Billies, Pirates both seeking to improve

Despite Drew Central’s seven-point victory over Palestine-Wheatley on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018 at Mike Pennington Stadium, last year was largely an unforgettable one for both area high schools when it came to football. Even the fact DC made history with that win didn’t help much.

By finishing 1-8, Drew Central not only came out on top in its first conference game since 2015, it gave new head coach Matt Gonzales his first win as a Pirate and the school finished with more victories then did Monticello for the first time in either schools’ history. That didn’t mean much, though; Monticello finished 0-10—its first winless season since 1959. 

Both the Billies and Pirates have a chance to put that frustration in their rearview mirrors Friday as 2019 gets under way. Drew Central hosts Poyen while Monticello visits Watson Chapel in non-conference contests. Both games kick off at 7 p.m.

The Billies will hit the field with their third head coach in three seasons—albeit with a coach who’s been around for a while. Defensive coordinator Randy Harvey, in his 16th season with the Monticello High School program in two stints, was promoted to the head job after Robbie Coplin resigned. Coplin replaced the retired Marty Davis before last fall. Gonzales is in his second season after coming to University Drive from Joe T. Robinson High School, where he served as assistant offensive coordinator and special teams coordinator for the Senators.

Both teams’ opens are the same opening foes as last year. Poyen down Drew Central 55-22; the Wildcats humbled the Billies 39-3. Last week, Class 5A Watson Chapel led Nashville, second ranked in 4A by both Hooten’s Arkansas Football and in the Arkansas Sports Media High School Football Poll, in the fourth quarter a week ago before losing by seven points. Friday will also be 2A Poyen’s season opener.

Harvey inherits a team with just seven upperclassmen and more than twice as many sophomores (18) but said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the Billies’ chances in 2019. After all, Monticello has nowhere to go but up.

“I like where we are,” Harvey said in an interview for Gridiron Report 2019, inside today’s edition. “From April to right now, we’ve come a million miles. All the kids have made drastic improvements. Their strengths are their attitudes. We’re nowhere near where we need and we’ve still got a long way to go but our attitudes are great. We’re getting stronger, we’re progressing, moving forward every day and that’s what we’ve been harping on. We’ve been talking about taking a step forward every day.”

Hooten’s picked both city teams to finish last in their respective conferences, Monticello in 4A, District 8; Drew Central in 6-3A but one wouldn’t get that feeling talking to the coaches.

“Until we start proving people otherwise,” Gonzales said in that same Gridiron Report 2019, “everybody’s right in picking us last. Do I think we’ll finish last? Absolutely not! We’re going to surprise some people this fall.”

Unfortunately, each coach has a limited amount of bodies with which to work. At latest count on MaxPreps.com (the official statistical online arm of the Arkansas Activities Association), the Billies have 39 athletes on their roster and the Pirates have a few less. Drew Central had more than 40 players in its offseason program as did the Billies.

“We’re down to the 33 players,” Gonzales said, “but what we’ve got is the right 33. We’ve got the right amount of leadership on the team now. We don’t have a big senior class but we’ve got some really quality individuals that really stepped up and taking over this team. Add to that a couple of junior captains and one sophomore captain, and it’s just a good team morale.”

Neither Harvey nor Gonzales has many seniors—12 between them. But Monticello’s upperclassmen are all “excellent” leaders, according to Harvey, and Gonzales said his five “could all play at the next level.”

Three—Davian Mayo (who transferred into the district from Stuttgart), Elijah Trantham and Travarus Shead—already have scholarship offers from their hometown University of Arkansas at Monticello. Lyon College in Batesville has also offered Shead an opportunity to play college football. Stevon Hall and Justin Ferrel round ut the Pirates’ senior class.

At Monticello, Darvious Block, Rodrick Jackson, Joe Moore (who transferred into the district from Hope), Erik Rezendiz, Hayden Robinson, A’Quan Tyler and Harrison Whitaker are the players the younger Billies must look to.

“We have seven seniors and we’re going to depend on those seniors for our leadership,” Harvey mentioned,”but we do have some juniors and sophomores that I believe that are good leaders for us. as well. These seniors can look hopefully they’ll look back one day and say that they were the ones who got Billie football going back where it needs to be. Those are those seven kids are all really good kids and they want to be successful. They’ve been there through it all and I would take any of our seniors home with me.”

Leading both teams at quarterback, though, will be juniors. Jalin Green steps under center for his first year as a starter for Monticello while Cole Harris gained valuable experience for Drew Central last year as a sophomore front-liner.

“He’s dynamic with his arms and legs,” Harvey said of Green. Across town, Harris passed for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns in 2018. Gonzales said he worked all spring and summer on decision-making and reading defenses in order to reduce his 17 interceptions as a sophomore.

Defensively, both teams could be at the top of their respective conferences. Block should lead the Monticello defense at nose guard, defensive tackle and possibly defensive end. Harvey quickly pointed out the 5-foot-3 Block as one of the biggest leaders on the team

“He’s a very strong kid, the first-year Monticello dead coach added. “He squats for over 400 pounds and deadlifts 500. For a kid that weighs just 167, he is just as strong as probably as he could be. Hopefully, he’s going to be a force for us on the defensive line and cause people problems.”

Trantham logged a team-high 107 tackles at middle linebacker for the Pirates in 2018 and will start for the third season in a row in senior high. Trantham is one of many DC athletes to improve their strength through Gonzales’ weight program, and now lifts more than 1,400 total pounds.

“We were close in the fourth quarter of many of our games and just didn’t come out on the right side of it, the head Pirate noted. “I think the difference this year is simply the fact that we do believe we should be there. Last year, we looked around in the fourth quarter too many times and thought, ‘We’re not supposed to be here; we’re not supposed to be this good.’ This year, it’s different.”

In his first season as he’d coach, Harvey said he hopes 2019 will be different for Monticello as well.

“Our frame of mind is just that we’ve got to keep getting better every play every day and keep moving forward,” Harvey said. “Eventually, it’s going to turn around for us—but we can’t stop when something bad happens.”

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