The Woodlands has a high standard for success on the gridiron, and those lofty expectations don’t waiver much from year to year. And while the program does have to replace several key players this season, it’s certainly more of a reboot than a rebuild.
The Highlanders finished last season with an 8-5 overall record, which included a 5-3 finish in district action. The Woodlands then won playoff games against Spring and Cypress Woods to advance to the third round for a second consecutive season. The team ultimately met its match in the Region II-6A semifinals with a lop-sided loss against Prosper.
The offseason has been challenging at times, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but third-year head coach Jim Rapp has been pleased with the progress his player have made since beginning full practices on Labor Day.
The Woodlands is aiming for its 26th consecutive playoff berth, the longest current streak in Montgomery County.
“We’re having to replace a lot on both sides of the ball, but especially defensively — we’ve got to replace a lot of experience,” Rapp said. “Talking about expectations, the expectation is that we’re going to continue to work hard to be good, to try to get back where we were last year, to be better, to excel past where we were the last couple of years.”
The Woodlands’ offense is led by a talented receiver group. Seniors Teddy Knox and Jack Calhoun and junior Ben Ferguson are the top targets. Knox committed to Mississippi State over the summer and was used in a variety of ways last season en route to an all-district selection. Senior Connor Dechiro is leading the way for the starting quarterback spot, and junior Justin Sheldon — who transferred from Tomball in the spring — is a strong second candidate as the season approaches.
Offensive line has always been a strength for The Woodlands, and that could be the case again with seniors Titan Tucker and M.J. Ruhman leading the charge. Tucker is a three-year letterman and will be counted on for his experience and leadership.
“Our whole offense is pretty young, but the young guys are all stepping up,” Tucker said. “Everyone looks really good from what I’ve seen so far.”
The Woodlands returns just three starters on defense, and perhaps its biggest loss was defensive tackle Caleb Fox. He was the All-Montgomery County Defensive MVP last season and is now playing at Stephen F. Austin. The Highlanders also lost a pair of defensive coaches with Phil “Bear” Murchison leaving for Oak Ridge and Gary Madore opting for the administrative route as an assistant principal.
Senior outside linebacker Noah Polotko and senior defensive lineman Logan Ecuyer are two players who are being counted on for key contributions. Junior linebacker Martrell Harris, who already has several Division I offers, is another name to watch.
“We’re going against a good offense (at practice), and they’re helping us get better,” Ecuyer said. “I think we’re just going to continue to improve. Iron sharpens iron.”
The Woodlands will be competing in a new district this year following the UIL realignment in February. The Highlanders were placed with familiar Conroe ISD foes Conroe, College Park and Oak Ridge, but Willis and Grand Oaks have also been added to the mix. It’s much different than the nine-team district the team played in the past two years with the Klein ISD schools.
“The Klein district was awesome,” Rapp said. “We really had some great battles. I think what it probably has done for all of us that have been in it, it’s raised our level of play, which I think will make our district better. Because we played in that district last year, we have a different mindset about how to prepare for games. I think that’s going to make our district even better.”
The Woodlands has always prided itself on putting together tough non-district schedules. Changes had to be made this year, but the Highlanders still managed to lock down three quality opponents. The team will be opening the season at Pearland, followed by home games against Houston Lamar and Fort Bend Hightower. All three of those programs are perennial playoff contenders and combined for 20 victories while reaching the postseason last year.
“We’ve got a great non-district schedule, and hopefully we can add an extra game in there along the way,” Rapp said. “But we’ll be prepared and ready to go when we open up (district play) against Willis.”