In the trenches

Tivy’s offensive and defensive lines prepare to square off during practice early Wednesday morning. The Antlers’ D-line is hoping to produce big numbers again in the fall.

Inside the Tivy field house video room on Monday, Alex Bennett laughs when he recalls the first time he met his friend, Gonzalo Hernandez.

The encounter occurred four years ago on the practice field behind the field house. And yes, it’s a rather funny story. Bennett had just moved to Kerrville from Pennsylvania and was a running back for the Hal Peterson eighth grade team. In his first opportunity to showcase his skills during practice, Bennett decided to bounce to the outside. That’s when Hernandez formerly introduced himself, slamming Bennett to the ground. It was the moment Bennett realized that he was no longer in Pennsylvania.

“He gave me a nice ‘welcome to Texas’ tackle,” Bennett said with a grin. “He taught me that I need to get up twice as fast as I did in Pennsylvania, and Texas is about urgency.”

Not much has changed since that meeting. As a defensive tackle, Hernandez still enjoys pulverizing running backs. Only this time, Bennett is no longer on the receiving end of those hits. In fact, he’s hoping to dole out some punishments of his own. Hernandez, Bennett, Dominic Jefferson and Noah Flores began their Tivy careers as running backs and then switched to defensive linemen when they were sophomores. At first, they weren’t too thrilled about moving over to defense. Eventually though, they came to embrace playing on the defensive line. Now, the four linemen are trying to become the next great Tivy defensive front, hoping to begin their senior year with a strong performance in Friday’s scrimmage against Boerne at Antler Stadium.

“They are our best group up and down the roster, and I think they have taken ownership of that,” Tivy defensive coordinator Jeremy Hickman said of the defensive line.“The culture that we have — the unity and brotherhood aspect of our defense — is going to allow those guys a chance to be special up front. We’ve had some good defensive fronts. The guys ought to be right up there with them.”

That’s high praise, considering the Antlers have possessed some stout defensive linemen the last few seasons. In 2017, Tivy had the most sacks (44) in District 26-5A. Then in 2018, Hernandez and Jefferson helped the Antlers lead the district in sacks (39) again. Both impressed during their first full season on varsity. Hernandez recorded 11 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Jefferson, meanwhile, posted a sack, three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Flores (25 tackles, three tackles for loss) and Bennett (nine tackles) both showed promise in back-up roles.

It didn’t take long after the 2018 season had ended for the four linemen to realize that Tivy’s defensive line could be even better during their senior year. After all, they knew they were inheriting some talented players (Micah Harrison, Haden Poe, Hayden Barnett and Garrett Kleypas) from the Antlers’ junior varsity squad.

But they also knew that the only way they were going to reach their full potential was through hard work. They immediately began making frequent visits to the weight room.

They also had to handle some emotional news during the off-season. In May, their defensive line coach, Ty Taylor, informed them that he was leaving the program to accept a coaching position at Texarkana Pleasant Grove. The news crushed them. Taylor, a former defensive lineman at Harding University, didn’t just give them solid pointers about how to improve at their position; but he had also made an effort to develop close relationships with every one of them. Jefferson often refers to Taylor as a “father figure” during interviews.

Taylor, though, wrote a note to all of his senior linemen before he left. First, he let them know that he cared deeply about all of them. And second, he reminded them that it was now their responsibility to continue Tivy’s tradition of great defensive line play.

“We feel like (Taylor leaving) brought us closer as a defensive line, relying on each other,” Bennett said. “We lost a great coach. We have to coach each other now; we have to keep the energy that he represented. I’m not saying that it’s not there with the new coaches. We just need to maintain what we were taught and not get discombobulated by losing a coach and lose our way.”

He and his senior cohorts made sure that didn’t happen. Hernandez worked especially hard, attending all 24 days of Tivy’s optional summer strength and conditioning camp. Often times, he and Flores arrived to a 7 a.m. training session an hour early to sneak in an extra workout.

When Taylor visited Tivy’s field house in July the day before he and his family moved to Texarkana, he was thrilled to see his linemen toiling in the weight room.

“It was good to see those guys working hard,” Taylor said over the phone. “I love everyone of them and miss coaching them … but they have a lot of reasons for optimism. They have a bunch of dudes who can play.”

Naturally, the Antlers’ linemen know they can still improve, and they will likely make mistakes during Friday’s scrimmage. Film will likely reveal high pad level, poor hand placement and improper footwork, errors that always occur during the first scrimmage.

But Tivy’s defensive linemen will also labor to fix those flaws during practice next week. Because it’s their senior year and they want this season to be their best one yet.

“This is a senior group. We are really close with each other,” Hernandez said. “This is our class, the class of 2020. We have been bonding since the seventh and eighth grade. I’m looking forward to this season. We are going to be really, really good.”

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