RANKIN, Texas (KMID/KPEJ) – The Rankin Red Devils, led by fifth-year head coach Garret Avalos, were selected by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football to win District 7-1A, six-man, and are ranked seventh in the preseason polls.

While they are slated to finish on top, the district and regular season provides fierce competition around the board.

“It’s a tough first five weeks for sure, and so we just got to take it week by week and just focus on, you know, I heard Baret say earlier, you know get a mark and just focus on getting better each week to get us prepared for our district season when it matters,” Avalos said.

And that competition could be even more intimidating this year after losing several seniors, and that dropped the team numbers drastically, only suiting up 24 players.

“That’s been different, but also kind of nice. You know, having to fit 24 helmets and shoulder pads is a lot easier than 35 to 40,” Avalos added. “It’s been a great start, they’re working hard, they’re a quiet group, they keep their heads down and get after it, and that’s something we try to preach here in Rankin.”

For those who came back for their final year, this season means something even more to them to see it through.

“I’m a little worried, just because I want this season to be the best just because it’s my last, but I’m still excited just knowing that I’m finally the senior on the team and sort of a leader as a senior,” Baret Jackson, Rankin senior tailback, said. “I know we lost a few but we still have a lot coming back. I mean we still got a lot of big athletes, so I don’t think it’s going to be a big drop for us and we have a lot of fight in us still, so it’s still going to be a good year.”

Senior fullback, Roman Joyce said, losing so many players will not change their gameplay.

“We still got a good group, we can do this. We got a good group of guys. You know, people are looking at last year saying we’re losing so many seniors, but we still got our guys, we still got some starters from last year, and you know, we still got it,” he laughed. “Sure we’re going to be missing a few guys, but we got new guys starting at those spots, new experience, still got plenty of guys with new experience, I don’t think we’re going to be missing much.”

At the end of the day, Avalos said, seeing how many choose to come back and fill the shoes of those who have left, makes the biggest impact.

“I think it’s vital because even though each season you have a different team, and they have that seasons team, those guys that have been in the program, especially since junior high, playing for Rankin means something to them,” he said, also mentioning the pain they have seen the past seniors experience during their losses in the playoffs.

“They’ve seen the struggles of the seniors, and the tears and all the things they go through when they lose a big football game and stuff like that so, you know, we’ve got guys that have been managers when they were young in elementary school, so that’s a big part of it, not only as players, just invested in our culture here.”

In the last four seasons, the Red Devils have gone undefeated and won their district. But the momentum has been cut short each time in playoffs as they lost to the eventual state champions, three out of the four playoff appearances.

Avalos said, “For it to end that way, I mean there’s only one team at the end of the year that’s satisfied and that’s the state champion so of course, it was, you know, devastating for some of our kids to lose that way, we didn’t expect that, but that’s just a great football team, coach Matt Lock’s got a great program going so, just nothing but respect and yeah at the end of the day it hurts, but we got to turn the page and move on and teach our kids a life lesson through those things.”

For many of them, last year’s loss to Westbrook in the quarterfinals was heartbreaking, but it’s even more motivating.

Senior guard, Blake Bunger says this is the chance to prove to everyone they are not finished. “Pretty pumped, everybody says we’re going to have a down year, everybody we’re not going to win, we’re going to lose to everybody in our district, they don’t even think we’re going to make it to playoffs, but we’re ready to prove them wrong.”

“I was disappointed, and I would say everyone. It was just a rough moment for us, we kind of lost some of our key points, but it was still a good game. You know, we had a good season and it didn’t end the way we wanted it, but it was still good,” said Jackson.

And this just makes them excited to see Westbrook again, as Joyce said, “I want to get revenge on Westbrook.”

Jackson added this is also the time to not focus on the past or even what’s ahead, but to focus on progressing and their present. “We want to play every game, one game at a time, we don’t want to look for next week against Westbrook, whoever it is, we want to play every game that week. We can’t look past, or to the future, we just got to look at the moment.”

Rankin kicks off the 2023 season at home against a powerful Balmorhea team on August 25th at 7:30 p.m.