in Football

Once again taking on the best the state has to offer in district play, Class 2A, DII Meridian Yellowjackets understand what it will take to return to winning; opens 2023 season on the road at Lindsay

After shaking the weight of an extended losing streak in dramatic fashion on the final Friday night of the 2022 season, the Meridian Yellowjackets hope to pick up right where they left off and continue working toward restoring the school’s proud football tradition.

Despite losing some key seniors to graduation in 2022, the Jackets will enter this season with plenty of experience to build around with 12 returning lettermen, including eight offensive and seven defensive starters back.

Senior quarterback Brayden Wehmeyer will have two veteran receivers in juniors Ian Gomez and Matthew Jones, along with sophomore Garrett Pope. Senior John Wyatt and sophomore Dustin Padgett with handling the ball carrying duties in the ground game, while seniors Noah Alviso and Austin Pogue, along with juniors Jesus Martinez and Bradley Kihnel will move the line of scrimmage.

Defensively, Pogue, Wyatt, Kinhel and Martinez will man the trenches on the defensive line, Alviso, Wehmeyer, Padgett and Pope will make it the linebacking corps, while Gomez, Jones and Scott will roam the defensive backfield.

“I believe our greatest strength is that we have a lot of returning players,” said Meridian’s veteran head coach Jim Kerbow, entering his second season leading the Jackets. “But our greatest weakness will be depth at every position.

“I believe we can fight for the third or fourth playoff spot because we return several players that received significant playing time last season,” Kerbow said. “And we have made tremendous progress from last year.”

Following their final tune-up scrimmage last Thursday at Chico, the Meridian coaching staff felt the Jackets took steps in the right direction in preparation for their season opener on the road taking on the Lindsay Knights at 7 p.m. Friday.

“Overall as a staff, we felt like we made tremendous strides offensively and defensively,” Meridian’s second-year head coach Jim Kerbow said. “However, I will have to clean up the mental errors if we are to be successful this Friday.”

After a 2-8 campaign in 2022, the Knights will have 13 lettermen returning this season, including four offensive and five defensive starters. Lindsay has been picked to finish fifth in District 8-2A, Division II behind district title favorite Santo, sixth-ranked Collinsville, 15th-ranked Muenster and 2022 playoff qualifier Celeste.

While Lindsay must replace its entire offensive backfield, the Knights will lean heavily on experienced linemen Henry Hess, Cody Williford and Justin Schumaker to keep the line of scrimmage moving in the right direction with running back Simon Thurman looking for space to maneuver. On the other side of the ball, Lindsay will be led by linebacker Wyatt Tackett, who collected 64 tackles last season.

In the scrimmage against Chico, Kerbow saw some encouraging signs as the offensive line continued to shine. Coming off a tough season in 2022, the Dragons took the field last Thursday with six offensive and six defensive starters returning to compete in District 8-2A, DII. So, Chico came into the scrimmage armed to give Meridian a challenge.

“Offensively, our linemen played very well,” Kerbow said. “We had some issues holding on to the football, and we had multiple penalties that hindered drives. But if we can get those things cleaned up, we feel like we can be productive on offense Friday night against Lindsay.”

Although the Jackets have a wealth of student-athletes with varsity experience, depth at every position remains a concern. But by fielding a junior varsity squad, the coaching staff will continue to build depth each week.

“We are very encouraged about our offensive line play and our kids’ effort,” Kerbow said. “Areas that need to be addressed are mental errors offensively and defensively. But we have made tremendous progress from last year.”

Despite playing a gauntlet of larger opponents, both in physical size and school enrollment, the Jackets managed to snap a 13-game losing streak dating back to Oct. 8 of the 2021 season by winning their season finale on the road against the Frost Polar Bears, 28-27, in dramatic fashion to avoid its second winless season in school history.

“It was a huge win for our program,” Kerbow said. “We had to battle through adversity the entire game. It came down to stopping a two-point conversion with 21 seconds left. That game really showed the character of our kids and how relentless they were.”

Facing the challenge of being one of the smallest enrollments playing 11-man football in Texas, the Jackets rank as one of at least eight schools choosing to opt up, joining Runge (70), Munday (73), Rocksprings (81), Iraan (86), Electra (94), Morton (97), Crosbyton (100) and Cross Plains (100). And in reality, Meridian just barely missed the UIL cutoff for Class 2A, DII, so it made sense for the Jackets to continue playing 11-man football.

Although Meridian has not qualified for the postseason since 2017, the Jackets have a rich Texas high school football tradition dating back to 1916 – four seasons before the University Interscholastic League even existed. While posting a respectable all-time 538-410-36 win-loss-tie record for a .565 winning percentage, the Jackets have qualified for the postseason 26 times and won 16 district titles.

As attendance numbers have dropped, the Meridian football program has fallen on hard times, posting a dismal 6-43 win-loss record over the last five seasons with a 3-23 district mark without a winning record since 2016.

Hoping to carry that season-ending momentum into the 2023 season, the Jackets find themselves once again selected to finish in the District 10-2A, Division II cellar behind the 2022 state finalist and second-ranked Mart Panthers as well as the Wortham Bulldogs, the Dawson Bulldogs, the Hico Tigers, the Frost Polar Bears and the Hubbard Jaguars.

“I don’t really take much stock in pre-season predictions,” Kerbow said. “There are too many variables especially in 2A that can change the outcome of district play. Our expectation is to make the playoffs. As far as the district, Mart will be in the mix to play for it all. And I feel like Wortham will play several rounds. However, I feel that we will have the opportunity to be competitive and fight for a playoff spot.”


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