Waco Midway coach Jeff Hulme laughs when he thinks about last year’s season opener, a 43-13 drubbing at the hands of Cedar Park. It was his first game as head coach of the Panthers, and his team performed as poorly as it could. He feels things will be a lot different, however, when his squad suits up for the rematch this Friday, 7:30 p.m., at John Gupton Stadium in Cedar Park.
“(I remember) how many times we jumped offsides. How many mistakes we made. It was just a glorified cluster on so many levels. We just didn’t look very good,” Hulme said with a chuckle. “You look at that game, and then you look at our game later on in the year, we’re two different teams. Kids were still learning what we were doing last year, and so it’s almost comical to go back and watch that game from last year because of how bad we were and how bad we looked.”
Cedar Park coach Carl Abseck knows there were extraneous reasons behind Midway’s underwhelming play. He scheduled the Panthers, who have won seven straight district titles, for a reason. He’s made sure his players understand the team it is playing on Friday is much better than the squad it pummeled a year ago.
“I know that this year, we’re not expecting (43-13),” Abseck said. “That’s not our expectation. We know it’s going to be a dog fight because they’re very talented and now their system is in place where as last year it really wasn’t.”
Another reason Midway will be a tougher test this time around is the return of quarterback Tanner Mordecai. Mordecai got injured in a pre-season scrimmage last year and missed the Panthers’ first three games. He finished the year with 1,725 yards passing and 13 touchdowns to five interceptions with a 60.6 completion percentage
“He definitely makes us better,” Hulme said. “Just his presence alone is going to make a huge difference, just from the competitive standpoint to those leadership standpoints. His athleticism. The players play better with him. They trust him. I’m hoping we’ll look a little different than we did last year.”
The seven regular season games Mordecai started were the seven best offensive outputs of Midway’s season. On top of the passing stats, Mordecai produced 518 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Rivals.com has him ranked as the No. 21 dual-threat quarterback in the country and the No. 70 overall recruit in the state. During the offseason, he committed to play for Lincoln Riley and the Oklahoma Sooners.
“I think anytime you’re playing with your starting quarterback there’s a pretty significant difference,” Abseck said. “Typically, you have a starter for a reason, and he obviously is a very talented quarterback having committed to OU, so I would anticipate for them offensively it’s going to be a significant change.”
Mordecai isn’t the only Division I-bound football player in Midway’s senior class. Tight end David Priebe is a three-star prospect heading to SMU. Defensive Tackle Jaxon Player, who was the District 8-6A Defensive MVP last season with 86 tackles and 16 for a loss, is committed to Tulsa.
Both offensive tackles, Hakeem White and Kaitori Leveson, will also be playing college ball in the fall. White, the right tackle, is going to Texas Tech, and Leveson, the left tackle, has a deep offer sheet that includes three power five schools. Hulme is trying to make sure none of those players get too high on themselves, which he admits is a more difficult job then it was in his playing days because of social media.
“The thing you got to do, is you got to tell those kids nobody cares,” Hulme said. “Nobody cares which schools are looking at you. The only thing people care about is what you do on Friday nights. What it comes down to is can you do your job that night against whoever is lined up against you. If you read about yourself all the time. You’re going to get this inflated ego about yourself and next thing you know your going to lineup and somebody is going to hit you right in the mouth and you’re not going to know what to do because you’re not prepared.”
Cedar Park has no Division I prospects, but that doesn’t mean it lacks talent. Senior quarterback Mak Sexton is 28-1 as a starter and threw for 2,266 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. Center Jonathan Kelly is the returning District 19-5A Offensive Lineman of the Year. On defense, the Timberwolves return linebackers Jackson Buckingham and Keegan Nichols. Buckingham was the 19-5A’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year and Nichols was first-team all-district.
“Kids shouldn’t really be too caught up in how many stars they got out beside their name,” Abseck said. “They got to go out and play the football game just like we do. We’re not going to win the battle of looks when we get off the bus, that’s for sure. But I think what our kids have to do, and what they’ve done pretty well in the past, is really focus on their job and winning their individual battles. I think that’s where our focus is and it can’t be on what all schools that their kids are going to or how many Division I prospects they have.”
Cedar Park went 12-1 last year and fell to Manvel in the regional semifinals. The Timberwolves enter the season No. 5 in the Texas High School Football Associated Press Class 5A Poll. They won state championships in 2012 and 2015. Midway finished 8-3 last season with a loss to Cedar Hill in the bi-district round. The Panthers are unranked in the Class 6A poll, but are clear favorites to win their district and would likely be ranked in the 20-25 range if the poll went that deep. They’ve never won a state championship, but played for one in 2011, and have made at least the regional semifinals five of the last seven years.