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Marble Falls football players look to mimic playoff success

CAPTION: Marble Falls senior halfback Jaime Castillo and senior lineman Jeremiah Bales display the close bonds the Mustangs have during media day Aug. 4. Staff photo by Jennifer Fiero

Nothing about the play looked any different from the hundreds, if not thousands, of times the Marble Falls High School football team lined up in its offensive power play.

The linemen and running backs showed their discipline by not moving before the ball was snapped. And then controlled chaos ensued.

Seniors Jeremiah Bales and Gavin Hernandez exploded toward their defensive counterparts, senior center Hershel Hawkins was quick to get into his block, while fullback Dominic Fierro found the linebacker that’s his responbility to block as senior halfback Jaime Castillo, who was tossed the ball, followed quarterback Noah Luckie who was blocking.

In no time, the backs were in front of the linemen, running in a clear lane all the way to the end zone and celebrating, a familiar sight for the players and their fans. .

And yet, the seniors said, everything feels different in 2023.

“I feel we want to be on top,” Castillo said. “I want to be better than the team on the other side. Now we have to take control.”

“I feel like we want it a little more,” Hernandez said.

The outcome of the 2-8 campaign in 2022 may have been surprising to fans of the program. But the players expressed shock. Going into the summer of 2022, they had been arriving before and after school for weight lifting sessions. Coaches said the athletes were in tremendous physical shape and though the program said good-bye to a large group of graduates in the 2022 class, no one anticipated that three months later, the Mustangs would win their season opener against Pflugerville Connally and outlast a Killeen Chaparral squad that was in its first year of learning the Slot-T offense, the same scheme Marble Falls utilizes, for a total of two victories.

Humbling, discouraging and frustrating might be some words used to describe the next several weeks as the Mustangs ended the year on a seven-game losing streak.

As a result, the tight bonds the players built over the years began to loosen. During the offseason, coaches created activities to help the players rediscover what they love about the sport and why they enjoy playing together. Meanwhile, they celebrated the accomplishments of their counterparts in other sports where the Mustangs won District 24-4A titles in baseball, basketball, cross country and soccer and led the applause of the golf team finishing 10th at the Class 4A state tournament. They also cheered each other on when their teammates competed in powerlifting.

When they returned from Spring Break, former offensive coordinator Robert Draper gathered the football players together for a proclamation.

“It’s our turn now,” he told them and witnessed the mentality flip. The players challenged themselves and each other more and encouraged one another to do one more rep.

Then slowly, the athletes began contacting each other to participate in activities away from campus where they swam, enjoyed meals and other fun events. And they rebuilt the closeness that led to so much success on the field, following the example of the 2021 team.

“I think we’re more bonded,” Bales said.

Hernandez returns for his final season after rehabbing a knee and looks as if he hasn’t missed any time.

“It feels great,” he said. “I’m ready to get back. I’m going without my brace. It was hard to move. I can move a lot easier, I can pull quicker.”

These seniors are used to having Bales and Hernandez open running lanes, seal off defenders and help send a message of toughness, grit and heart. Hernandez said he and their classmates, who are three-year lettermen, are focused on having a season that was more like the 2021 year when Marble Falls reached the third round of the playoffs.

Bales spent much of his summer doing football-specific training. He was constantly at summer strength and conditioning with Castillo, Hernandez, Fierro and the other Mustangs. He also attended a half dozen football camps and picked up an offer from Midwestern University.

“I learned different ways and certain things that I will use to my advantage and make me better,” he said.

Like Hernandez, Hawkins rehabbed a knee injury and returns with a deeper drive to make the most of this season.

“I’ve known most of them since elementary school,” he said.

Castillo was the team’s leading rusher a year ago but refused to accept the praise. Instead he looked at the offensive linemen and gave them the credit.

“I have them opening lanes or putting someone on the floor,” he said. “The holes they give, anybody can run through them. They are the best offensive line.”

The halftback said the players are aware of what sport means to their high school and other squads that have activities during football games — the band, the cheerleaders and the Starlettes — and what the community at large feels about the Mustangs.

“It’s a commitment, and it’s not just us,” he said. “Everyone comes out here to see us play. There’s no more backing down. We’re definitely not going out without a fight.”

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