Zachary High enjoyed a breakout year in 2010, finishing 9-3 overall and advancing to the second round of the Class 5A football playoffs.
Now the Broncos are one of six Baton Rouge area teams breaking out into their own district - 4-5A.
The league is similar to one that dominated the local landscape in the 1970s and 1980s. But like Zachary, the other teams in 4-5A - Central, Denham Springs, Live Oak, Scotlandville and Walker - will have something to prove.
“I really like both Baton Rouge districts,” Zachary coach Neil Weiner said. “I like the fact that the Ascension teams are back playing in Baton Rouge and are part of the other district (5-5A).
“This district has the north Baton Rouge and Livingston (Parish) schools in it and it’s a nice fit with some good rivalries built in.
“The thing we’ve tried to do make our schedule even tougher. We made it to the second round of the playoffs and met Acadiana (the eventual 5A champion). If you want to play on that level, you need to increase your own level of expectations.”
The Broncos will scrimmage 5A runner-up West Monroe and are set to play Ascension Parish power Dutchtown.
A year ago, Zachary and Central (7-4), battled for the 5-5A title. This time around, Zachary has the edge with 14 returning starters. Denham Springs and Central are picked right behind the Broncos.
Dwayne Severio, of Walker, is the lone first-year head coach. Three others - Central’s Doug Dotson, Live Oak’s David Dykes and Scotlandville’s Ken Hilton - are second-year coaches. Weiner is in his third season.
“I think it’s going to be pretty balanced,” DSHS coach Dru Nettles said. “Zachary had a great year last year and they have a lot of talent back.
“Central is a team that won a district title the last three years. For us, the big thing is to take that next step. We’ve been the playoffs the last two years and we’d like to be able to win there and establish ourselves. I think you can look for the other teams to all be better, too.”
With Zachary and Denham Springs there are contrasts. Weiner’s ZHS team embraces a wide open offensive style. Denham Springs is decidedly old school, with a run-oriented I-formation. Central is changing its offense for the second straight season.
Senior quarterback Mason Pace has been a 1,000-yard passer for Zachary the last two seasons despite missing part of last season with an injury.
The Broncos also return running backs Ron Pennington and LaDarrius Vessell, along with a talented receiving corps led by Dillon Beard and David Deloach. A large offensive line includes two players, tackle Corey Griner and guard Chris Taylor weigh 305 pounds.
Zachary returns three defensive linemen - Kevin Williams, Taylor Mayeaux and Jeremiah Douglas.
Denham Springs will counter with its run-oriented attack led by junior running back Kaleb Blanchard, who earned All-Metro honors after rushing for 1,799 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago.
Austin Loup and Tevin Lawson help lead the offensive line for the Yellow Jackets. Dron Singleton and Brian Garrett both return to man the wide receiver spots. Patrick Wale and Redemptorist transfer Kyle Cedotal are vying for the quarterback job.
Linebackers Drew McLendon and Devin Dugas are among the defensive players returning for Nettles’ Yellow Jackets. Defensive backs Andrew Ayres, Reggie Williams and Justin Turner also return.
After utilizing an option-oriented attack in 2010, Central is going back to the spread style that helped the Wildcats garner statewide prominence in 2008 and 2009.
Junior Brett Courville takes over at quarterback. Running back Zach Evans and tackle Thomas Garcia are the lone returning starters for Dotson’s offense.
But the Wildcats will have speed with new running backs Gary Triplett and Devon Gales, both track sprinters.
Of the five starters Central returns on defense, three are part of the line - end Zach Hetrick and tackles Joey Jarreau and Tim Colomb. Defensive back Logan Metcalfe is another defensive leader.
“We are returning to a fast-paced spread offense and expect a lot of excitement,” Dotson said.
While the projected frontrunners are looking to take their respective games to a higher level, Live Oak, Scotlandville and Walker look to get their programs on solid ground. The three schools combined for just six wins last season.
Scotlandville is expected to be improved over last year’s 3-7 record, thanks in large part to eight returning starters on offense.
Hilton’s Hornets will rely on a large line led by 315-pound tackle Blaine Poydras. Receivers Larry Clark and Cevon Cage will team with running back Kandre Domino to provide options for quarterback Kimani Smith.
Linebacker Henry Taylor was a first-team all-district player a year ago and teams with Tenzel Smart to lead the defense.
“It’s time for us to grow up and become the sound, fundamental team we can be,” Hilton said.
Lineman Clay Landry, an all-district player in 2010, leads a Live Oak team that must replace its entire backfield after a 2-8 season.
Seniors Cole Leblanc (quarterback), a transfer from Central, and Garrett Thurman (running back) are among the players looking to fill key roles for the Eagles.
LOHS is set to use a 4-2-5 defense for the first time. Ricky Fuller will be among the defensive backs for the Eagles.
Severio, a former Walker assistant and head coach St. Helena Central, returns to WHS after a stint as an assistant at Bastrop, a Class 4A power in north Louisiana.
Already, the Wildcats have added numbers and expect to dress 90 players for varsity games.
Running back Carlton Perkins, who rushed for 1,155 yards last season, is back to help lead the Wildcats offense. Sophomore Tyler Lockhart is the new quarterback.
Linebackers Jacob Thurman and Jimmy Leblanc are among the players returning on defense.