TAPPS football in East Texas hitting all the right notes

Published on Friday, 31 August 2012 16:22 - Written by Travis Yoesting

The four Tyler-area TAPPS football teams sang their intentions as a force to be reckoned with in 2011.

Bullard Brook Hill rocked its way all the way to a No. 1 hit as the TAPPS D-III state champion.

Grace Community shot from the bottom of Dave Campbell’s charts up to the Top 4 in TAPPS D-II by reaching the state semifinals.

Bishop Gorman and All Saints laid down consistent beats with the schools’ second straight playoff appearances.

Now on the wavelengths of the statewide radar, the East Texas TAPPS schools are eager to ensure they weren’t one-hit wonders.

Given the way Brook Hill, Grace, Gorman and All Saints are grooving, it should only get better.


Start Me Up

In 2004, Bishop Gorman was the only private school playing football in the Tyler area. The Crusaders went 6-5 and one round deep in the playoffs.

By 2006, Brook Hill, Grace and All Saints had joined the football ranks and by 2009, each school had made its first playoff appearance.

In the past two years all four East Texas football teams competing in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools qualified for the postseason. With Brook Hill’s championship capping three straight years in the D-III state final and Grace’s back-to-back stellar seasons concluding in a run to the D-II semifinals, the rest of the state is starting to take notice.

“I can remember a time … when I was in Houston and the Dallas area, (I) never thought much about anybody from the Tyler area,” said All Saints coach Mike Hall, who has 19 years of experience as a head coach at private schools in Houston and the Metroplex. “They weren’t on that map. I think now there are some top-notch programs there and we’re going to be there, also.

“If Division II TAPPS is not looking at Brook Hill and Grace as two of the favorites, then, man, they’ve had their eyes shut for a while.”

The growth of the TAPPS football programs comes down to two main factors: education and faith.

“I would say that TAPPS is growing in quality and quantity and I think the education that is offered along, with the spiritual aspect of the schools, is something that is appealing for parents to have their children in,” Gorman coach Coby Gipson said.

“When you can combine a first-class athletics experience with a first-class educational experience and most importantly a first-class spiritual experience, you’re going to see growth in your school and in your football program.”

Brook Hill coach Terry Pirtle left a job at Pine Tree to join the TAPPS ranks for the first time in 2009, with his son Travis transferring too and becoming an all-state athlete in football and baseball for the Guard.

“Private school is becoming a bigger and bigger alternative for parents,” Terry Pirtle said. “Parents are looking for a Christian atmosphere to send their kids to that’s safe and has a great education.

“I think we’re going to get nothing but stronger and stronger as far as private schools go in this area.”

Growth in numbers is one thing, but growth on the field takes a commitment from school administration, parents and coaches. Grace and Brook Hill have been strong in that area as exhibited by success on the field, but two recent coaching hires have shown the promising futures for the other two programs.

Gorman saw its numbers swell when Gipson, who spent six years at Grace coaching with Mike Maddox before making the move over, was hired in July.

“The team is really excited,” said Crusaders senior lineman Matt Roe. “We had some people that were considering quitting, but then we got a new football coach and everything just got revamped. The intensity is up; the team’s just really happy. It’s going to be a really good year.”

Similarly, despite the fact All Saints opted for independence for the next two years, the Trojans went from a predicted 27 players to nearly 40 with the positivity brought to the program by Hall.

“You get guys like Mike Maddox and Terry Pirtle and Mike Hall coaching football teams, there’s going to be excitement,” Gipson said. “Schools have done a good job of hiring those guys.”


I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Misconceptions about TAPPS football pervade UIL high schools.

Some are sure that schools cheat by recruiting the top players.

Some look down on the competition as second-rate, scoffing at the idea that TAPPS schools are anywhere near to the level of UIL schools.

Others believe it’s impossible to be recruited to the college ranks if you play at a smaller, private school.

For the majority, the recruitment issue is the most contentious. Rumors swirl about recruiting, enough to assume it goes on in some areas of the state.

“Some misconceptions are that everybody recruits,” Maddox said. “Some schools do; some schools don’t at all. It doesn’t take many to ruin it for the rest of us.”

TAPPS rules allow a few types of general solicitation of potential students such as billboards, mailings and open houses.

However, targeting specific athletes with any sort of solicitation is not allowed. Furthermore, inducements to solicit or retain students — such as reduced tuition, a job for a parent or any sort of monetary benefit — are expressly forbidden.

Although Brook Hill, on the northern edge of Bullard, has athletes from across Smith County, coaches say they don’t have to recruit because of the success they’ve had athletically and the facilities that are among the best in the region.

“I honestly think that misconceptions are from a public school side is that we’re all out there recruiting and that is not the case,” Pirtle said. “If you build great facilities like Brook Hill has and you hire full-time coaches, which we have done, then kids will want to come here. We’ve been very fortunate to find that niche.”

Hall said he thinks the four Tyler-area TAPPS schools will continue to grow, as long as they stay clean.

“I don’t think God’s going to honor not doing it the right way,” Hall said. “There’s no reason for that. These schools that we’re talking about all have great coaching staffs, they have great facilities and great academics. The whole thing’s there.

“They don’t have to take shortcuts; I don’t think they will.”


All Along The Watchtower

TAPPS coaches will argue that aside from recruiting, a major fallacy about TAPPS football is recruitment — the opportunity for its players to get noticed by college recruiters.

“I guess some misconceptions are that since we’re a TAPPS school, we don’t have any good athletes,” said Grace quarterback Blake White, whose brother Bradley is a preferred walk-on at Tulsa joining the travel team this year.

Gipson said he doesn’t think most football fans realize the level of athletes TAPPS Division II produces.

“Most people think, well to get a Division I scholarship, you gotta be at a (UIL) 4A or 5A school, and that’s just simply not true,” Gipson said. “Every school in this district has produced and is producing Division I football players.”

Grace also has sent Grant Childress to Louisiana Tech. Brook Hill’s Tyler Baker went to Ole Miss and has since transferred to Washington State, while Heath Dickey may start on the offensive line at Georgetown this year. Ex-Gorman running back Kevin Navetta is at Princeton and Caleb Williams will suit up for Tyler Junior College this fall.

Additionally, the other schools in the TAPPS district (D-II District 2) that now encompasses the East Texas schools have sent players to Arizona, California, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, UNLV and North Texas in recent years.

Hall said he’s coached 29 players at private schools that went on to play at the next level, 12 of whom received full rides.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions (about TAPPS) is that you can’t go play at the next level, you can’t get recruited from a private school,” Hall said. “And that’s just incorrect.

“If a kid can play, he can play. It’s just pure and simple. It doesn’t matter if he’s at Podunk High School in the middle of nowhere, he’s going to be able to play somewhere. They’re going to find him — that’s their job.”


We Will Rock You

A third misconception about TAPPS football is the level of competition. While some schools certainly focus on athletics more than others, the players will all attest to the strengths of the teams they play.

“A lot of people don’t necessarily think since we’re TAPPS schools we have the best competition,” White said. “That’s just one thing people don’t always understand. They think just because we’re in TAPPS, we don’t play the hardest teams. But in our district, I believe our teams can compete with (UIL) 3A and down. It’s pretty hard.”

Brook Hill quarterback Will Weathers, who played on Whitehouse’s freshman team with players like Dylan Cantrell before transferring to the Bullard school, said football is football.

“You’re facing adversity all the time just like you would at any other school,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that much different, especially going to state and getting the championship from that.

“People think that’s not a big deal, but it definitely is. Winning that many games is hard for anybody.”

All Saints senior captain Merritte Greene said he enjoys playing in TAPPS against teams of various skill levels.

“You have teams that are really good and then you have teams that are your level and then you have teams that are not as good as you,” Greene said. “It’s just a mix of all of it.”

Gorman senior linebacker Brandon Lackner said he thinks TAPPS D-II District 2 is one of the hardest districts in Texas, a statement echoed by teammate Cale Tucker.

“I think the teams we play are tough and I know they’re tough because we’ve played against them before,” Tucker said. “Obviously the public schools are a lot bigger than us, but I think the way that we practice, the way that we train, might be the same as them.

“(Some may think) that these private school kids don’t know what they’re doing out here, (but) we definitely do. The way we practice out here is the same as every public school does: just as hard as we can; 100 percent.”

Maddox, who was the offensive coordinator at Gilmer before coming to Grace, said you don’t realize the work these kids put in at TAPPS schools until you see it yourself.

“Sometimes the misconception might be, well those private school kids, they’re a little soft or they’ve had it good all their life, maybe they’re not going to compete as well,” Maddox said. “Until you’ve been in both worlds, you don’t really know.”

Because of those misconceptions, TAPPS players and coaches admit that UIL schools on their schedules often overlook them.

“I think that playing a public school, sometimes they overlook you thinking that you’re not going to be as competitive as you are, which makes it really fun to play public schools,” Pirtle said. “You kind of go into the game thinking, ‘They really don’t respect us; they don’t think we can play.’”

Hall said he thinks sometimes even coaches at the TAPPS level are disrespected. When he coached in Florida for three years, Hall said private school coaches were accepted like any other coach, but in Texas he said he gets the feeling TAPPS coaches are considered “second string.”

“I think that we’re sometimes looked down on, we’re not accepted as part of the brotherhood so to speak, especially in the coaching fraternity,” Hall said.

Success of TAPPS schools against UIL schools will begin to change minds.

Grace was undefeated against four UIL schools in 2010, beating Winnsboro, Eustace, Mineola and Shelbyville by a combined 214-62. Brook Hill has beaten Troup and Fort Worth Lake Worth the past two years, during which time Gorman has beaten 2A schools and All Saints has beaten 1A schools.

“We’re changing the minds of some of these public schools that we’re playing and that’s been a fun part of it: gaining the respect of public schools as a successful program and a program that does it right,” Pirtle said. “That has been the funnest part about being here at Brook Hill.”

Added Gipson: “The coaches of East Texas are so knowledgeable that they do understand and they do respect the football being played in TAPPS.”


Stairway To Heaven

Brook Hill had just trounced Austin Regents.

The two schools had become rivals after playing each other in the playoffs three straight years. The fourth meeting resulted in a resounding 26-3 victory for the Guard in the D-III title game.

And yet, after the bodies were done slamming into each other for nearly three hours, the two teams huddled together, locking arms and joining in prayer.

“Praying after the state championship game last year with Austin Regents was very special,” Pirtle said. “It was an unexpected win after a win.”

While it would be foolish to deny the presence and importance of Christianity at UIL schools, the ability for TAPPS schools to be so open about their faith is unquestionably one of the most cherished aspects of private-school football among its participants.

“I think you have some wonderful Christian men that coach in UIL and you have wonderful Christian men that coach in TAPPS,” Gipson said. “I know they’re teaching those character lessons on the field and off the field at UIL schools and TAPPS schools, but in the TAPPS arena you are more free to share your faith, which is appealing to a lot of us.”

Pirtle said for him the best part of TAPPS is the emphasis on a Christian surrounding.

“That’s not to say games aren’t competitive and things don’t get heated,” he said. “But … there is a different attitude between the coaching staff and there is a different purpose a lot of times and that’s special.”

The players too enjoy the religious aspect of playing for a private school. White said his favorite part of TAPPS football is the way teams work to glorify God.

“I love how the Christian character of all the people that we play is definitely a big factor for me,” Weathers said.

Hall said he once turned down a public school job offer because he would not have been allowed to express his faith.

“This is a ministry for me,” Hall said. “What I do isn’t about the football — it’s about the ministry.”


Light My Fire

Brook Hill, Gorman and All Saints competed together in Division III the past two years while Grace contended in Division II.

TAPPS had slated for all four schools to be in the same, highly competitive Division II district for the next realignment, but All Saints opted to go independent as it grows its program.

For the third straight year, Gorman will play all three of its local TAPPS adversaries, the only school to do so since the teams started playing.

The growth of the in-town rivalries will only strengthen the programs as a whole. Never is this more apparent than the Tyler Football Classic, where All Saints, Gorman and Grace play on consecutive nights, allowing the teams to get out and watch their neighbors. (Brook Hill used to play in the classic before branching off to create its own.)

“The Tyler Classic’s really fun playing in,” Greene said. “Everyone gets so hyped for that weekend.”

The communities also get an opportunity to see what the TAPPS schools have to offer on the gridiron.

“I think it causes the community to get a little more interested in it,” Maddox said. “You get a little more talk going on in the communities and you get people going out to the games, going to school to see for themselves.”

And nothing will create community interest more than the schools actually playing each other.

“I’m really glad to see three of the four teams in the same district; hopefully at some point All Saints will be in the district as well,” Gipson said. “I think that just adds to the excitement; I think that adds to the intensity.

“It is really fun to play Dallas Christian, but when you pick up the paper as a Tyler resident, you’re probably more interested in the Gorman-Brook Hill game than you would be a Gorman-Dallas Christian game just because it does combine two East Texas teams.”


You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

The future of TAPPS football was thrown into question in June when the UIL announced it’s looking into adding a private school division for football.

But far too many questions remain before TAPPS schools even consider making a move to UIL. Will schools have to play up a classification? Will private schools be forced to draw from within geographic boundaries? Will there be a level playing field?

“As a public school coach, I’ve seen both sides of the fence,” Pirtle said. “I just think it’s going to be impossible to do.”

The status quo appears to be suiting the Tyler-area TAPPS schools just fine. With All Saints likely to rejoin a district in two years there could be an all-East Texas football district for the first time.

“When something’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Gipson said. “And I think you’re seeing excitement at an all-time high for UIL football and TAPPS football.”

TAPPS football may be rocking at an all-time high, but at the rate it’s growing in East Texas, expect new hits on the horizon.