The dress rehearsals are over for Grand Oaks.
Following two years with independent varsity schedules, the Grizzlies made the expected jump to Class 6A and will be eligible for a postseason spot this fall for the first time in the program’s short history.
After the school picked its mascot and colors, a timeline was established that pointed to the football team playing in a University Interscholastic League district once it had its first senior class.
Add a pandemic to an already lengthy path leading to this fall, and it’s hard for head coach Mike Jackson to believe the first game is less than two weeks away.
“When we go out and we’re ready to kick off, I’ll believe it,” Jackson said. “It’s been a long and winding road.”
After posting a 7-3 inaugural record in 2018, the Grizzlies beefed up their schedule, adding teams that went on to playoff runs like Comfort and Brownwood, and a 6A opponent in Pasadena Memorial. A 6-4 record was a step back on paper, but a step forward for the program.
The 2020 schedule starts with Caney Creek on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at Woodforest Bank Stadium. From there, the Grizzlies will take on Klein Forest, Kingwood Park and Fort Bend Austin before diving into District 13-6A play with College Park, Conroe, The Woodlands, Willis and Oak Ridge. A Dec. 4 non-district matchup with Clear Lake will close out the regular season.
“We’ve done all we can with our scheduling the last two years, as these kids have matured, to put them in Friday night positions,” Jackson said. “Hopefully a longer non-district will help us, but no matter what we do, there’s going to be a step up. You can’t replicate playing in a 6A district week-to-week.”
Grand Oaks will begin the year with two quarterbacks: senior James Holmon, who took most of the snaps as a sophomore in 2018 before moving to wideout last season, and sophomore Hudson Hamilton, who was the primary signal caller in 2019.
“We will go into the first game with two quarterbacks,” Jackson said. “They’ll both play, and we’ll evaluate and compete week-to-week. We may ride the hot hand at times with either one of them, but the plan right now is they’re both going to play in every game.”
Senior Micah Cooper returns to the backfield after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season.
Noah Sterenberg, a senior, centers the offensive line and is also a key piece to perhaps the Grizzlies’ best weapon: the kicking game. Senior Grant Nickel, who recently picked up his first official offer from Southwestern University, returns to handle kicking and punting duties.
“It’s really nice having Grant around,” Sterenberg, also the long snapper, said. “Him and I practice a lot outside of school, so we have that chemistry. We always trust him when we need him.”
Defensively, a trio of senior linebackers lead the way in Jack Manning, David Bush and Noah Clark. Nathan Thornberry, a senior returning at defensive end, believes the unit could be a strength for the Grizzlies.
“I’m feeling great about this season,” he said. “Collectively, we’ve all gotten better over the years and we’ve been working for three-plus years for this. I believe we’re ready.”
While the Grizzlies have a senior class for the first time, it is a small one at 33 — about a third the size of the freshman class in the program. This season is a big step, but Jackson acknowledged it is still just one step in an ongoing process for Grand Oaks.
“This year is not going to be who we are at the end of our journey,” Jackson said. “This is another step in the process. The first year we were at a certain level. Last year, we obviously took a step because the kids were older. This year, we’ve obviously taken another step because now we have seniors. But I don’t think a true indicator of where we’re at will come until a couple of years from now.”
In its first year in a UIL district, Grand Oaks still has a lot of growth ahead of it. Outside expectations might not be high, but Jackson likes his team’s collective work ethic as it begins a new chapter.
“I know where we’re picked and I know what, on paper, we’re supposed to do,” he said. “I also know that I like our kids and I like our coaches.”