When College Park needed a young linebacker to step up during his first varsity season, Dylan Hazen delivered.
When the Cavaliers required strong senior leadership during perhaps the most challenging offseason in the history of high school football, Dylan Hazen delivered.
And when the team needed a late defensive stop against its crosstown rival in the District 13-6A championship game, Dylan Hazen delivered once again.
Since he first strapped on the pads for coach Lonnie Madison four years ago, the senior playmaker has done nothing but, well, deliver at the highest level.
For his relentless motor, physical prowess and profound leadership for one of the top teams in the county this season, Hazen is The Courier’s Player of the Year.
Hazen, who signed with Wake Forest in December, is the first non-quarterback to win the honor since The Woodlands’ Antoine Winfield Jr. in 2015. Winfield, a second-round NFL draft pick last spring, is now a starting safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Hazen is also the first player from College Park to claim the award since the program started competing at the varsity level in 2006. He finishes his career as a three-time All-Montgomery County selection.
“He’s a special player,” Madison said. “Not just from a talent standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint. He led the team in tackles his sophomore year, junior year, senior year. I’m more of a defensive-oriented coach, and at College Park, we like to hang our hat on defense. He’s grown a lot, but he’s been that leader for the last three years. He’ll be a difficult one to have to replace in the future.”
Hazen posted another strong statistical season for the Cavaliers as a senior. He finished his final prep campaign with 101 tackles (73 solo), 19 tackles for loss, eight sacks, 11 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Hazen was named the District 13-6A Co-Most Valuable Player for his efforts in leading the Cavaliers to an 8-2 overall record and the outright district crown.
Over his three years as a varsity starter at College Park, Hazen amassed 282 tackles (210 solo), 52 tackles for loss, 23 sacks, six forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
“He’s an incredible athlete,” Madison said. “He’s got the school record in most of our strength and conditioning things that we test on. He’s incredibly fast, and I would say that he’s got great instincts that you’ve got to have to play linebacker. He’s extremely coachable, and he always finds a way to be around the football.”
Perhaps the signature moments of Hazen’s career came against The Woodlands during the regular-season finale. Both teams were unbeaten in district action and clashed at Woodforest Bank Stadium with all the chips pushed to the center of the table.
College Park led 35-31 with less than two minutes remaining. The Woodlands was facing third down from the Cavaliers’ 43-yard line when Hazen made the first of two monumental plays to seal the victory.
Lined up as an edge rusher, Hazen burst off the line of scrimmage and sped past the offensive tackle for a sack.
It was more of the same on the fourth-down play that followed. Once again, he came screaming off the edge and caused havoc in the pocket. That allowed teammate Perry Irchirl to collect another sack and effectively end the game.
The Cavaliers were district champions for the first time in program history.
“We made a switch on defense and moved Dylan down to kind of a rush, defensive end spot,” Madison said. “Basically, he created pressure on three or four straight plays that led to sacks and allowed us to clinch that game. That’s definitely the moment where he came through huge and clutch for us. We rushed three guys and dropped eight, and just by having him rush off the edge, creating pressure single-handily, it changed that game.”
Aside from his contributions on the field, Hazen has also been a positive influence in the Cavaliers’ locker room. Madison said he always focuses on the little things and leads by example.
Hazen committed to Wake Forest over the summer after receiving more than 20 Division I offers. While he will certainly be missed by the Cavaliers, Madison is excited to follow his college career.
“Dylan is a tremendous athlete and a great football player, but he’s also a very high academic kid,” Madison said. “I think it’s a great fit with Wake Forest. He’s going to go play Clemson and Florida State and be playing football at the highest level. I anticipate him going into Wake Forest and having a chance to make an immediate impact for them. I think we’re all going to be looking for big things from him. He’s going to go on and have a great career.”
OFFENSIVE MVP: Alton McCaskill, Sr., RB, Oak Ridge
Alton McCaskill had plenty to prove.
Even as one of the top-rated running back recruits in the country, the Oak Ridge senior was not satisfied with his prep career. He wanted to leave a legacy and show exactly why major Division I college coaches were clamoring for his commitment.
He accomplished those goals, and the War Eagles reaped the benefits. For his extraordinary athleticism, his shimmering statistics and his unbridled passion for winning at Oak Ridge, McCaskill is The Courier’s Offensive MVP.
Throughout their second season under head coach Mark Schmid, the War Eagles leaned on McCaskill time and time again. The results that followed were prodigious as Oak Ridge got back into the playoffs for the first time in three years and captured its first playoff victory since 2002.
“You could tell he was a guy on a mission to do something with his senior football season,” Schmid said. “I was happy to see that he came with that attitude and was certainly very happy to see what he was able to do when he had the chance to play.”
McCaskill, who recently unveiled his December signing with the University of Houston, missed a couple of non-district games early in the season. He made the most of his opportunities after returning, however, and rushed for 1,519 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also had 13 catches for 227 yards and four more scores.
McCaskill finished his career with more than 3,000 yards of total offense and 34 touchdowns. He was more than just a talented player for Oak Ridge, however. He also played a key role as a senior leader, showing the younger players the ropes and helping to build a winning culture.
“He fits the bill for the consummate high school football athlete that everybody wants to have,” Schmid said. “He’s a great athlete, he’s a great person, and he’s a great student. He checks all those boxes when you’re looking at a kid that you want to represent your program. He certainly was that for us. He was kind of our barometer — as Alton went, we went a lot of times in terms of our season.”
McCaskill had many bright moments throughout the season, including several clutch plays in district games. He also authored one of the most thrilling highlights of the year with a 99-yard touchdown run to seal a victory against Clear Creek.
McCaskill was named the District 13-6A Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts and powered the War Eagles to a 30-20 victory over Eisenhower in the Class 6A Division II bi-district playoffs.
“He was always ready to step out and do what he needed to do,” Schmid said. “There were times when he wanted to put the game on his shoulders, and there were critical times when he kind of let us know that. He was a huge, huge asset for us, and our team was better because of him.”
McCaskill was rated as the No. 21 running back in the country by 247Sports. He chose to stay close to home at Houston after receiving more than 30 offers, many of the top programs in the country among them. McCaskill is the eighth highest-rated player to sign with the Cougars during the modern recruiting era and the No.1 running back.
“He wants to be close to his family,” Schmid said. “He has a little brother and little sister, and the fact that they have an opportunity to come see him play is big for him. He feels like he can be an impact player really early, and he loves the Houston area. They moved here from Kansas, and ever since they’ve been here, he said Houston has been extremely good to him and his family. He wants to be here and help to give back to the city.”
DEFENSIVE MVP: William Alexander, Jr., LB, Magnolia
Magnolia coach Craig Martin doesn’t have any trouble motivating William Alexander. The junior linebacker does it on his own.
With a machine-like work ethic, he reached another level on the gridiron this season. For his no-nonsense approach to the game, his insatiable hunger for winning and his uncanny instincts in the middle of the field, Alexander is The Courier’s Defensive MVP.
“I think it starts with him just being a relentless worker,” Martin said. “He is just one of those kids sometimes that you have to tell, ‘Whoa’ as opposed to saying, ‘Ya.’ You never have to spur that horse with a kid like him. He’s one of those kids, and then he’s just a student of the game. It’s hard to get him to smile because his work light is turned on 100 percent of the time, and I think that’s what makes him special.”
Alexander played sparingly as a sophomore, but he burst onto the scene this year as a primary leader for the Magnolia defense.
He finished his junior campaign with 117 tackles (59 solo), 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, three quarterback hurries, four interceptions, two pass breakups, one forced fumble, one blocked kick and one defensive touchdown.
“He’s a big, physical presence, and he’s super physical,” Martin said. “He likes to be around the football, and he’s one of those guys I call a ‘thumper.’ He’s going to go in there and lay a hit on you when he has the opportunity.”
The Bulldogs were the undefeated District 8-5A (Div. I) champions this season, advanced to the area playoffs and finished with a 10-2 record. Alexander and the defense were huge factors in that success. Magnolia was No. 1 in the district in points (8.3) and yards (229.8) allowed per game during the regular season.
“He really is the quarterback out there on defense,” Martin said. “He’s the one who gets them lined up, and he’s the one who makes all those checks and adjustments. He’s totally engaged all the time. … What also helped him become that leader for us on defense was the rest of the guys. They have 100 percent faith and confidence in his preparation. When he opens his mouth, those guys listen to him.”
One game in particular stands out to Martin when thinking about Alexander — the season opening loss against Katy Tompkins. The Bulldogs were facing Alabama commit and dual-threat quarterback Jalen Milroe and shut out the Falcons in the second half. Although Magnolia still came up short in the end, it provided Alexander with plenty of fuel.
The Bulldogs went on to win 10 consecutive games following that loss.
“He was so mad at the end of that game and really felt like it was the defense’s fault,” Martin said. “That loss to him burned, and I think that’s what really kind of spurred him and the rest of our defense. Our defense is what got us to where we were. But if there was one defining moment, I know it’s kind of weird to say a loss, but I think that just really sparked us. He was the catalyst for that.”
Alexander will be returning next season with even bigger goals. It will be the third year for Martin leading the program, and he believes No. 18 in the middle will have plenty to do with any success that comes their way.
“The thing as a coach that you’re excited to have back is just that work ethic and that leadership,” Marin said. “As you graduate classes, you have to have new leaders step up. Obviously, he’s a great football player and a big playmaker for us, but the thing I’m most excited about is his leadership by example in how hard he trains and prepares, and his competitiveness. I think that’s what can really spread through your program like wildfire.”
SPECIAL TEAMS MVP: Grant Nickel, Sr., K/P, Grand Oaks
With one swing of his leg, Grant Nickel could change a game.
Whether it was lining up to put points on the board or shifting field position, the Grand Oaks senior was a valuable weapon for his team all season.
For his pin-point punting, extra-point precision and affluence in field goal kicking, Nickel is The Courier’s Special Teams MVP.
Nickel, who committed to Texas Tech on Jan. 1 as a preferred walk-on, was lights out for the Grizzlies during their inaugural season playing Class 6A football under coach Mike Jackson.
He was named the District 13-6A Special Teams Player of the Year after connecting on 10 of 12 field goal attempts and all 50 extra-point attempts. But perhaps where Nickel was the most lethal was in the punting game. He averaged 42 yards per punt with a long of 54.
“He does some amazing things punting the football,” Jackson said. “It’s almost like watching a golfer hit a wedge shot and be able to just spin it back. He can bang it, but he can also nestle it down there inside the 5-yard line almost at will. He’s definitely a weapon and brings something that we’re definitely going to miss.”
When it came to kicking field goals and extra points, Nickel delivered over and over for the Grizzlies. He finished his career 91 for 94 on extra-point attempts and was perfect this season on his way to scoring 80 points. That ranked third in the district during the regular season behind only McCaskill and Grand Oaks running back Micah Cooper (84).
“In this game, it’s very rare that you see perfection,” Jackson said. “That’s a testament to him and James Holmon, our holder, and Noah Sterenberg, our snapper. I’m sure Grant would say the same thing — those two guys and the rest of his teammates helped make him successful.”
One of the signature moments from Nickel’s senior season came against Oak Ridge. There were about four minutes remaining in the game, and rain was coming down at Woodforest Bank Stadium. Nickel delivered a 45-yard punt that landed at the 8-yard line and rolled out of bounds at the 1. The Grizzlies ultimately held on for a 32-28 victory.
Jackson said Nickel’s consistency and poise during critical moments comes from his dedication to improvement.
“He has my number on speed dial, and it’s a rare day that he’s not texting me to unlock the field so he can get some work in,” Jackson said. “He is devoted to his craft, and he’s been that way as long as I’ve known him. What he does out there under the lights on Friday nights is a direct reflection of the hard work he’s putting in behind the scenes.”
Grand Oaks finished this season with a 7-3 overall record and narrowly missed the playoffs. Plenty of that success can be attributed to Nickel and the rest of the inaugural senior class that laid the foundation for the program.
“He’s the type of kid you want to build your program around,” Jackson said. “It’s truly been an honor to coach him. I tease him all the time — I’ve got three playing in the NFL right now, and I think he’s got a chance as his body develops and he gets on a training table up at Tech. It would not surprise me if we’re all watching Grant Nickel punt the football at the highest level here in about five years.”
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Josh Evans-Pickens, Soph., RB, Porter
Jim Holley takes pride in creating a family atmosphere within his program at Porter. Four members of the team perfectly embodied that value this season — literally.
Daniel Evans-Pickens, the running backs and strength and conditioning coach, saw all three of his sons contribute for the Spartans this season. Two of them, sophomore Josh and senior Caleb, were standout performers in the backfield. Freshman Payton, meanwhile, started in the secondary.
Josh quickly adapted to the varsity level, and as the season wore on, he developed into a star. For his elusive and tough running style, his knack for finding the end zone and his profound stretch of performances to close out the district schedule, he is The Courier’s Newcomer of the Year.
“Being so young and stepping into the role as the starting tailback with some very talented people playing that position, that could be very distracting,” Holley said. “But through that process, his focus and his consistency throughout the season was pretty amazing.”
Evans-Pickens was named the District 8-5A Offensive Newcomer of the Year after rushing for 1,195 yards and collecting 1,307 all-purpose yards. He led the district with 20 total touchdowns and finished second with 18 on the ground. Evans-Pickens averaged 120 rushing yards per game and 8.7 yards per attempt.
“The big thing that stands out to me when you go back and watch video of Josh was his ability to get yards after first contact,” Holley said. “There were a lot of times that he would have a 4- or 5-yard run that was pretty amazing because he was hit three or four times or in the backfield. His after-contact runs were impressive for a sophomore.”
Porter started district play 0-3 and needed to start piling up wins to have a shot at the playoffs. That’s when Evans-Pickens did most of his damage. The Spartans reeled off a four-game winning streak where he rushed for 101, 185, 180 and 250 yards, respectively, and scored 13 touchdowns.
The penultimate game of the season against Magnolia West stands out in particular. Evans-Picked collected nearly 300 total yards and reached the end zone five times during a 44-35 victory at Randall Reed Stadium.
Porter ultimately came up short of the postseason, but those performances from their young running back provided plenty of hopes for the future of the program.
While Evans-Pickens was often the primary ball carrier, highlights show his brother, Caleb, as the lead blocker on several of his longest runs of the season. The brothers, along with senior Avry Porter-Campbell, provided the Spartans with a strong trio in the backfield.
“Having Caleb there, one of our senior leaders, he set an example for his brother, not only on the football field, but off the field as well,” Holley said. “I think having his whole family there helped a lot. I think Caleb was able to help him through some (tough) times. Caleb was so excited for Josh’s success and vice-versa, and that was very special to see. The love they have for each other is just very, very special.”
COACH OF THE YEAR: Lonnie Madison, College Park
When Lonnie Madison took over as the head football coach at College Park four years ago, he was inheriting a program that had gone 6-25 over the three previous seasons. The Cavaliers had not been to the playoffs since 2015 and had not had a winning season since 2011.
There was plenty of work to be done, and Madison immediately rolled up his sleeves.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the fruits of that labor were never been more robust. College Park not only got back into the playoffs, but also captured its first-ever district championship. For his efforts steering the Cavaliers’ ship, Madison is The Courier’s Coach of the Year.
“To keep it simple, it’s just been hard work,” Madison said. “Hard work by my players, my coaches. From Day 1 when I got to College Park, I told them there’s no shortcuts, and there’s no easy way. You’ve got to put in the time and the work. Every successful program that I’ve been a part of, it’s been the same thing. That’s what we’ve been preaching for four years, and I think our kids have really bought in to that.”
While every football season has its challenges, the biggest one facing the athletes and coaches in 2020 was the coronavirus pandemic. With UIL health protocols and guidelines in place, the Cavaliers and other teams around the state persevered with uncertainly constantly swirling.
“I think every kid across the country had something they missed out on a little bit with this last year with the things they’ve had to deal with,” Madison said. “The seniors that we had and the team in general did a great job of taking the precautions. Everybody had to adjust, and the kids did everything that was asked of them for us to be able to have this season.”
Madison, who was previously the defensive coordinator with a very successful Klein Collins program, led the Cavaliers to an 8-2 overall record this past season. After suffering a non-district loss against a state-ranked Arlington Martin team in early October, they went on a seven-game winning streak that culminated with the victory over The Woodlands in the 13-6A title game.
All the success the Cavaliers experienced together held special meaning to their head coach.
“I think what’s special to me is that I’m from the community,” said Madison, who graduated from McCullough High School before playing football at Texas A&M. “I went to the same schools and grew up in the same neighborhoods as them. I’ve got a daughter who’s at the high school, so my family is really entrenched in the community. To get to bring a district championship to College Park really does mean a lot to me.”
College Park saw its season end with a 33-7 loss against Westfield in the Class 6A Division I bi-district playoffs. The Cavaliers are 0-6 in the postseason all-time, but checking that box seems attainable moving forward with the team returning around 14 starters next season.
“We’ve got a good foundation to continue to build and move forward and compete,” Madison said.