent jump to 6A, it wouldn’t be a surprise if all three took some hard hits in their new district.

Lake Travis, the favorite to win the 25-6A title, became a Class 6A school just four years ago. Coming off a record five straight Class 4A — now Class 5A — state championships from 2007-11, the Cavaliers lost their inaugural playoff game in Class 6A, falling to Pflugerville 23-20. The defeat snapped a 30-game postseason winning streak.

Last season, Lake Travis piled up five postseason victories before losing to Katy 34-7 in the Class 6A, Division II final.

The Cavaliers posted an incredible 77-3 record (.962) during their five-year reign as the state’s Class 5A king. They are 46-7 (.867) in four Class 6A seasons.

“The biggest difference was the offensive and defensive line play of our (Class 6A) opponents,” said Hank Carter, Lake Travis’ head coach. “On average, we’ve seen much better lines at the 6A level.”

Vista Ridge players make their way onto the field before the start of a game. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

Vandegrift might already boast a Class 6A-ready line, anchored by center Holton Greenfield and left tackle Jake Helton, but do-everything running back Travis Brannan, who stacked up 89 touchdowns in the past two seasons, has graduated. And Vandegrift will join Vista Ridge and Leander among the schools with the three lowest enrollment figures in 25-6A. The trio reported enrollments of 2,230 students on average to the UIL while the four other schools in 25-6A — including Hays and Lehman — averaged 2,614.

Hays, which has qualified for the playoffs 10 times in the past 13 years, faces a tougher road to the postseason with the addition to 25-6A of the three former Class 5A schools. The Rebels finished 5-5 last season while Lake Travis (15-1), Westlake (14-2), Vista Ridge (12-3) and Vandegrift (11-3) combined for 52 victories.

“Our mentality is that we have to believe we can compete with anybody,” said Peyton Pearson, a senior linebacker for the Rebels.

Watch below: Vandegrift QB Alex Fernandes discusses what to expect from the Vipers this season.

Vandegrift, which returns 14 starters from a state-quarterfinalist squad, appears best equipped to challenge Lake Travis and Westlake in 25-6A. In the past two years, Vandegrift has won the Lone Star Cup in Class 5A as the top-performing school in UIL athletics, fine arts and academic competitions.

“When we opened Vandegrift (in 2009) and hadn’t played anyone at all,” Sanders said, “we established a saying called “E.T.W. That stands for Expect to Win. We expect to do well any time we run out onto the field. We are excited about the challenge and I have no doubt our kids will step up and deliver.

“In everything we do, we expect to win. We will be ready to play in all of our games, regardless of opponent.”

To put it into superhero terms, Vandegrift will tug on Superman’s cape at least a couple of times this football season, when the Vipers will face Lake Travis and Westlake in District 25-6A matchups.

Vista Ridge's Jamil Pittman, right, is held by Vandegrift's Storm Wilson as he is called for pass interference. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

A FORCE IN CLASS 4A

Publicly, Burnet football coach Kurt Jones hardly sounds worried that the Bulldogs have been boxed into a new district filled with current and past state champions. Burnet’s regular season will conclude with a game at Waco La Vega, which capped an unbeaten season in 2015 with a 33-31 victory over Argyle in the Class 4A, Division I state-title game at NRG Stadium.

“We have competed against all these teams over the past three years and during that time, we have won 26 games, been in the playoffs each year and won five playoff games,” Jones said. “So we expect to continue to be successful, but we are not satisfied.”

Finding satisfaction in 13-4A, Division I could prove tough for many teams.

Four of the six teams now in the district advanced at least three rounds deep into the 2015 postseason, and La Vega (16-0), China Spring (12-2) and Liberty Hill (10-3) all won at least 10 games. Formerly in a neighboring district, La Vega defeated both Liberty Hill and China Spring in the playoffs on its way to its first state title.

Among the most intriguing changes in the revamped 13-4A, Division I is the regular-season revival of the Burnet-Liberty Hill rivarly. The Bulldogs and Panthers have played every year since 1994, but the past two contests came in the postseason after the schools were sorted into different districts by the UIL. This fall, the Panthers and Bulldogs will meet Oct. 21 at Panther Stadium.

Liberty Hill quarterback Garrett Wright, right, is tackled by Burnet linebacker Drake Hall. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

“I equate this to the Gregory-Portland and (Corpus Christi) Calallen stuff I was part of when I was down in Portland (from 1989-96),” recalled Jerry Vance, Liberty Hill’s head coach. “It’s a great rivalry. Our kids know their kids. Our guys date their cheerleaders, and their players date our cheerleaders. Parents all know each other. It takes on a special meaning when we get together.”Liberty Hill, which won Class 4A state titles in 2006 and 2007, knocked Burnet out of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, including a 47-28 bi-district victory in 2015.

“You grow up hating Burnet, and Burnet grows up hating you,” said Liberty Hill quarterback Garrett Wright.

It’s similar to how arch-villains despise superheroes.

Jones is looking forward to the Bulldogs snapping their three-game losing streak against the Panthers while developing a winning identity in their new, highly competitive district. He and his players know it will take a heroic effort.

“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” the coach said, “and we know this district will give us the opportunity to compete against and beat some of the best teams in Class 4A.”

POSTSEASON POWERS

The power of the high school football teams now housed in District 25-6A or District 13-4A, Division I was on full display during the 2015 playoffs.

The seven teams that now form 25-6A accounted for two state finalists, one state semifinalist and one state quarterfinalist. Only one other UIL football district for 2016-17 includes a pair of teams that reached state finals in 2015. That’s District 10-3A, Division I, which includes Cameron Yoe and Franklin, both state runners-up last season.

As for the six teams in 13-4A, Division I, five qualified for the playoffs last year, two advanced to the third round, one reached the state quarterfinals and one won a state championship. No other current 4A, Division I district can boast of similar postseason success last season.

A breakdown of the 2015 postseason runs of each district’s playoff qualifiers and what round each team was eleminated:

District 25-6ADistrict 13-4A, D-I
4 teamsPlayoff qualifiers5 teams
17-4 (.810)Overall postseason record13-4 (.765)
NoneFirst roundBurnet
NoneThird roundLiberty Hill, Gatesville
VandegriftQuarterfinalsChina Springs
Vista RidgeSemfinalsNone
Lake Travis, WestlakeState runners-upNone
NoneState championsWaco La Vega