MIDLOTHIAN — The steps Christian Anglemyer, Jack Ellis, Hogan Keasler, Rodney Richmond, Preston Smith, Jorden Thompson and Tanner Whitehead made Thursday at Midlothian Heritage High School may have made it easier for other Jaguars to follow their tracks.
The Jaguar seven, the first football players from Midlothian Heritage's first graduating class to sign National Letters of Intent, joined blossoming rosters at profitable landing spots like Tabor College, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Stephen F. Austin State Universities.
They also leave behind an unrivaled legacy for generations of student-athletes to rise to and exceed.
"They are essential to how this program got off the ground," said Lee Wiginton, the MHHS head football coach and athletic coordinator. "Had those guys — every member of our JV team in 2015 and varsity team in 2016 — not done what they did, gave all they gave and performed at the level they did, we would have been completely insignificant. Because of their leadership, committment and work ethic, they allowed a whole lot of people at Heritage to experience great things."
LEADING THE CHARGE
The Jaguar offense, consistently one of the highest scoring in the UIL 4A football classification in 2016, finished first in total offense (6,338 yards, 487 ypg) and passing (3,256 yards, 250.5 ypg) and sixth in rushing (3,082 yards, 237.1 ypg).
Their rushing total was bested by only Celina, Farmersville, Kennedale, Melissa and Sunnyvale High Schools. The difference between No. 2 and No. 6 was less than 500 yards. Kennedale, the statistical category's leader and a run-first team, was almost 2,000 yards ahead of Celina's 3,475-yard total.
Junior quarterback Landon Ledbetter said Mary Hardin-Baylor's Anglemyer and Tabor College's Tanner Whitehead were keys to keeping his uniform clean and him off his backside. Ledbetter also noted their penchant for opening mile wide running lanes for juniors Raja Banks and Nathan Gaskamp and senior and Trinity Valley Community College signee Jorden Thompson.
"Christian and Tanner affected the play on the field tremendously, not only on the field but in the locker room," Ledbetter said. "More than anything else, though, they were great teammates and friends and leaders on and off the field. I don't think you can value that enough when it comes to the success of a team. It will be challenging to replace them, but I believe the coaches will find another great duo."
Whitehead's 57 knockdown blocks — a statistic that shows how many times an offensive lineman knocks a defender to the ground and greatly affects a runner's yards before contact — just edged Anglemyer's 46. The two boys earned 91 and 94 percent ratings.
Anglemyer will join the NCAA DIII Football Champion Crusaders. Current Chicago Bear Jerrell Freeman is one UHMB alumnus that made it to the National Football League.
"It's going to be tough to fill their shoes," Wiginton said. "With all the huge impact plays they made, the foundation has clearly been laid. They've created a great challenge for young guys to step in, carry the torch and fill those shoes."
KID'S GOT LEG
Thompson was second on the team in rushing touchdowns (7) and seventh in total rushing yards (68). Despite the juggernaut-like momentum created by its lethal passing attack and ruthless rushing efficiency, Midlothian Heritage may have been stunted if not for the leg of its long range sniper.
Keasler, one of two Midlothian Heritage athletes that inked contracts with SFA, finished his senior season 11 of 14 (79 percent) on field goals and 69 of 73 (95 percent) on extra-point attempts. He also drilled a game-winning 19-yard field goal against Decatur High School and another against Kaufman High School.
His 32-yarder against the Lions forced a 39-36 finish and boosted Midlothian Heritage into the regional quarterfinal round of the 4A UIL postseason.
KINGS OF THE WALL
Thompson, a powerful goalline runner that doubled as a lightning-quick edge rusher, and the remaining three signees came from a defense that was equally opportunistic as its explosive offense.
Ellis, Richmond, Smith and Thompson combined for 246 total tackles, 21 tackles for loss, six sacks, two safeties and one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Those numbers may have ballooned further if not for a season-ending injury to Ellis.
Ellis, the Jaguars' defensive leader and the second prized recruit to sign his name on SFA's dotted line, helped call defensive plays and work as a defensive assistant after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during non-district play.
"He's a great kid, one of the first captains selected and a big part of our team," Wiginton said. "He does everything you could dream. His attention to detail is off the charts and he's so concerned with teammates and their success. He's always engaged on the sidelines, coaching them up."
He also provided possibly the most memorable moment of the season. He trotted out to the field — full pads and knee brace included — and held Keasler's dead-eye accurate kick during the Jaguars' last home game of the season against Carrolton Ranchview High School.
"This moment I will never forget! You're a huge part of this team every week We couldn't do it without you. Love ya, Jack," Keasler mused from his Twitter account less than a standard school week removed from his extra-point boot.
Richmond, the team's versatile outside linebacker-turned-cornerback-turned-safety option, will take his physical, point-of-attack style to Kansas Wesleyan University. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics' Coyotes finished 9-2 overall and 7-2 in the Kanas Collegiate Athletic Conference, notching a key 45-42 overtime win against Tabor College on Oct. 15.
Kansas Wesleyan also allowed more than 30 points during a 38-24 Nov. 12 loss to the University of Saint Mary — without Richmond's services.
Smith, the team's leader in tackles with 141 (100 solo), penned a commitment to NCAA DII Angelo State University. The Rams, which concluded their spring football schedule on April 22, finished 5-6 overall and 4-5 in the Lone Star Conference.
They will play seven games at San Angelo's LeGrand Stadium at 1st Community Credit Union Field in 2017, including one against Tarleton State University (lost 35-5 last year) and West Texas A&M University (won 28-6 last year).
The success of the athletes, Wiginton said, may underscore a bigger success in the Midlothian community — an all-hands-on-deck bond between the coaches, faculty, parents, and student-athletes — that resulted from a daring choice for something new.
"They're probably the first class in the history of Midlothian to have a choice in where they wanted to go to high school," he said. "They didn't have to come here but they did. We're thankful and blessed for that. It took parents and coaches being on the same page, understanding and patience. All of the success that future generations of students and student-athletes will have their choice as a foundation. I cannot think of any better legacy that any group of people you leave."
Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI