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Sweetwater football players and coaches spent their offseason trying to prepare themselves for a brand-new Class 4A district and a lot more travel this year.
But the Mustangs hope that the biggest change will come in early November when, instead of turning in equpment, theyâ€™re looking ahead to the postseason.
Sweetwaterâ€™s last playoff experience came in 2008 and it hasnâ€™t had a winning season since. And five straight non-playoff years are the most since it previously held 4A status, dating to the early 1980s under legendary Mustang coach W.T. Stapler. That era, of course, eventually produced a state champion in 1985 â€” the first and only football state title in Sweetwaterâ€™s long and rich history.
But the long playoff wait may soon be over, as the Mustangs return a handful of key players itching to get a final chance after near-misses the past two years.
Sweetwater went 4-6 in each of current head coach Shane Mobleyâ€™s first two seasons, but barely missed the playoffs in both years.
With a new district â€” Sweetwater is now in 2-4A, Division II â€” as well as four playoff spots available, the odds finally appear to be in the Mustangsâ€™ favor.
Sweetwater will still have familiar rivals Monahans and Greenwood in 2-4A in addition to Lamesa (0-10 in 2013), Fort Stockton (2-9) and Pecos (7-4).
If the Mustangs can sur-vive the travel â€” its five road games (including the three in district to Fort Stockton, Pecos and Greenwood) will span a total of over 830 miles â€” and stay healthy, they have the talent to not only make the postseason, but get past the first round.
Sweetwater will still field a young team, as the Mus-tangs have only a handful of seniors with varsity playing experience. But of those seniors, four â€” wide recei-ver Bray Amos, all-purpose player Isaiah McGee, quar-terback Kaegan Jeffrey and offensive lineman Ty Crain â€” have earned at least all-district honors and McGee and Amos both received all-state recognition in 2013.
Jeffrey threw for 2,752 yards and 34 TDs last year. Amos (67 catches, 1,067 yards, 19 TDs) and McGee (34, 582, 4) were two of his favorite targets. The top returning underclassmen include junior lineman Cory Mendez, who was the co-district newcomer of the year as a sophomore, and Jacoby Hunt, a sophomore linebacker who earned all-district honors after making 60 tackles as a freshman.
Sweetwaterâ€™s non-district schedule will include 2013 playoff teams Andrews, Breckenridge, Muleshoe and Snyder (now a 4A, Division I school) plus 5A Lubbock High, which plays Sweetwater in a season-opening Sammy Baugh Classic matchup Aug. 29. The pre-district games will help the Mustangs get ready for their new district, ac-cording to Mobley.
â€śFirst and foremost, the guys want to make the playoffs,â€ť he said. â€śIt came down to one game the last two years. It was Monahans (a 39-35 loss) two years ago and Wylie (a 42-28 loss) last year. These kids deserve it. Theyâ€™ve worked so hard this spring and offseason and competed so hard when we went to (the state) 7-on-7 (tournament in July). The biggest thing about 7-0n-7 was the unity it gave us.
â€ś(But) if weâ€™re lucky or blessed enough to make the playoffs,â€ť Mobley added, â€śthatâ€™s not going to be satis-fying. Weâ€™ll still work to do better. If we make the play-offs, we need to get beat by a better team; we donâ€™t want to beat ourselves.
â€śWe need to have differ-ent kids step up each week. We have to get better and never stop that growing.â€ť
Mobley said McGee (safety) would be the only senior starter on defense. But he sees good leadership on this yearâ€™s team, especially from the returning seniors. â€śLast year we had a good group of kids that helped set the foundation for this yearâ€™s seniors. Now theyâ€™ve got the experience to know what it takes. This is probably the most vocal group of seniors that weâ€™ve had.â€ť
Jeffrey has thrown for over 4,800 yards in his career. He will be backed by Max Gomez, who will also be used at receiver.
There is quite a bit of speed at both receiver and in the backfield, and not just from McGee and Amos. Other receiving candidates include Michael Green, Michael Lawrence, Deshaun Williams, Mark Lawrence, Jâ€™Corey Amos (Brayâ€™s younger brother) and Hunter Mobley (son of the head coach) while Hunt, McGee, Adrian Vizzerra and Kiante McCoy are among those vying for playing time at running back. The O-line is led by Crain (265) and Mendez (220) â€” who was a defensive lineman last year â€” and also includes Jorden Putnam, Zach Garcia, C.J. Adames, Carlos Gallegos and others.
End Daniel Maldonado is the only returning starter on the defensive line. Israel Vera, Manuel Navarrette, Putnam, Mendez and Den-zell Moore are among the other candidates to get playing time at either tackle or end. At linebacker, Hunt heads up a group that also will include McCoy, Vizzerra, Mobley, Moore, Colby Greenwood and Bray Amos. The defensive backfield, in addition to McGee, includes Michael Lawrence, Gomez and Green at safety and Jâ€™Corey Amos, Green, Mark Lawrence, Chris Fig-ueroa, T.C. Huitt and Wil-liams at cornerback.
Coach Mobley said Sweet-water would be â€śvery mul-tipleâ€ť both with its spread offense that he installed two years ago, as well as with its many defensive alignments.
The key to success will lie largely with the ability to utilize all that speed and overcome a lack of size. â€śWeâ€™re probably two or three steps quicker than we were last year,â€ť Mobley said.