(left) and Coach Jason Durham Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)
"We really expect big things this season, and I think we will be in the mix for the conference title," said Durham. "But the 3A-3 Conference is a very tough league, and our schedule won't make it any easier for us."
The Lions, 4-5 overall and 2-5 in league play last season, have only three home games this year, all of which are conference tilts. Manila opens the season with three straight road games, including a trip to conference rival Hoxie. Manila wraps up the season, traveling to Piggott and Rivercrest. One of the Lion's toughest games this season will be a trip on Oct. 8 to Earle where the Manila will face the Bullpups, a perennial league power.
"The kids have really worked hard over the summer and have gotten a lot bigger and stronger," said Durham. "I think one of the big keys to the season will be winning the games we are supposed to win."
Manila will build both its offense and defense around star lineman Chad Lisk, a 5'10" 184 lb. freshman. Lisk returns to man the right tackle position on the offensive line, while anchoring a deep and talented defensive front.
"If there is a better lineman in our conference, I would like to see him," said Durham. "Chad has had a terrific preseason, and has literally been killing people in practice."
Joining Lisk in the offensive line will be right guard Trey Walker, a 5'9" 265 lb. freshman. Will Croquart, a 5'7" 145 lb. freshman, will man the center spot. The Lions have a couple of battles going on for both the left guard and left tackle positions. Zach Wells, a 5'3" 165 lb. eighth grader, and Jordan Goff, a 5'10" 185 lb. eighth grader, are in a heated battle for the left guard position, while Nick Carmichael, a 5'8" 185 lb. freshman, and Tyler Lewis, a 5'9" 175 lb. freshman, are vying for the left tackle spot.
"We have a very strong line with a lot of quality depth," said Durham.
Jordan Brewer returns at fullback and will be one of the featured runners in the Lion offensive arsenal. The 5'7" 155 lb. freshman is a workhorse back with great skills and moves. "Jordan is a very good ball carrier who runs with power and has great vision."
Dylan Bogle, a 6'0"150 lb. freshman, will start at the A-back position, teaming with Brewer to give the Lions a dual threat in the backfield. "With Bogle at the A-back position, we will be able to put the ball in his hands a lot more," said Durham. He can not only run with the ball but he is a good receiver and an excellent blocker."
Zach Reinhart, a 5'8" 145 lb. freshman, will start at the B-back position. "Zach has gotten a lot more physical over the summer," added Durham. We intend to put the ball in his hands a lot more this year to help complement Brewer and Bogle."
The Lions will rely on 5'5" 125 lb. eighth grader Sam Hubbard to handle the quarterback duties. Hubbard is a good runner whom Durham calls "very heady."
"Sam is real smart with the football and gives us the best opportunity to win football games," said Durham. "He allows us to put Bogle all over the field, which makes our offense a lot more diversified."
Manila will switch from a 4-3 defense to a 5-2 look this year. "The depth of our defensive line allows us to make a switch in our defensive philosophy," said Durham. The Lions return only four starters from last year's team and will rely heavily on the experience of Lisk and Carmichael along with a pair of talented linebackers in Bogle and Brewer. "The 5-2 scheme will give us our best chance to stop the other team, especially with our lack of experience in the secondary," said Durham.
Depth abounds in the defensive line for Manila, as the Lions boast six freshmen who have all seen quality playing time in the past. Lisk and Carmichael are the leaders of the defensive line, and are aided by Croquart, Walker, Lewis and 6'0" 255 lb. Geramie Stallings. Jordan Goff will also supply depth in the line.
Manila returns two of the better linebackers in the league in Bogle and Brewer. "Dillon and Jordan are both very good players, and will be backed up by Dylan Wycoff, a 5'9" 165 lb. freshman and eighth grader Jay Kulin (5'9" 150 lbs)," said Durham. "Wycoff played some last season while Kulin is a very athletic kid who will play both linebacker and safety."
The Lions will have virtually a new secondary this season, led by Reinhart and 5'7" 125 lb. freshman Chase Thrasher. "Thrasher and Reinhart have some experience in the secondary and we are really counting on them to step up as starters this year," said Durham. "They have both grown up a lot over the summer and have gotten stronger. I think they will be good players for us this season."
Colby Williams, a 5'2" 110 lb. freshman dynamo, brings some experience to the secondary as well. "Williams is one of those kids who will sneak up on you and hit you hard," said Durham. "He's a little guy, but he's real tenacious."
Hubbard will round out the secondary at one of the safety spots. "Sammy really knows the game and knows what is going on," added Durham. "We'll put him back there and see what he can do."
"The kids have been very consistent working out this summer," continued Durham. "I have been very proud of their work ethic. We have a very special group of kids that have really worked hard and have gotten better everyday. We are looking forward to the season opener."