With focus on returning to the Class 3A, DII playoffs, Clifton Cubs appear poised to make back-to-back appearances; open season against Merkel in Dublin
For the Clifton Cubs football program, qualifying for the playoffs has always been the expectation every season as long as anyone can remember. Playing Texas high school football since 1919, the rich and storied Cub football program enters the 2023 season just one victory away from becoming a member of the coveted all-time 600-win club.
Loaded with 17 seniors and 20 returning lettermen, Clifton not only appears poised to reach the win milestone, the Cubs could be about to embark on a banner season. But considering the state-ranked competition they must go through in District 13-3A, Division II just to make the postseason, the Cubs have their work cut out for them.
Clifton will take the field on a neutral site at Dublin’s Bob & Norma Cervetto Stadium to face the Merkel Badgers for a non-district battle In the season opener at 7 p.m. Friday.
In many ways, the Cubs will be taking on a team that mirrors them coming into the season. As 2022 bi-district finalists from a 3-8 campaign, the Badgers will have seven offensive and seven defensive starters returning. Last season, Clifton knocked off Merkel, 20-12, in the first meeting between the two schools for the season opener.
“Merkel, like most teams we will face, will definitely be bigger than we are on both sides of the ball,” said Clifton’s second-year head coach Brent Finney, who led his alma mater to the playoffs after a two-year absence for the Cubs. “We will have to find a way to control their spread offense and keep them off the field by sustaining some long drives and keeping the ball away from them.”
Despite a wealth of experience back, Merkel has been picked to finish fifth in District 5-3A, DII behind 13th-ranked Comanche and 16th-ranked Jacksboro, as well as Eastland and Millsap. The Badgers will be led by all-around athlete Maddox O’Malley in the spread offense, while Elijah Oliverez will run the defensive unit.
“Merkel has quite a few returners back and also will run a spread offense,” Finney said. “So, the Whitney scrimmage was good for us to see what we need to work on heading into that game.”
Playing their second scrimmage in Whitney last Thursday, the Cubs took on a strong Class 3A, DI 24th-ranked Wildcat squad picked to finish third behind ninth-ranked Grandview and 15th-ranked West in District 7-3A, DI this season.
Running a fast-tempo offensive attack, Wildcat junior quarterback Mason Sealy led eight returning starters on the offensive side of the ball against Clifton after passing for 2,453 yards and 35 touchdowns last season.
“Scrimmages are really good for showing us what we do well, and also showing us what we need to improve on,” Finney said. “Whitney played at a really fast pace and gave us a good look at a very athletic, spread offense.
While the Cubs defense did a good job controlling the Whitney running game, the Wildcats were able to strike for several big plays through the air against Clifton. On the flip side, the Wing-T rushing tandem of seniors Riley Finney and Parker Tunnell provided some healthy gains, but the Cub offense struggled to move the ball consistently.
“We held up against the run game pretty well, but we must continue to work on tackling in the open field,” Finney said. “Again, we were happy with how we were able to move the ball on offense, but we must continue to improve on our passing game.”
Coming off back-to-back seasons without a playoff berth, the Cubs returned to the postseason in 2022. But even with their wealth of seniors and experience, the Cubs have been picked to finish fourth in District 13-3A, DII to earn a trip to the playoffs in 2023. Featuring a tough lineup of district opponents, the Cubs will once again face the 12th-ranked Lexington Eagles, the Rogers Eagles, the Buffalo Bison, the Elkhart Elks, and the Florence Buffaloes in the six-team league.
“Our district will still be very competitive,” Clifton’s second-year head coach Brent Finney said. “Lexington was 10-0 last year before losing in the first round and will still be very athletic. Rogers has a strong tradition of being a very solid perennial playoff team as well. Florence and Elkhart will have new coaches, which always brings a spark, and Buffalo has been very tough the past few years. With us losing to Buffalo in overtime last year, you can’t really argue with the preseason predictions.
“Getting back into the playoffs was huge for us last year in our first season. Being a playoff team every year is a standard, not a goal, for our program. This is something we want our kids to expect to happen year in and year out.”
After making the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, the Cubs will enjoy a wealth of experience on both sides of the ball with five offensive and seven defensive starters returning.
With senior fullback Riley Finney and senior running back Parker Tunnell returning to the offensive backfield, Clifton’s wing-T rushing attack should be a team strength. Finney led the Cubs with 962 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns, while Tunnell complemented his backfield partner with another 801 yards rushing and a score.
Junior quarterback Joaquin De La Hoya takes over the signal-calling, and will look to senior Andres Devora as his primary receiving target. Last season, Devora hauled in a team-high 21 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns, while De La Hoya competed nine of 28 passes for 146 yards in limited action.
Returning offensive linemen include senior Brandon Evans and Bryan Ramirez, while seniors Donovin Reynolds and Hector Quintero expect to move into starting roles.
With seven starters returning to the 3-4 defensive unit, Finney led the Cubs with 108 tackles as a junior linebacker, and will team with senior linebacker Camdyn Mobley as well as junior linebacker James Liardon. In the trenches, senior Levi Knox returns to the defensive line, while Devora, senior Ervin Rodriguez return to roam the defensive backfield.
Active at the defensive back position, Rodriguez finished last season with 40 tackles and three interceptions, while Devora collected 33 takedowns and a fumble recovery, while Knox managed three sacks along with 17 tackles.
Newcomers expected to compete for starting roles include junior wide receiver/defensive back Ray Ochoa, junior defensive lineman Landon Knox, junior defensive back Diego Rodriguez and senior offensive lineman Sabien Simmon.
“Our goal is to be battling for a district title,” Finney said. “We will have to develop depth at offensive line and defensive line positions, as well as the secondary. Running backs and linebacker returners are also a strength. We will have to give a lot of people reps early to figure out who our best linemen will be.”
Entering his 28th year as a high school coach, Finney enjoyed success in his first football head coaching and athletic director opportunity at his high school alma mater last season as he graduated from Clifton High School in 1991 After graduating from Tarleton in 1996, Finney came back home 19 years ago as an assistant coach.
“Clifton is a very important part of our lives and the lives of our families,” Finney said. “This was a great opportunity to continue to serve the kids of our community and give back to the community that has done so much for us.”
Finney spent eight years at Cameron Yoe before coming back home to Clifton 18 years ago in 2004. And during the last eight seasons under former head coach Chuck Caniford, the Cubs advanced to the playoffs six times, winning three district championships.
In 2020, Clifton stayed home during the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons and watched as all four playoff qualifiers from the district – Franklin, Buffalo, Rogers and Lexington – advanced to Region IV semifinals. But they basically experienced a repeat last season facing the same district lineup. In fact, after losing in the 2020 state championship game, Franklin ranked No. 1 from start to finish before claiming the Class 3A, Division II state title in 2021.
Last season, Lexington took over the mantle vacated by Franklin. But Clifton enters the season aiming for their first district title since 2019. And as the Cubs embark of their 105th season playing Texas high school football, Clifton owns an all-time record of 599-383-25 for a .607 winning percentage with 34 trips to the postseason.
“Lexington would probably be the favorite going in,” Finney said. “They were undefeated district champs last year and return a lot of kids. I feel like we can definitely be a top four team again. We lost a lot of close games last year. So hopefully, we can build on those experiences and win those close games this season.”
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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