By Brian Besch
Dealing with success hasn’t been a big problem over the history of Livingston Lion football. When the 2021 season began, there were high expectations that never came to fruition.
The Lions followed their first district title in 57 years with a disappointing 1-4 district mark. They were competitive in the final two losses that knocked them from playoff contention, but struggled with an offense that only scored more than 15 points once in league play. Injuries and other factors were a hindrance for a group that was 4-1 in non-district, but the team is ready to put all of it in the rearview mirror.
With a new quarterback and key positions without varsity experience, Livingston could have a different look that relies on its ground game to set up the pass. There is talent in the offensive line and at running back, and Livingston head coach Finis Vanover appreciates a good rushing attack.
“Offensively, we have had a quarterback for three years,” Vanover said. “We’ve had an established bunch at receiver that we really didn’t have to reteach, we just kept adding and polishing. Without that trigger guy and those cats that you know what you have at receiver, we don’t know.
“We’ve got lots of open positions with a large senior class for us last year of 17. But, we turn around this year and we have 25. Those are good signs. A lot of those that left were a lot more than just 17, because a lot of them were two-way starters or filled in at three or four positions with the way we shuffle people in and out and use specialty roles. A kid like Julian Gardner was four positions. We either have to find another four-position guy or two guys that can do two things. We’ve got a good group returning and a lot of them had playing time of some nature and there were some starts involved. Right now, the best thing we have going is the competition for all the available spots. We’ve got some fun competition going, especially with our sophomores. We have a great sophomore class and they are really talented.”
The coach said 17 of his sophomores took part in the first varsity scrimmage versus Silsbee. The promising youth have even pushed some of the seniors for the opportunity to start.
“That is what competition is all about. It brings something out in everybody – good and bad. It is the first time with 104 kids that we are able to do that now. Even as long as those juniors and seniors have been with us, we’ve got a sophomore class that is blessed with natural talent and they have been with us three years now through junior high and the freshman team. They are going to figure into the formula, some from the very get-go and others possibly as the season progresses. We’ve got three or four freshmen that can do the same thing. Two for sure right now are probably running second levels. If the kid is talented enough, get your tickets, because you’re going to watch your son play.”
Vanover said his quarterback situation is a triumvirate of competitors with a senior, sophomore and freshman in contention. Jakob St. Martin has seen some limited time under center in varsity games. Vanover said he has put time into workouts and been a leader, earning respect of his teammates. Demorian Hill impressed coaches over the summer with his work, and move-in Tyler Soza is in Livingston from Canyon Lake. Soza’s father will be part of the coaching staff and Vanover bragged on the freshman, citing his 52-second 400 meters as an eighth grader.
Zach Williams was primed to be a back with plenty of carries in the 2021 season before breaking an ankle in the first scrimmage. Vanover says he has had an impressive training camp. Landon Leggett and Connor Starr will figure in as both fullbacks and big backs in short yardage situations. Caleb Cormier figures to play flanker, but could also line up in the backfield in certain packages. He is touted as one of the fastest at Livingston High. Sean Martin will be lined up similarly. Brayden Ethier will have comparable responsibilities to Starr and Leggett, but coaches love his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Jaron James is another of the sophomores that could line up at fullback or tailback.
“Our running backs, we have a bevy of them,” Vanover said. “We have a couple of returners and a couple of good ones in there, but that sophomore bunch is really figuring into the defensive back situation (where many of the running backs cross train). They are all multiple position guys and highly skilled.”
Chevy Peters, Cormier and Javean Gardner lead the wideouts, and the Lions will feature plenty of tight ends, with a few that have moved to the position. Reese Henderson adds to his duties at linebacker by playing on the end of the offensive line, as does Bradley Tullos, who slides down from a tackle spot. Rory Williams and Nick Smith should also see playing time at tight end.
On the offensive line, defensive star Zaylon Bogany will plug in at a guard spot and Bryce Stiegler will try to shake injuries to return as a starter. Xavier Mendiola and Jonathon McNeal will also open holes up front for the Lions.
“They are kind of the lead dogs in the thing, but we have a bunch of them that will get a ton of playing time as backups and as backup D-lineman. They are really accepting the challenge and getting a bond together. Cam Wright and Trey Atkinson and Eli Steagall are some others that we are looking to step up. We are going to try to keep eight in that group that don’t have to start both ways, except Bogany – he can play all night long. Stiegler can do the same thing.”
Much of the Livingston defense will be the same as it has in previous years under coordinator Dalton Murray. The Lions run a 4-2-5 base defense that plays a lot of man-to-man with a free safety roaming up top. When offensive coordinators develop any sort of comfort, Murray can change into several different packages that include a 6-1, 4-3, 3-4 and 40 front.
During the first scrimmage, Silsbee coaches commented on how hard the Lion defenders hit. Murray says that is by design.
“Our kids, they love tackling,” he said. “We hit hard and that is what we practice every day. You play like you practice, so if you practice timid and practice slow, you are going to play slow. We don’t play like that.”
Everything on the mean green defense this season will start on the defensive line. The front promises to be one of the better Livingston has seen, with experience and award winners sprinkled throughout.
“We have a three-year vet on there with Zaylon Bogany, who has been our starting nose tackle for three years,” Murray said. “He is one of the baddest ones in our district. We have several others on the line that have been through it, like Stiegler, who has played defensive line for three years. He is mainly an offensive lineman, but his junior year, he played more defensive line and was definitely a big help last year at defensive end. Nick Smith is at defensive end and Xavier Mendiola is down there at tackle. We also bring up some new guys from our JV squad that were quality there. Talon Atkinson and Jace Morris are coming up and going to be just fine with Brady Ganzer and Jacob Noonan. We have several to pick from and they do a good job.”
Murray said the defensive backs were his youngest group last year, but opponents didn’t start to figure that out until later in the season.
“This year, our focus has been to make that more solid. We have a lot more competition there this year, so it’s become a lot more productive. They are coming along and it is going to be good – a lot better than it was last year.”
Some of the returners include St. Martin, Gardner and Cormier. Murray is excited about the quick reaction time from Cormier, who is back from injury. Dylan Murphy is a junior and sophomores Deandre Walker, Sean Martin and Trenden Williams will be in the mix.
The coach said his defensive backfield train at both cornerback and safety, allowing for a breather at each position or in case injury occurs. St. Martin and Gardner are likely to get the first looks at free safety once the lights come on for Fridays.
“As the season goes on, I have to see who is the better read. If he can read the quarterback and the run game, and also get involved in the passing game, that will be the one I start.”
Leggett and Starr have been multiple-year starters for the Lions and should form a formidable second level again.
Starr was a first team all-district linebacker last year, while Leggett took honorable mention. At outside linebacker, Williams is fast and aggressive, while Henderson enters after playing defensive line last year. Murray says he has shed many pounds, gained some speed, but kept all the aggression of a defensive end. Trent Quinn and Caden Vickery return as contributors, as does JV standout Ethier. Jarius Randolph is a big-bodied linebacker, who Murray says has potential.
“We’ve got more linebackers this year than we have ever had. It is developing and getting where we want it, but so are the rest of our spots. We are coming along and everybody is getting it. Everybody understands what is supposed to be happening inside the coaching staff and in the players’ locker room. We are starting to get that buy in, but it is year five now and it is about time.
“The back end, when we won our district championship, our best players were our DBs. We graduated them and went through some growing pains, and now we have some in there who are seasoned, but we are throwing them into the fire. Last year, they got to get their taste of what it was like to play varsity football and they struggled a little bit. But, they have a year in them and they have handled it fair.
“With our interior, our defense alignment and our linebackers, I feel like we are picking up where we left off and a few that are better in certain spots. The DBs, I feel like we are already ahead of where we ended last year. I feel like this team has better potential to finish the year out better than we did last year.”
Expect to see even more blitzing from the defense as the coverage gets its feet under them. That is saying a lot for a team that likes to come after the quarterback. However, the coach says if his unit is operating as it should, it has the appearance of blitzing on most every down.
“We can play with anybody,” Murray said. “There is a lot of parity in this district and no one is just head and shoulders above one another. It is going to be an interesting year to see how it all goes. Everybody has been in the district at least two years.”
Prognosticators have performed poorly the past few years when predicting the district’s final standings. The Lions have been on extreme ends of the spectrum the past three years, going from worst to first, then next to last.
“We are not browbeating them with it, but we are damn sure reminding them of it,” Vanover said of last season’s record. “We went from district champions to 1-4. That is a total collapse. We had a couple of guys that got hurt and the folks that were supposed to step up did not do it.
“Right now, Lumberton and Little Cypress are the lead dogs. There is no question about it. Little Cypress went to the state semifinals and they are legit. They have a lot of transfers and a lot of kids who are doing a good job. Lumberton is just loaded. They have numbers and they are so big. Everybody is chasing them.”
The head coach said he sees Livingston competing with Vidor, Huffman and Splendora for two playoff spots. He is intrigued by the transformation Livingston football will receive in 2022.
“I like this team. I feel like we have a chance of being good in a different way from what we have been,” Vanover said. “We’ve got to get a new face and a new personality and blend it in with a bunch of the old stuff. I think we are very capable. We are way ahead defensively, with as good of a defense as we have ever had in August.
“Every team is different in some form or fashion, but we didn’t have a lot of changes the past three years because it was a lot of the same kids. That is what I am so excited about right now. If there is any way possible I can keep the sophomore bunch as a group and not have to break them up on the JV, I will do it. I just don’t know if we can, because they are so much better than some of the juniors and seniors we’ve got out there. They are going to have to play. It is hard to say right now what the identity of the team is going to be. It is going to be a different style of team with a lot more running, motion and misdirection. We’ve got to go with what we’ve got.”