By BRAD KEITH
DE LEON (November 30, 2016) — There is a euphoria that has taken over De Leon the last couple weeks and is at a fever pitch as the Bearcat football team gets ready to take on Crawford in the state quarterfinals.
The old timers all remember the feeling well. Deep playoff runs were the norm under legendary retired coach Grady West. There was a state championship in 1975 and a state final appearance in 1990.
Fast forward 26 years, and the Bearcats, with a totally different, modern look, are finally back in the state quarterfinals for the first time since Aaron Saldivar was leading a power option offense.
There’s still plenty of option attack, but it’s the modern zone-read variety out of a modified slot-T offense that looks basically like another spread to the average fan in the bleachers. Such plays were not even in high school play books the last time De Leon ventured this far into the post season.
“There’s definitely a lot of excitement and buzz in the air. You go in a coffee shop or any store or restaurant and everyone’s talking about the Bearcats or asking about the game coming up Friday,” said athletic director and head coach David Yeager. “There is a sense of Americana that just adds a different element to it. It’s what makes football at this time of the year so special, and I hope that these guys soak every bit of it in and are making memories that will last the rest of their lives.”
One could dwell on why it’s been 26 years since De Leon reached the state quarterfinals.
The last time they played in the fourth round of the football playoffs, the peanut industry was still strong and De Leon had 240 or 250 students enrolled in high school, estimates Yeager based on old files he’s found his office. Enrollment now hovers in the 160 range, he says.
There was also the retirement of Grady West, the only head coach the Bearcats had known for three decades. They went through a coaching carousel beginning in 2002, until Yeager, who had five playoff trips in seven years at 3A Llano, arrived before the 2012 season.
“The football program was down to about 25 boys, that’s it. Not even enough to field a JV,” said Yeager. “Now we have right at 50, so we’ve doubled it the last five years.”
It’s the same type of building process Art Briles began at Stephenville in the late 1980s before winning four state championships in the 1990s. It’s the same process that Dublin underwent in recent years with Bob Cervetto, who took over a downtrodden program with low participation and now boasts about 100 in his football program that won bi-district championships in 2014 and 2015, the first time the Lions have achieved that feat in back-to-back seasons.
The turn around at De Leon really took just two years for Yeager and his staff, as the Bearcats won an area title and reached the regional semifinals in 2013. That remained their longest post season journey since 1990 until last weekend.
Windthorst had just eliminated a Bosqueville team that took Mart to the wire in a district championship game and beat Goldthwaite by 30 in the bi-district round. Many had Windthorst pegged to advance to the quarterfinal, but the Bearcats didn’t just win, they dominated much of the afternoon in Jacksboro last Friday. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead, turned it into 27-7 midway through the third quarter and won, 30-14, behind three touchdown passes and 95 yards rushing by quarterback Kevin Yeager – the head coach’s son – who also intercepted two Windthorst passes, one near the end of each half.
The De Leon bleachers were packed to the brim, as they surely will be again when the Bearcats face off with Crawford for the Region II-2A Division I championship and a spot in the state semifinals. Kickoff at Tiger Stadium in Glen Rose is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“We have outstanding support here in De Leon. It’s one of those great small Texas towns where the whole community gets behind the youth,” David Yeager said. “We’ve drawn great crowds at our playoff games and are just so happy to have so much support for our kids.”
It’s a playoff journey that could easily have never begun. The Bearcats were in the loaded 7-2A Division I that includes the other regional finalist in Crawford as well as perennial powers Goldthwaite and Hico among the seven teams.
District began with Kevin Yeager missing action due to an injury for the second straight week. De Leon managed to beat Santo, 7-0, in a weather-shortened final pre-district bout, but couldn’t stay with Crawford without their leader, falling 45-14.
Yeager returned and was impressive despite a 34-32 loss to HIco the following week, and the Bearcats were suddenly 0-2 in league play.
“It’s really been remarkable, this journey. We started off district 0-2 and were really behind the 8-ball so to speak,” said Coach Yegaer. “But I told the kids after that game in Hico, if you keep getting better every day you won’t lose a game the rest of the year.
“I really meant the rest of the regular season,” David Yeager added with a laugh following a dramatic pause. “But if they want to keep winning the rest of the year, I’ll sure take it.”
De Leon has since won seven straight, and only one was close. The Bearcats erased a 20-0 deficit and Daniel Sanchez hit a 33-yard field goal at the buzzer for a 38-35 win over Goldthwaite in a season finale that lifted them to second place in the district.
That win meant seeing Riesel instead Bosqueville in the opening round of the playoffs, and after a few nervous moments with Riesel running back the opening kickoff, De Leon took control to win, 48-21. They dominated Valley View in the area round, 37-18, before beating Windthorst last week.
“Our kids have just worked so hard. Our mantra is for all our guys leave the field a better player every day, and we have done that,” David Yeager said. “We are a much better football team than when the season started.”
They’re also much better than they were without Kevin Yeager in the September 23 loss to Crawford.
“Having Kevin means we’re able to run our full offense. Orson Sylva came in there and did fine, but then we don’t have him where he’s at his best, so we were losing a little at two positions. It’s just tough to lose your quarterback, especially in the spread,” said Coach Yeager. “Kevin just gives us a better chance. We ask him to do to a lot of things for us, both offensively and defensively, and he does them well and stays poised under pressure.”
Not that having the sophomore quarterback and safety – he is one of the team’s leading tacklers, too – is any kind of magic quick fix to getting past Crawford.
“I’ve only been in this neck of the woods five years, but from what I understand they have been running the same offense and defense for so long they probably have kids running it on the playground at the elementary school,” the coach said. “They have great continuity in their system, their efficient and they don’t beat themselves. That and they have a lot of good football players, so it’s a good combination.”
A combination that has led the Pirates to a spot among the elite small-school programs in Texas. Most recently they reached the quarterfinals in 2013 and 2014 and the semifinals last year. Now they are back in the final eight again.
And De Leon is right there with them, getting a taste of December football and just two wins from playing for a state championship.
“We just came here and went to work, and as a coach you always believe in yourself and your system that you can turn a program around,” David Yegaer said. “But to reach this point is just so big for our coaches and kids and really the whole community of De Leon. This is a blue collar community. People here work hard for their living and they are proud of that, and it rubs off on the kids. We feel like we have some of the best kids in the world right here in De Leon.”
On September 30, following a second straight district loss, those kids found themselves behind the proverbial 8-ball.
Eight weeks later, they’re in the final eight.