MEXIA, Texas — What a difference a year makes. In 2016, the Mexia Blackcats won just two games and missed the playoffs for only the second time since 2005. This year has been nicer to those in the Central Texas town, winning five regular season games and even their first-round playoff game. The change is thanks, in most part, to one man.
Sandoval won’t ever take full credit for the turnaround. Instead, he’ll credit the team’s winning to his players executing, parents support and his staff and the love they have for the students.
“We have love for our kids, genuine love,” Sandoval said about his staff. “Once the kids see that, it’s infectious, it trickles down to everyone. I think the community members see a change in our kids where they’re playing hard and recommend the city of Mexia the way it should be.”
But as most will know, it all starts at the top. For Mexia, the journey to believing again began last year.
Throughout its history, Mexia has been a traditionally strong football team. The 4A-2 team has five undefeated regular seasons paired with a 1989 state championship ring. Its previous coach, LaMonte Chambers went 4-17 in his first two years, before rattling off a pair of seven-win seasons. In 2016, the Blackcats took a step back.
The Battle Of The River pits Mexia against rival Groesbeck. In this game, the Blackcats have a 62-19-4 edge. It’s a pretty big deal and the winner gets to keep the Navasota River sign.
Last season, Mexia lost The Battle of The River and it was just part of the struggle last year presented. Support was never hard to find however as parents and fans will support the team no matter what. But hope was as dry as the Sahara Desert.
Because of the poor season and coach on the outs, the team was picked to finish last in district. Most of those preseason picks are pretty off-target, but this one was probably the most.
Enter Frank Sandoval. The job in Mexia was his first head coaching job but not his first job in coaching. Sandoval left Cedar Hill for the Blackcats in April 2016 and brought a lot of change starting with the scheme and how the team runs plays. But it goes even deeper than that, all the way to getting everyone involved.
“So when we came in we knew what our challenge was,” Sandoval said. “That was to try to make the kids believe. That started with our style of play. How we scheme stuff. We do simple things and make sure the community knows and understands any decision we will ever make is based off our kids and their needs and what’s best for them.
“I really believe that’s what we’re doing differently. We’re creating a family with everyone in the city of Mexia.”
It’s worked. Community members praise Sandoval weekly on what he’s done in such a short time. In person or on social media, there’s probably at least one person out there heralding coach Sandoval.
It wasn’t immediate, though. Mexia started 1-3 with it’s one win over rival Groesbeck. Sandoval said they weren’t executing and it was obvious on film. Even with the lack of execution, two of their three losses came by a touchdown or less.
Then, something clicked. Progress began and wins started to flow. The Blackcats finished 4-2 to end the season 5-5 and in second place in the district. In their first playoff game against a pretty good Gonzales team, they took care of business with a 30-7 win. Now, they face possibly the toughest matchup in the state, West Orange-Stark.
From the stands, it’s clear. There’s more heart, more turnovers on defense, touchdowns on offense. It’s not that there’s more talent than previous years, but the will is there. Simply put, Sandoval has put heart into this team.
“The kids really buy in what Sandoval is preaching to them, we see it watching the games,” Mexia parent Gary Lawson said. “There’s more passion. Kids were sitting down during the games, now they’re fired up. The intensity, coaches and kids are passionate during games.”
Parents like Lawson are found throughout the city. He says his kids aren’t even at the high school level yet, but he’s excited they will have the chance to learn from him.
Sandoval himself even knows the kids, most of them at least. Lawson says he and his friends talk about how Sandoval visits the other schools and meets with the kids and parents. Sandoval says his door is always open and that he’s not just a member of a staff, but of the community as well.
“These people love their kids, they love their city,” Sandoval said. “We try to get the kids out in the community, events in town. We try to make sure the coaches, as well as the kids, are visiting campuses, talking to other kids and make sure they are visible because they do have an impact on this community.”
It’s Happening Here
Upon arrival, Sandoval said there was a bad perception since the team hadn’t really won on any level in a few years. The senior class hadn’t one more than a few games in its three years at the freshman or junior varsity level. That perception is no longer there, at least not right now. The ‘bad kid’ view is nowhere to be found and fans are pouring into the stadium every Friday night.
All for a team that finished 5-5 in the regular season. Although not stellar, the parents are happy with the product and what’s happening now with their kids. For those, the coach had one thing to say to the community he calls phenomenal. Without them, they’ve become a program with a win total in the high 20s, almost triple what it was a year before.
“We’re trying to set a bar and we want to make it high,” Sandoval said. “We want to have to worry about playing during the Christmas break. This is supposed to be a down year and rebuilding year but we want to build on this success. We don’t want to be 5-5, that’s not our goal. We got to stay hungry.”
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