As soon as Tivy coach David Jones blew his whistle at 7:25 a.m. Monday, and safeties coach Austin Galifaro blasted music over the stereo in the Antler field house — signaling the start of Antler Week — the Tivy football players rushed into the weight room, ready to undergo a litany of exercises.
But the biggest challenge this week won’t be the weight training, nor the jump rope exercise, nor even the physically exhausting mat drills. No, the greatest trial for the Antlers this week will be finding players who will help fill the leadership role of departing senior Karson Valverde.
The Antlers begin the 2019 season in an enviable position. They have experience, returning five starters on offense and eight on defense; they possess talent, returning both the reigning District 26-5A Offensive Newcomer of the Year (quarterback Cole Miears) and the Defensive Newcomer of the year (linebacker Cole Mixon), along with two first team all-district receivers (Brooks McCoy and Colten Drake). In all likelihood, they will be favored by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine to repeat as district champions and make another deep postseason run.
The only lingering concern entering 2019 is that they will be missing their 2018 leader and all the services he offered. Even on Monday, Valverde’s absence was noticed.
“It’s kind of weird,” rising senior quarterback Miears admitted afterwards. “It’s kind of hard to get more energized for (Antler Week) because Karson used to get us pumped up really well. It’s harder to get pumped up for (this week) because he’s not here.”
“His job wasn’t as easy as it looked,” Brooks McCoy added. “Getting guys motivated.”
Valverde did a little bit of everything to lead the Antlers to a 11-2 record and an appearance in the Region IV semifinals. He was the unanimous district MVP, kept team moral high during practices and early morning workouts and held his teammates accountable. Miears remembers once arriving two-minutes late to a Thursday morning practice. Valverde looked him in the eye and told Miears, “Don’t ever let that happen
Valverde’s leadership allowed the Antlers to gel with each other. That strong camaraderie helps explain why they won two games in overtime and how they were able to overcome a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit against Bastrop in the first round of the playoffs.
The Antlers are going to need to find new charismatic leaders if they hope to match, or exceed 2018’s success.
“Replacing a player like Karson … you just don’t do that,” Tivy receivers coach Jason Crawford said. “He’s one of a kind. But we just have to find someone to step up.”
Fortunately for Tivy, there are several qualified candidates to lead the 2019 team. Miears, McCoy, Drake, Mixon, safety Race Risinger, utility player Trapper Pannell, linebacker Regan Robertson and
Zach Layton all come to mind.
“Those guys are stepping up and being the leaders that we need to be,” Crawford said.
The only problem? The majority of those aforementioned players have never really been vocal leaders. During previous seasons, they worked hard, made plays on Friday nights in the fall, but were never really comfortable addressing the team. But that is slowly changing.
Signs of leadership began emerging late last season. During the second half against Bastrop, when Miears continued to clutch his stomach in pain after absorbing multiple hits, McCoy kept urging his quarterback to give the team at least one more possession. When Tivy trailed, 49-28, in the final nine minutes of regulation, Mixon marched down Tivy’s sideline, telling his defenders, “This game isn’t over yet. Get ready to make some stops.”
Sure enough, those outbursts helped produced one of the greatest comebacks in Tivy history. Mixon and the defense forced two consecutive three-and-outs, allowing Miears to engineer three straight touchdown drives to send the game into overtime.
Tivy’s coaches hope to further develop those leadership traits during Antler Week.
“We want to them to step out of their comfort zone and encourage their teammates,” Crawford said. “We want to find which guys are going to be our leaders when the season starts. … This week helps a ton. Sometimes, these kids just stay in their shell and they don’t want to step out and lead. They have the ability to lead by example, but sometimes you have to do both: Be vocal and lead by example.”