San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 25th, 2009
Rattlers aim for return to gridiron glory

Scooter Walker (46), is back this year to carry the ball for the San Marcos Rattlers, who hope to rebound from a 2-8 performance in 2008.

By BILL PETERSON
Executive Editor

Working their August two-a-days in the blistering heat on their dry campus practice field, the football players at San Marcos High School endeavored to clear away all the distractions, including the most insidious one of all. Last year.

Last year is gone, and it still would have been better if last year never happened. It was that bad.

“Our theme has been that we started 2009 the day after last season ended,” San Marcos head coach Steve Van Nest said. “We just wanted to put last year away and get our tradition back.”

The Rattlers finished last year 2-8, their worst finish since going 1-9 in 1997. Every year in between, they went to the playoffs, and they finished all but one of those seasons with a winning record.

That’s the kind of performance the Rattlers seek as they tee it up Friday night at Waco University to start a new season. The Rattlers return five starters on offense and five on defense, in neither case bringing back those players on the front lines. They bring back 15 letter winners and 18 seniors.

The good news, said Van Nest, is speed. Andre Ray, Kristian Cogdill, Michael Wilburn and Scooter Walker, all of whom took plenty of lugs last year, will all be back to run out of the Slot-T offense that Bruce Bush brought to town in 1998. Van Nest said quarterback Ryan Schweers, who took a fair share of snaps last year, has the hand jive to work the Slot-T’s methods of deception.

Defensively, Dorian Perez and Thomas Velasquez are back to lead the secondary, while Blake Bagley and Jeremy Gonzalez return to lead the linebacking corps. Defensive end Luis Salazar is the top returner on either line.

Which points up the biggest challenge for the Rattlers. For all their returning talent in the backfields, Van Nest said, “the biggest thing for us is going to be rebuilding our offensive and defensive lines.”

The early version of the varsity roster, issued right at the start of practice, lists only 13 interior linemen for the offense and defense combined. Only five of those players were seniors and two were sophomores.

Of course, that’s where the Slot-T offense comes in. The offense is designed to create advantageous blocking angles for smaller, slower and less experienced linemen. Add a magician’s sleight-of-hand in the backfield, and it’s not long before a 130-pound fullback carries the ball 30 yards down field without anyone noticing.

As it happens, speed won’t be a problem this year for the Rattlers. However, they are likely to be the smaller team in every game they play this year.

“We’re happy to use our speed against their bulk,” Van Nest said.

Van Nest added, naturally, that the offense works “better” with big offensive linemen. But San Marcos generally doesn’t produce that kind of athlete, which is why the Slot-T has been so helpful to a program that hadn’t been to the playoffs for more than 30 years before it came to town. Indeed, the 13 linemen on the early practice roster averaged 199.2 pounds, which hardly counts for healthy cattle in Texas high school football.

It might seem counterintuitive that a smallish team should be so run-oriented as San Marcos for the last 11 years. But the Slot-T gives smaller blockers leverage in the running game, and there really is no known work-around for smallish blockers in the deep passing attack.

“You like to have size on your offensive line,” Van Nest said. “It’s fun to watch Texas Tech. It’s fun to watch the Indianapolis Colts. College teams recruit for it. NFL teams draft for it. In high school football, you play with what’s there, and this offense has helped us to be successful with what we have.”

In 2006 and 2007, the Rattlers sneaked into the Class 5A playoffs with 5-5 records in the regular season.

In 2006, they hung in the postseason for four weeks, thanks to thrilling wins of 35-34 at Smithson Valley and 28-27 against San Antonio Roosevelt in the Alamodome, then an easy 27-7 win against Harlingen South in Laredo. Finally, in the Division II championship game for Region IV, the Rattlers fell, 50-43, to San Antonio MacArthur in overtime at Bobcat Stadium.

In 2007, the Rattlers fell to San Antonio Madison, 22-14, in the first round of the playoffs at Comalander Stadium. But the Rattlers were driving towards the tying touchdown with less than a minute left when they fumbled at midfield.

Last year, the Rattlers were re-classified to Class 4A. And, not to bring up the name of Hays football coach Bob Shelton in a discussion about San Marcos football, but when the Rebels dropped to Class 4A two years earlier, he said the toughest part would be convincing his players that Class 4A wasn’t going to be easy.

It’s fair to wonder if the Rattlers thought it was going to be easy last year. Obviously, they shouldn’t have, because they were assigned to District 27-4A against the likes of Alamo Heights, Kerrville Tivy, New Braunfels Canyon, Cibolo Steele and Schertz Clemens.

For whatever reasons, though, the Rattlers just weren’t ready to play. They couldn’t even brag up their two wins because they came out of district against Bastrop and Lampasas, which won two games between them. Both of those wins belonged to Bastrop. The Rattlers beat Bastrop, 27-26, at home. Then, the Rattlers lost all seven of their district games by an average score of 42-19.

Their kick return team was so bad that one almost hated to see the Rattlers take a kick-off. In a 49-17 loss to Steele, the Rattlers fumbled the opening kick to set up an easy Steele touchdown, then immediately repeated the procedure and trailed, 14-0, before running a play. The next week, the Rattlers neglected to field the second half kickoff, so Canyon recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, increasing its lead to 35-14 on its way to a 48-14 win.

That about ended the season for the Rattlers, who fell to 0-2 in the district at that point, already two games out of playoff position.

“We felt like we had a shot at the playoffs if everything went right,” Van Nest said. “It was just a perfect storm of not having the strongest team, injuries at key positions, inexperience, turnovers, bad special teams play.”

But that storm is over now, and the Rattlers can’t wait to forget about it. The first true step in that direction comes Friday night, when they travel to Waco University to play a team that finished last season 2-8.

However, the Trojans return 23 letter winners, including seven starters on offense and eight on defense. The top performer for University is quarterback Randy Price, who passed last year for 1,610 yards and 14 touchdowns, but also rushed for 764 yards.

Following Friday night’s opener, the Rattlers go to Bastrop next week, then play their first game at home on Sept. 11 against Lampasas. If the Rattlers can handle University Friday night, they’ve got a chance to go 3-0 with a fair amount of confidence as they dive back into District 27-4A. But the road is long.

“We’re going to have to be ready every week,” Van Nest.

For now, the Rattlers just have to be ready this week, which would go some way toward being past last year.

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