When the Going Gets Tough, the Toughness Gets Going

Varsity Football Prepares for District Games Starting Friday

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Photo Courtesy of Raegan Ford

Holding out the ball, varsity quarterback and junior Ayden Arp hands the ball off to senior Tyree Nicholson. The team lost 7-24 to Round Rock on Sept. 9. “I think that once we get into district, it’ll be a whole different story,” Arp said. “We’ll have a lot more toughness when we have our district play.”

Kacey Miller, Reporter

The blinding stadium lights streak across his vision as he joins the huddle with his team, warm bodies jumping up and down as they yell their pre-game chants. In these moments, it’s easy to forget the crowd is there — not because he can’t hear their excited cheers through the metal of his helmet or because he can’t constantly see the swarming stands — but because of his concentration on the pep talk his coach gives seconds before kickoff. Then, he is sent onto the field, and his focus follows.

Starting quarterback, junior Ayden Arp, will play against Eastview High School at the Homecoming Game at Gupton Stadium on Sept. 23. It will be many players, including Arp’s, first time playing for the 5A varsity district title.

“Being on varsity is a whole different experience [than JV],” Arp said. “You have the student section, the stands, the band, it’s crazy. [There’s] a lot more competition, too. Everything’s just so much faster. I’m playing with some new teammates, there’s a way higher level of intensity, and I need to be more controlled at the game. I have to read the defense better, know the plays better.”

The pre-season games against Cedar Ridge, Vandegrift and Round Rock have each ended in a loss, but Arp said playing against larger teams helps them see how they perform compared to competitive schools.

“I think we’ve had some ups and downs, and obviously we’ve been playing against some pretty high competition; some 6A teams that have been really good,” Arp said. “A lot of people don’t know that we play against some of the top teams in the state [during pre-season].”

The support from the student body has continued to stay strong in the last few weeks, Arp said, and credits them with helping keep the team upbeat on the field.

“Even when the games don’t go our way, [the student section] always stays really hyped up,” Arp said. “It helps a lot. When we’re not doing great, they’re still up and have a lot of energy.”

The team’s support from students directly reflects their performance, Arp said. When the student section is down, so are the players, which is why encouragement is important.

“Especially after games, I get a lot of supportive texts from students I know and the community itself,” Arp said. “They just need to stay behind us and trust that we’ll have a good season after we’re done with all these non-district games.”

Before each game, the team honors several traditions, including stretch lines, a prayer, locking arms, chants and running out of the blow-up Timberwolf.

“I have a chant, a couple other players have chants, and we do [them] before a game,” Arp said. “The chants are really cool because it gets everybody hyped up, and the yelling and screaming from everyone gets [us] going.”

On the field, the team has to work together to keep their heads up through tough games. Arp, as a captain, said he is expected to have a lot of energy and share it with the team.

“If the [team] sees me down then they’ll play not to their best ability because they see that I’m not playing to the best of my ability, and it just reflects,” Arp said. “Being a captain and just a quarterback in general, I have to stay up no matter the circumstance.”

Senior, captain and safety guard Alex Underwood, who played in the varsity playoffs last year, said it’s just as much a physical game as a mental one, so the team staying level-headed is essential.

“One game you can miss a tackle, and then be thinking about that tackle the whole game,” Underwood said. “And that can mess with your next tackle. We have a motto on defense called ‘next play,’ and it [means to] forget about whatever you did wrong, ‘next play.’ Who cares about what happened last play; now we’re on this play. It’s often very difficult, but instead of worrying about the tackle, go and get a big next one.”

It sometimes takes more than a phrase to get players in the right headspace. Junior and receiver Gavin Horton said the team also talks to one another on a personal level.

“We like to pull some people aside that we know aren’t performing to their best talent,” Horton said. “We try to comfort them. We’re really good at bringing each other up. On the other end, we’re really good at holding each other accountable. If someone’s doing bad stuff, then we get on them, and we let them know that that’s not helping the team or their personal [life].”

Horton said he thinks mentally tough players are more beneficial on the field than the physical ones.

It’s gonna be tough, that’s for sure. You don’t just win state by playing easy teams, [but] if we continue working hard each week, then I feel like we can reach it.”

— Alex Underwood

“The mental aspect is completely on top of the physical aspect,” Horton said. “You could be the biggest kid in the world, but if you’re not there mentally, you’re useless. We don’t need the kids who are going to be big, but not have a good mental side; we need the kids who are going to bring it and be their best every day.”

The plan for this season is to win districts and make it to the state playoffs.

“It’s gonna be tough, that’s for sure,” Underwood said. “You don’t just win state by playing easy teams, [but] if we continue working hard each week, then I feel like we can reach it.”

Practice is three mornings a week and during the football class period, when the team runs offense and defense on the field and works out in the weight room.

“We have got a lot of energy during practice,” Arp said. “We always like to start off the week with a really good practice, and then go from there.”

The team is primarily made up of juniors, with a smaller senior class and a few sophomores.

“We don’t have a huge senior class, but the seniors that are playing right now are getting us ready for next year,” Arp said. “They’ve been doing a really great job at leadership even though there are not many of them.”

The first-year players are new to the preparation that goes into playing for varsity football, senior and captain Isaac Barksdale said. There’s a big difference between the veterans and the newest players.

“Being one of the three third-year varsity players, it’s a different element for us,” Barksdale said. “We’ve been to the state finals, we’ve been to the third round of the playoffs, we’ve been through a lot of tough games that we shouldn’t have won but we have. [You have to] pay your dues, as far as the work you put in week in and week out.”

Since the 2020 team, there’s been almost a complete swap out of coaches. Underwood said the only coach that’s stayed is Coach Beau Barksdale, while the two newest ones are Coach Jace Hudson and Coach J Stout.

“Because we’ve had so many coaching changes, we’ve been really open to these new two [coaches],” Underwood said. “We’ve bonded really well with them. I don’t get to see them as much because I’m on defense and they are the receiver coaches, but I’ll still walk in [to their office] to say ‘hi’ and immediately engage in conversation. They’re very accepting, and are enjoying being here.”

Some of the new coaches this year aren’t so new. Coach Brent Brittain and Coach MichaelQuintero, or Coach Q, were part of the coaching team who took the varsity team to state championships in 2012.

“They’re trying to fall back on that [coaching],” Underwood said. “This year we’ve really gone back on our old traditions, which is what Q is trying to implement: fall back on our old traditions, our past. Back to what Cedar Park used to be.”

Traditions can come in many forms, and for Underwood, it’s as a reunion.

“I have Coach McCarthy [for defense],” he said. “And I had him in middle school. And then he moved up [to the high school]. So I started with him, and now I’m finishing with him. That’s been a tradition for me.”

From the receiver standpoint, Horton has gotten to know his coaches this year and said the connection between them benefits the mindset of the team.

“I love our new coaches,” Horton said. “They get to know the players, and they know the game of football. It’s fun learning from them because they make it easy. We know who they are and they know us, so they can relate to us on a personal level. They trust us and we trust them.”

Underwood said the team has been working very hard, but haven’t seen the results they want yet.

“As Coach Q has said multiple times, ‘we’ve been putting in the work, we’re just waiting for the outcome,” Underwood said. “We’ve worked incredibly hard, and just have not had the outcome that we’ve wanted. This week will be a really good [one] for us because we’re finally going to have a match-up. We’re all waiting on a payoff. The only thing that will stop us is us now.”

Friday will be sophomore Wyatt’s Valiente fourth varsity game after he moved up to the varsity team after freshman football last year.

“Going from freshman [football] to varsity is a big step up,” Valiente said. “It’s a different game. It’s more of a job than it is a game right now. I guess it’s just because it’s my first year and I’m not used to it yet. There’s a lot more weight on [my] shoulders because [I] start the game.”

Valiente said he and the rest of the offensive unit feel great, but can still get anxious in the days leading up to the game. He said it was reassuring to know the student section would always have his back.

“They’re always as loud as [they are] at the start of the game,” Valiente said. “And that’s one of the things about Cedar Park; they’ll always support you no matter what the scoreboard says.”

MaxPreps Varsity Schedule