By SCOTT TYLER
H-P Sports Editor
That is what Palestine head coach Glen Tunstall said of his team Friday night after the Wildcats’ season came to an end in the second round of the Class 3A-Region III, Division I playoffs.
“No one expected us to get this far except for these kids,” Tunstall said. “My hats off to the coaching staff and this team for what we accomplished this season.”
When Palestine started the 2005 season, the Wildcats had one returning starter both on offense and defense from a team which reached the state semifinal game in 2004.
With a lot of youth and inexperience at the beginning of the year, Palestine put together an 8-3 season, finishing with a winning record for the fourth straight year and making the second round of the playoffs three times in those four years.
“Getting to this point in the season after returning only one starter on each side of the ball is a great accomplishment,” Tunstall said.
When the Wildcats started the season, they gave the starting quarterback position to a player who had only seen his varsity action in a mop up role the year before when the game was already decided.
Devin Stephens proved to be the leader of the Wildcats as he finished the season with 1,427 passing yards and 19 touchdowns while rushing for 602 yards and seven scores.
“Devin’s season started during the summer when he dedicated himself to winning the starting quarterback position,” Palestine offensive coordinator Tommy Allison said. “He proved to be a tough kid playing through injuries and he proved to be our leader.”
Palestine also started the season with five offensive linemen who had not started a varsity game in their careers. But the combination of Philip George, Mark Harcrow, Allen Williams, D.J. Hall, Ricky Miller and Austin Atwood developed into a solid unit up front which allowed Palestine to put up huge offensive production.
“Our offensive line developed into one of the best in the area,” Allison said. “They let us be a team who could do a lot of different things.”
The Palestine offense put together a season in which it averaged 39 points a game and gained 376.1 yards a game. Palestine averaged more yards a game this season than in 2004.
“Each week this offense seemed to gain more and more confidence,” Allison said.
The philosophy of the Palestine offense this season was to take what the defense gave them and the Wildcats had the multiple weapons to do just that.
Palestine’s biggest offensive threat was senior wide receiver Leon Mickens, who Tunstall called one of those players who only comes around once in a while.
Mickens finished the season with 47 catches for 931 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Leon was everything we expected this year,” Allison said. “He was a true playmaker and we knew when he got his hands on the ball, something would happen.”
When the Wildcats looked to run the ball this year, they did so with a rotation in the backfield of Paul Kennedy, Trevlyn Reed and Montrell Johnson, along with Stephens.
“We had three quality backs this year who could start for a number of teams,” Allison said. “And then Devin really became a threat in his own right.”
By the end of the season, Kennedy worked his way to the top of the depth chart as he led Palestine with 930 yards on 136 carries and scored 16 touchdowns.
“Early in the year Paul was injured but once district started, he got healthy and became the bruising back who we were looking for,” Allison said.
On Friday night, Palestine said goodbye to 21 seniors.
“It is hard for me to let go of the seniors,” Tunstall said.
But the Wildcats will have a lot coming back for next year, as Palestine looks to make it five straight times into the playoffs.
On defense, Palestine will have nine returning starters next year and on offense, several key weapons, including Kevin Swanson, Montrell Johnson and Jacobi Jackson, will be back after a year of experience.
“These young kids got some great experience this year,” Allison said. “It is going to do nothing but help this team in the future.”
By SCOTT TYLER