The Decatur Eagles won eight straight games to close out the 2015 regular season, including an improbable victory in the final seconds against Graham to claim the District 4-4A Division I title.
But the Eagles didn’t get a chance to celebrate long, as their season came to an abrupt end in bi-district with a loss to Stephenville for a second straight year.
Taking the field in 2016, the Eagles hope to fly over that first-round hump and make an extended playoff stay.
“The last two years, we were just looking to get to the playoffs. Our mindset is different this year,” said Decatur senior running back Payton McAlister. “We want to get far in the playoffs.”
With thoughts set on November, the Eagles bring back a wealth of experience with 12 seniors and several juniors that played as sophomores. Most of the experience is on what figures to be an explosive offense.
After Tyler Ticknor took over as the starting quarterback in the third game of the season, Decatur won eight straight. Ticknor finished the year with more than 2,000 yards passing and 808 yards rushing.
With Ticknor, the Eagles bring back 1,000-yard rusher McAlister. Decatur also has potential playmakers on the outside with Dane Fitzgerald, Mario Reyes and Moses Ramos.
“We have a lot of people that can score if they get in space,” said Decatur coach Mike Fuller. “It’s exciting to think about.”
On the other side of the ball, Decatur is reloading after graduating all-state linebacker and All-Wise Defensive Player of the Year Cole Vaughan and play-making safety Ryan Durdon. The Eagles return just three full-time starters from last year.
“It’s a younger defense and we have a lot more to prove,” said junior linebacker Josh Sij. “With only one starting senior, we can still prove ourselves and can be a good defense.”
Decatur will face a tough non-district schedule that includes three playoff teams from a year ago – Springtown, Alvarado and Stephenville, the team that’s ended its season the last two years. The Eagles also have a neutral site game at The Star in Frisco against Midlothian Heritage and the annual Battle of Big Sandy with Bridgeport.
“Everybody we play is good,” Fuller said. “That’s the only way you get better is to play good people.”
The Eagles look forward to the challenge.
“We’re happy with the strength of the schedule. We’ll be able to prove ourselves,” McAlister said.
The Eagles get the ultimate test to start their District 4-4A Division I title defense with a showdown with preseason No. 1 and state runnerup Argyle Oct. 7.
Decatur then faces familiar district foes – Wichita Falls Hirschi, Gainesville and Burkburnett – before closing the regular season with another big showdown with a Sanger squad that returns the core of its area finalist team from a year ago.
Those challenges only make the Eagles hungrier for their main goal.
“Our eyes are set on making the playoffs and making a deep run,” Ticknor said.
MCALISTER SET TO MAKE EAGLES SOAR
Standing 5-foot, 8-inches, Payton McAlister is far from being one of area’s biggest running backs.
While his height can be a sensitive subject, he turns it into one of his greatest weapons.
“My height is one thing that always bugs me,” McAlister said. “My brother is already taller than me and gives me a hard time because of my height. Everyone looks at me less because of my height. It does motivate me.”
Over two years as the Eagles’ feature running back, he’s frustrated opponents by making countless huge plays running or catching the football. In two seasons, he’s accounted for 43 touchdowns – 32 rushing and 11 receiving.
He’s rushed for 2,446 yards and added another 1,374 receiving.
Many of the receptions have come while out-leaping defenders or pulling the ball down in crowds. Also, many of his rushing yards have come after contact as he finds a way to power through tacklers or maintain his balance.
“Personally I don’t know myself,” McAlister said about some the show-stopping plays. “I just try so hard and hope for the best. A little help from the man upstairs helps out a little bit.
“I’m always looking for the end zone and trying to get there every play. I’m also trying to help the team get some points on the board. I don’t like to lose.”
McAlister followed up his 1,100-yard campaign as a sophomore last year with 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns. He put together the strong season in spite of playing with multiple injuries. He missed two games with an ankle sprain.
“Injuries are always frustrating,” McAlister said. “I swear every time that I say I’m healthy, I get injured. I always jinx myself or something. It’s frustrating sitting out, watching and not being able to play. It makes you want to play that much more.”
Playing hurt was nothing new for McAlister. He played the bulk of his stellar sophomore season with a torn labrum. The hip injury did little to slow him in a showdown against Graham in the 2014 regular season finale in which McAlister scored five touchdowns with 100 yards rushing and 184 receiving.
“My hip hurt a lot. That Graham game I didn’t worry about it. I just wanted to win that game,” McAlister recalled.
As a senior, McAlister has set a goal of being all-state. But he mainly wants to help an explosive offense with returning dual-threat quarterback Tyler Ticknor soar.
“We can be very explosive,” he said. “It’ll be real exciting to see what we can do.”
EAGLES IN A CAPSULE
2015 Record: 9-2, 5-0
District 4-4A I champion, bi-district qualifier
Head coach: Mike Fuller, third year at Decatur (16-6)
The Decatur Eagles return several big-time playmakers from last year’s District 4-4A Division I champion squad that closed the regular season with eight straight wins. But the Eagles didn’t end the way they wanted with an exit in the first round of the playoffs against a four-win Stephenville team.
The Eagles featured one of the area’s top offenses when at full strength last year.
Decatur averaged 302 yards per game, including 243 rushing.
Dual-threat quarterback Tyler Ticknor threw for 2,000 yards and ran for 808 after taking over as the full-time starter in the third game of the year. The All-Wise Offensive Player of the Year is poised for a bigger year in 2016.
“This year, knowing the offense has helped me a lot,” Ticknor said. “All the plays are second nature and I understand what we’re doing better.”
Decatur coach Mike Fuller said the senior has also developed physically.
“He’s faster, stronger and has better command on the offense,” Fuller said. “It’s helped that he’s not playing defense or running back.”
In the backfield, the Eagles hope to keep Payton McAlister healthy. The workhorse running back battled injuries throughout last season, including an ankle injury that hampered him in district play. McAlister still managed to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and caught 48 passes for 690 yards.
The pairing of McAlister and Ticknor should be a handful for defenses in the running game. The Eagles can also add in Dylan Nation, who averaged 7.4 yards per carry last year filling in for McAlister.
The Eagles graduated leading receiver Ryan Durdon but will still have Dane Fitzgerald and Mario Reyes – who averaged better than 17 yards per catch on their combined 30 grabs.
“We have really explosive guys,” McAlister said. “This is our third year in the offense. We know it well. We also have a true dual-threat quarterback that can run and throw.”
In the playoff loss to Stephenville, the Decatur Eagles gave up 510 yards, including 337 rushing.
As a unit, the Eagles allowed 362 yards per game and 222 yards on ground.
The Eagles graduated their three leading tacklers, including all-state linebacker Cole Vaughan and will return just three starters – two that were on the field against Stephenville.
“It’s a new group,” said Decatur coach Mike Fuller. “Most of the guys are inexperienced on Friday night but they are doing a good job of picking up the responsibilities. It may take a couple of weeks.”
Josh Sij, who made 76 stops last year, is the lone holdover at linebacker. He points out that the defense must carry its weight to keep up with the team’s explosive offense.
“The offense can score. We have to hold the other team from firing back,” Sij said.
Sij will be joined by Braxton Roth and Harrison Haney at linebacker.
The defensive line will have several players rotating in. Hunter Brandon will be a big addition at defensive end after missing last year with a knee injury.
The secondary returns Drew Redwine at safety and Jhett Parker at cornerback. Alec Uselton and Angel Garza saw time at corner. Fuller added that McAlister could also help at safety.
“We need to be more physical,” Redwine said. “We’ve got to find that edge and get a lot of stops.”
The Eagles have a chance to get a good measure of themselves with a tough non-district schedule with games against Alvarado and Stephenville. Decatur then faces two critical games at the bookends of the 4-4A I against No. 1 Argyle and a Sanger team coming off a 10-2 season. Dropping both could have the Eagles staring at a bi-district game with a top-10 team – Brownwood or Abilene Wylie.
2015 DECATUR RESULTS
Decatur 40, Springtown 29
Alvarado 30, Decatur 14
Decatur 49, Iowa Park 28
Decatur 42, Ranchview 14
Decatur 59, Bridgeport 27
Decatur 55, Burkburnett 27
Decatur 20, Mineral Wells 12
Decatur 63, Hirschi 24
Decatur 56, Gainesville 13
Decatur 42, Graham 41
Stephenville 49, Decatur 28*
2016 DECATUR SCHEDULE
Aug. 26 @ Springtown
Sept. 2 Alvarado
Sept. 10 Mid. Heritage#
Sept. 16 @ Stephenville
Sept. 23 Bridgeport
Oct. 7 Argyle*
Oct. 13 @ WF Hirschi*
Oct. 21 Gainesville* HC
Oct. 28 @ Burkburnett*
Nov. 4 Sanger*
HC Homecoming; * 4-4A I game
# at Frisco Star
DECATUR EAGLES 2016 ROSTER
1 … Moses Ramos … WR … 12
2 … Tyler Ticknor … QB … 12
3 … Barrett Brown … CB … 11
4 … Hayden Bennett … WR/CB … 12
5 … Drew Redwine … S … 12
6 … Dane Fitzgerald … WR … 11
7 … Dylan Nation … RB … 11
8 … Wilson Hicks … QB … 10
9 … Jhett Parker … WR/CB … 11
10 … Charlie Doubrava … OLB … 11
11 … Beau Bedford … WR/S … 10
12 … Alec Uselton … WR/S … 11
13 … Payton McAlister … RB/S … 12
14 … Angel Garza … CB … 11
15 … Dustin Krahn … OLB … 11
16 … Josh Sij … OLB … 11
17 … Jordan White … S … 11
18 … Hunter Brandon … DL … 12
19 … Kooper Joplin … QB … 12
21 … Curtis Keener … LB … 11
23 … Cole Denman … OLB … 11
24 … Chad Noel … S … 11
25 … Mario Reyes … WR … 11
26 … Justin Taylor … LB … 11
28 … Harrison Haney … LB … 11
29 … Marc Lara … CB … 12
31 … Braxton Roth … WR/LB … 11
33 … Cooper Holland … DL … 11
34 … Braden Snow … WR/CB … 11
37 … Jared Smith … RB … 12
38 … Blaine Upshaw … CB … 11
40 … Fernando Cruz … OLB … 12
41 … Michael Williams … CB … 11
46 … Lex Fernandez … OL/DL … 11
51 … Cody Ellis … OLB/OL … 11
52 … Adrian Cantu … OL … 11
56 … Zane Hickey … OL/LB … 10
58 … Noah Elliott … OL/DL … 11
59 … Casey White … OL/LB … 11
62 … Logan Darst … OL/DL … 11
63 … Damon Lewis … DL … 12
64 … Carlos Cordero … DL … 11
65 … Kevin White … OL … 11
68 … Johnathan Fawley … DL … 12
70 … Ty Watson … OL … 11
71 … Terry Lee Hogan … OL/DL … 12
74 … Jesse Romero … OL/DL … 11
76 … Kenson Vance … OL/DL … 11
82 … Cody Baker … WR/OLB … 11
91 … David Carroll … DL … 11