Saturday, March 2, 2024

Rattlers' season one to remember

Posted

If it was easy everyone would do it.

The fact is, it's not easy, which is why it's only been done twice in the history of Hood County public high schools — playing for a state football championship, that is.

But the Tolar Rattlers did just that in 2023. True, they came up short, falling in the Class 2A Division I championship game to Timpson, 49-7, Wednesday, Dec. 13, but they left an indelible mark.

The Rattlers finished 14-2, playing more games than any other football team — public or private school — has ever played in a season in the county.

"It is hard for me to put into words what this program, school and community mean to me. I feel very blessed and honored to be a part of it," Rattlers coach Jeremy Mullins said. "I talk to our kids often about the opportunities in football and how there are only a few compared to the amount of time you put into preparing for each week's game.

"When you sit and think about the amount of people who actually have the opportunity to play in a state championship... you really realize how special this year was."

The only other team in Hood County history to accomplish what the Rattlers did this season was the 1966 Granbury Pirates. They finished 14-1 and also played for a 2A championship, falling to Sweeney in the final, 29-7.

SUCCESS AFTER SUCCESS

Even at the end of the 2022 season there was something magical in the air about the Tolar football program. The Rattlers finished that season 13-1 and advanced to the regional final, something only done once before (a 9-5 season in 2015), and never with that many wins in a season.

This was on the heels of having gone 10-3 in 2021. That season produced the most victories in program history, a record broken twice more in the two subsequent years.

"I am really proud of this group for taking what those who have come before them have started and taking it to another level. That is our hope each year, to do things better than they've ever been done before," Mullins said. "That bar has certainly been raised, but that will not change our mission as new groups continue to come through."

RALLYING AS A TEAM

No sooner had the Rattlers begun the 2023 season when they received what could have been devastating news. Junior running back Peyton Brown, who was among the national leaders in numerous categories in 2022, injured his ankle in the very first week of the season.

Brown would miss the next seven games, returning to be a force in the postseason. In the meantime, the team, filled with a plethora of talent otherwise, pulled together and posted a 9-1 regular season, steamrolling to another district championship.

"This team was just that... a TEAM," Mullins stressed, adding that on the wall in each locker room there are four words that comprise the team code — Compete, Team First, Relentless.

"This group really embodied all three, but certainly showed a 'Team First' mentality throughout the year. It was never about one person, it was always about the TEAM!"

ONLY THE BEST

The Rattlers' two losses this season were both to state champions. In the third game of the season they fell 37-6 to Dallas Christian, which won its third consecutive Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools Division III state title this season.

The other, of course, was to a 16-0 Timpson team.

In all, the Rattlers faced seven playoff teams in the regular season before going on their own postseason run.

FAREWELL TO 2A

Barring unforeseen circumstances in the future and seeing as the community is growing, the state championshp could very well have been Tolar's last football game in Class 2A. The program is moving up to play in Class 3A Division II next season.

The Rattlers left their mark in 2A, however. Over the past four seasons they were 42-13.

Tolar was also 12-4 in the postseason over the past four years, going farther into the playoffs each season. They reached the second round in 2020, the third round in 2021, the regional final (fourth round) in 2022 and the state final (sixth round) in 2023.

The Rattlers were previously in Class 3A from 2016-19. They reached the playoffs three times and advanced to the second round once.

PLENTY OF TALENT BACK

While the team loses a fair number of seniors from this season, the roster still features plenty of returning talent for 2024.

"We lose 13 seniors from this group that did a great job of leading this year," Mullins said. "We are very grateful for them and excited about all they are going to go on to accomplish."

The roster for the team that played in the state championship game featured 19 juniors, 15 sophomores and 17 freshmen.

MANY TO THANK

Mullins praised and thanked many folks for their support, noting that no team enjoys the success the Rattlers did this season — and before — without a strong support system.

"The support we receive here from parents, school staff and community members is second to none. I would love to take the time to individually mention each name but I don't think you have enough room for that," he said with a smile. "So many people gave their time and resources throughout the year.

"Our parents are some of the best at letting coaches coach. I believe that is huge in today's world of high school athletics. They trust us to do what's best and do a great job of supporting us however they can.

"Our coaching staff and their families deserve a ton of credit. We are fortunate to have great men on staff who are not just great coaches but great mentors, husbands and fathers. I am lucky to be surrounded by them each day. Their wives and families sacrifice a lot for us to do what it takes to give our teams the best chance to be successful."

RECAPPING THE SEASON

Record:14-2.

District 5-2A Division I record: 6-0, champions.

Postseason record: 5-1, Class 2A Division I state runners-up.

Points scored: 716 (44.8).

Points surrendered: 213 (13.3).

Scored 40-plus points: 12 times.

Scored 50-plus: 6 times.

Scored 60-plus: 5 times.

Surrendered one TD or less: 9 times.

Shutouts: 4.

Takeaways: 40 (26 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries).

Turnovers: 7 (4 interceptions, 3 fumbles).

Tackles for loss: 93.

Sacks: 27.

Individual leaders:

Passing: Isaac Blessing, sr., 1,825 yards, 30 TD, 4 interceptions.

Rushing: Blessing, 1,2176 yards, 21 TD; Garrison Nation, sr., 1,046 yards, 17 TD; Kelvin Murray, fr., 612 yards, 8 TD; Peyton Brown, jr., 559 yards, 12 TD.

Receiving: Matthew Behrens, sr., 32 catches, 740 yards, 10 TD; Clayton Stembridge, 23-391, 6 TD; Nation 9-221, 3 TD; Brylen Feist, jr., 16-188, 2 TD; Talan Culberson, jr., 17-187, 3 TD.

Tackles: Drake Owens, jr., 134; Cash Clark, jr., 103; Jaxon Riddle, sr., 111; Stembridge, 98; Hunter Michels, 94.

Tackles for loss: Michels 16; Stembridge 12; Clark 12; Cutter Cain, jr., 12; Riddle 9; Brooks Stone, jr., 9.

Sacks: Clark 7, Michels 6, Cain 4.

Interceptions: Stembridge 7; Braylen Rice, sr., 4; Owens 4; Grant Sherley, jr., 3.

Fumble recoveries: Rice 2, Cain 2, Stembridge 2, Owens 2, Clark 2.

Punts: Stone 21 for 37-yard average.

Punt returns: Stembridge 3-35.0 average, Nation 2-55.5.

Kickoff returns: Stembridge 11-30.0, Nation 2-51.7.

Scoring: Nation 145, Blessing 120, Stone 86, Brown 78, Stembridge 62, Behrens 62.

PAT kicks: Stone 71-of-76.

Field goals: Stone 5-of-7, long 33 yards.