It ended up being a good year for football players.
After coaches and players and sportswriters and fans wondered and waited and watched COVID-19 statistics for most of the spring and summer, football season somehow came together. There was a threat of a delay before practice even started and the fall looked much different for Class 5A and 6A programs and private schools. But football persevered.
It fits, then, that the 2020 Super Centex Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year are two young men that have persevered through many ups and downs of long careers at the varsity level.
Offensive Player of the Year Roddrell Freeman, from Mart, and Defensive Player of the Year, Kavian Gaither, from Connally, both spent all four years of high school on their respective varsity teams. Freeman and Gaither each made an impact on defense during their freshman seasons, then blossomed into two-way stars.
Both were Super Centex first-teamers in 2019 and, as seniors in 2020, couldn’t be denied their prominent places in the Central Texas high school football landscape.
Offensive Player of the Year: Roddrell Freeman, Mart
Freeman came painfully close to winning four state championship rings for the Mart Panthers. He was an integral part of Mart’s 2A titles in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Then he gave the Panthers a chance to defeat Windthorst in the championship game in December before the Trojans ultimately pulled off the upset in the final minute.
It wasn’t how he wanted to finish, but his record is still exemplary.
“He played four years, started every game. Never missed a game due to injury or grades or anything like that,” Mart coach Kevin Hoffman said. “Even when he did get injured throughout the course of his career, he still managed to go out there and play, being hurt. That speaks volumes as to what kind of player he is. Over his career, he played 63 football games. He played one game less than he could have possibly played and that was only due to COVID and our scheduling change because of it.”
Whatever Hoffman asked Freeman to do, he excelled at it. After playing running back as a junior, when senior Kyler Martin directed the offense at quarterback, Freeman got his turn at QB this season.
That made him the rare quarterback/defensive end. But it was no surprise how he performed.
Freeman passed for 1,449 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 1,753 yards and 31 TDs, leading a Mart offense that averaged more than 47 points per game. Meanwhile, on defense he made 97 tackles with six sacks among 12 tackles for losses. He forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and blocked a punt.
One of Freeman’s last great highlights from his Mart career came in the second quarter of the 2020 state championship. He darted and juked and outran the Windthorst defense for a 65-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14 late in the second quarter. Though the Panthers were one big play short of winning their fourth-straight state title, Freeman’s effort as a senior stayed consistent. As a freshman, he made a key sack that helped Mart turn around the scoreboard and ultimately defeat Refugio, 34-21, in 2017.
“That’s kind of been our team over the last four years,” Hoffman said. “That’s something that we try to stress and try to teach these kids. Things are not always going to go your way. You’re going to lose some games and you’re going to get behind in games and what are you going to do? What’s going to be your character? What are you going to do when the negative things happen?”
Very few athletes in the history of Texas high school football have played in four state championship games. That will be Freeman’s legacy at Mart.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kavian Gaither, Connally
Similarly, Gaither elevated the Connally program. The Cadets didn’t reach a state championship game, but they were ranked No. 1 for part of the 2019 season with Gaither playing quarterback and defensive back.
As a senior in 2020, Gaither shifted from running back to QB midway through the season when previous starting quarterback Tyler Webb suffered a leg injury. Gaither ended up passing for 430 yards and five touchdowns and rushing for 1,332 yards and 13 TDs. On defense, he moved from safety to linebacker and posted 81 tackles with five tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and fumble recovery.
Even with all those statistics, Gaither’s greatest contributions might have been his intangibles.
“He’s been a huge impact on our program,” Connally coach Shane Anderson said. “He’s easy to coach because he’s smart and he wants to do it right and he’s talented. The effect he has on the other kids, on the people around him, that’s what you can’t coach.”
During the last two seasons, with Gaither playing a central role on offense and defense, Connally compiled an 18-5 record. In 2020, one of his shining moments earned him the Built Ford Tough Player of the Week honor for Week 10 of the regular season.
Gaither never left the field at China Spring as he rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns, passed for 119 and a score, made 16 tackles and forced a fumble that the Cadets recovered for a vital second-half stop in their own territory. To top off the night, Gaither recovered an errant snap and refused to give up on a two-point conversion play. He found Bronsha Miles in the end zone for the two-point pass that lifted Connally to a 46-45 overtime victory.
With all the honors Gaither received during his high school football career, he still pointed to relationships as the most important part. He mentioned Anderson’s influence as the Cadets coach since his seventh grade season.
And, of course, his teammates.
“Definitely just the connection I formed with my brothers, brothers that I’ll know for the rest of my life,” Gaither said. “We didn’t make it all the way to the (state title game). But putting Connally on the map was a big accomplishment.”
Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jadon Porter, Lorena
Like Freeman and Gaither, the Super Centex Offensive and Defensive Newcomers of the Year have a lot in common. In fact, they were teammates.
Lorena swept the newcomer honors with freshman wide receiver Jadon Porter earning the offensive award and sophomore defensive tackle Joe Gutshall duplicating it on defense.
Porter burst on the scene by catching 44 passes for 890 yards and seven touchdowns. In a versatile Lorena offense, he was the Leopards’ most dangerous weapon.
To become that, Porter had to win over his biggest critic — himself. He said his best game might have come in Lorena’s scrimmage against Connally in August.
“I think he realized, ‘I can play at this level,’” Lorena coach Ray Biles said about Porter’s performance against the Cadets. “I think that was a confidence deal for him. Honestly, we needed him to go out and see that he could compete at that level. He had a lot of big nights for us, but I’m sure in his mind that was his first time out with the big boys.”
By the end of the regular season, Porter was used to making plays. In the Leopards’ district-championship-clinching win at Rockdale, he caught a slant pass from quarterback Ben Smedshammer in the fourth quarter and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown that turned out to be the game-winner.
Lorena could have its go-to guy in place for the next several seasons. For Porter’s part, he’s simply focused on improvement.
“I guess just keep on working at football, working out and staying in shape for next season,” he said.
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Joe Gutshall, Lorena
On the other side of the ball, Lorena has another player who’s passionate about the game and aiming for big things in his career.
At 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, Gutshall already had the size to dominate at the 3A level. And he’s no gentle giant.
“I was an 11-pound baby,” Gutshall said. “I’ve always been the big kid. Big, giant, tall kid. I just like being aggressive. I have four older brothers. We used to beat each other up, fight a lot. So I like throwing people around.”
That’s certainly what he did for the Leopards. Gutshall finished the season with 18 tackles for losses, including 10 sacks among his 50 total tackles.
The Lorena sophomore defensive tackle was a constant problem for opposing offensive lines.
“Physically we knew he was ready for it this year,” Biles said. “A lot of people had to account for him with two blockers. He could bull rush, he could speed rush, he could do it all. He had no problem beating a one-on-one block most of the time.”
Going forward, Lorena has plans to use Gutshall as a tight end as well as an interior defensive lineman. Biles has seen that kind of athleticism from the big sophomore.
But the Leopards won’t try to make Gutshall into a finesse player.
“He’s been a big kid pretty much his whole life,” Biles said. “In elementary and junior high he was a big kid. Some of them were half his size, so there’s kind of this, ‘Don’t hurt the other boys.’ Now it’s like, ‘Joe, you crush everything in front of you.’ We just unleash him and let’s go play.”
Coach of the Year: Brian Bell, China Spring
At the end of this regular season, there might have been a log jam of Super Centex Coach of the Year candidates. The men who roamed the sidelines and guided programs at Mart, Crawford, China Spring, McGregor, Lorena and elsewhere had distinguished themselves.
And then the playoffs hit and the picture got clearer.
China Spring went into the postseason as the No. 3 seed from District 9-4A Division II and drew state fourth-ranked Jasper in bi-district.
No matter. The Cougars pounded Jasper, 45-19. The week after that, China Spring met second-ranked West Orange-Stark and beat the Mustangs, 35-22. Then, for a third straight week, the Cougars met a top 10 opponent in No. 9 Sealy and rolled over the Tigers, 31-13.
China Spring had experienced some tough-luck losses in district against Salado and Connally. But it all set up for Cougars coach Brian Bell to direct a thrilling playoff run.
“That probably is the best three-game stretch in China Spring football history to upset three teams like that in the top 10,” Bell said. “We win that Connally game, we don’t have a chance to play West Orange-Stark or Jasper. Who knows what’s going to happen. That’s a testament to everything happens for a reason. You can’t dwell on negative things or when things don’t go your way. The next opportunity, you make the most of it. You might do something truly special.”
In the fourth round, Bell and the Cougars met up with top-ranked Carthage. It would have been the stuff of Disney movies for China Spring to prevail once again. Alas, the reality of high school football set in and, though the Cougars hung close into the third quarter, Carthage claimed a 52-14 victory. The Bulldogs went on to defeat Gilmer, 70-14, for the 4A D-II state title.
It wasn’t a fairy tale for China Spring, but it still makes Bell smile.
“Not many times do you finish a season and not have regrets,” Bell said. “Honestly, I feel like everybody in our football program left the 2020 season with our heads held high. We left it all out there and our kids did something truly special that will be remembered for a long time.”
2020 SUPER CENTEX FOOTBALL TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year: Roddrell Freeman, Sr., QB, Mart
Defensive Player of the Year: Kavian Gaither, Sr., DB, Connally
Coach of the Year: Brian Bell, China Spring
Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jadon Porter, Fr., WR, Lorena
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Joe Gutshall, So., DT, Lorena
Pos Player Cl Ht Wt School
QB Veandre McDaniel Sr 6-1 185 McGregor
RB Zach Hrbacek Sr 5-8 175 Troy
RB Emmanuel Abdallah Sr 5-9 185 China Spring
WR Kei’shawn Clater Jr 5-10 147 Mart
WR Za’Korien Spikes Sr 5-11 155 Cameron Yoe
UT Roddrell Freeman Sr 6-0 205 Mart
UT Jordan Rogers Sr 5-10 180 La Vega
OL Cooper Gohlke Sr 6-0 232 Crawford
OL Robert Allen Sr 6-3 295 La Vega
OL Micah Sauls Sr 5-11 250 Mart
OL Jagger Summa Jr 5-9 245 Bosqueville
OL Cody Coffman Sr 6-0 285 Connally
K Ivan Maldonado Sr 6-1 200 Midway
RS Daylan Browder Sr 5-11 160 Lorena
Pos Player Cl Ht Wt School
DL Dawson Exline Jr 5-11 205 China Spring
DL Ayden Lane Jr 6-1 200 Mart
DL E.J. Boarman Sr 6-4 205 Bishop Reicher
DL Jaden Anderson Jr 6-4 235 West
LB DaMarion Medlock Jr 5-10 145 Mart
LB LaMarcus McDonald Jr 6-0 190 Connally
LB LaTravius Johnson Sr 6-0 200 La Vega
LB Ty Williams Jr 6-0 172 Crawford
DB Kavian Gaither Sr 5-11 185 Connally
DB Javon Iglehart Sr 6-1 185 La Vega
DB John Youens So 6-1 185 Bosqueville
DB Jordan Landrum Jr 5-6 135 Rosebud-Lott
P Breck Chambers So 6-0 177 Crawford
Pos Player Cl Ht Wt School
QB Luke Bradshaw Sr 6-5 195 Bosqueville
RB Jar’Quae Walton Sr 5-9 175 La Vega
RB Trey Janek Sr 5-11 175 West
WR Luke Torbert So 5-10 155 Crawford
WR Ryder Roark Sr 6-1 180 Bosqueville
UT Chad Lorenz Jr 6-0 215 McGregor
UT Humberto Arizmendi Sr 6-1 183 Temple
OL Hayden Hopkins Sr 6-1 290 China Spring
OL Will Allison Sr 6-3 230 McGregor
OL Damion Brown Sr 6-0 285 La Vega
OL Carter Hooser Sr 5-11 255 Crawford
OL Maverick Plsek Jr 6-0 260 Bishop Reicher
K Karson Coe Sr 5-10 160 China Spring
RS Trajon Butler So 5-7 155 Marlin
Pos Player Cl Ht Wt School
DL Vincent Jackson Sr 5-8 218 La Vega
DL Coltin Locking Sr 6-3 190 China Spring
DL Reese Huffman Sr 6-4 220 McGregor
DL Nick Womack Sr 6-1 245 Bosqueville
LB Larson Hoffmeyer Sr 5-7 165 Bosqueville
LB Saveon Spencer Sr 6-0 210 Hillsboro
LB Taurean York So 5-11 205 Temple
LB Darion White Jr 6-1 195 La Vega
DB Trey Holdman Sr 5-10 175 Mexia
DB Sir John Strain Sr 5-10 160 Bishop Reicher
DB A.J. Burns Sr 5-11 170 La Vega
DB Guillermo Acevedo Sr 5-9 165 West
P Ramon Manrriquez Sr 5-7 168 Frost
QB: Jake Boozer, Bishop Reicher; Seth Kasowski, Bremond; Major Bowden, China Spring; Tanner Merenda, Crawford; Allen Lewis, Groesbeck; Ben Smedshammer, Lorena; Le’Marion Miller, Mexia; Ryder Hohertz, Moody; Tanner Bean, Wortham.
RB: Eli Cummings, Bishop Reicher ; Jay King, Bosqueville; Garrett Pearson, Crawford; Maqua Smith, Groesbeck; Klyderion Campbell, Mart; Jarrell Wiley, Mexia; Nemier Herod, Teague; Samari Howard, Temple
WR: Mekhi Rice, Newt Schornack, Corey Long and Eric Ochoa, Bishop Reicher; Luke Torbert, Crawford; De’Traevion Medlock; Zach Stewart, Midway; Breon Lewis, Rosebud-Lott; Mikail Harrison-Pilot, Temple; AJ McDuffy, Temple; Lane McDaniel, Wortham
OL: Royce Bayles, Bishop Reicher; Michael Hare, Bosqueville; Cameron Atkins, Mart; Cash Fuller, West
UT: Wyatt Wolf, West
K: Aaron Wagaman, Temple
DL: Austin Albrecht, Bosqueville; Eduardo Gil, Cameron Yoe; Coltin Locking, China Spring; Torii Pullen, Connally; RaeShawn Roberts, La Vega; Alan Harringer, Mart; Dontravious Daniels, Mexia; Jayce McBride, Moody
LB: Jamien Henley, Bishop Reicher; Blaine Reynolds, Bishop Reicher; Fabian Salomon, Cameron Yoe; Tristyn Pechacek, China Spring; Camron Walker, Crawford; Chance Connally, Crawford; Marcus Cobb, La Vega; Trey Powell, Mart; Campbell McCauley, McGregor; Colby Franks, McGregor; Ja’Bryan Busby, Mexia; Xavier Molina, Mexia; Cooper Petty, Robinson; Luke Stacks, Teague; Gage Gordon, West; Dawson Hightower, Whitney
DB: Austin Duron, Bishop Reicher; Jaxon Montgomery and Daren VanZandth, Whitney; Tre Hafford, China Spring; Jesse Majors-Sterling, La Vega; Marcus Willis, La Vega; Tristan Holt, Mart; Frankie Smith, Mexia; Brylon Jackson, Teague
Ignited a great Bulldogs offense by passing for 2,193 yards and rushing for 710, accounting for 34 TDs.
Trojans star rushed for more than 2,000 yards for the second-straight season, finishing with 2,301 and 34 TDs.
Sr, China Spring
Constant breakaway threat, rushed for 2,281 yards and 28 TDs to help Cougars reach regional final.
A threat anytime he touched the ball, Clater caught 4 TD passes to go along with 15 rushing and one return TD.
Sr, Cameron Yoe
Yoemen offensive star caught 37 passes for 732 yards and 8 TDs, averaging 19.8 yards per catch.
Panthers star finished an amazing career by passing for 1,449 yards and 16 TDs and rushing for 1,753 and 31 TDs.
Sr, La Vega
The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, ignited the Pirates offense with 1,337 rushing yards, 517 passing yards.
Two-way trench warrior graded out at 86% for the season and led the Pirates to 2A D-I state semifinals.
Sr, La Vega
Pirates bulldozer posted 48 pancake blocks to earn back-to-back Super Centex first-team honors.
Panthers veteran in the trenches piled up 24 pancake blocks while grading out at 95% for the season.
Gave Bulldog backs shelter with 47 pancake blocks, didn't allow a sack all season.
Gave up no sacks and cleared the way for a Cadets running game that racked up 3,000 yards.
Panthers kicker didn't miss a PAT or field goal all season, also averaged 38 yards per punt.
Proved to be a game-changer for Leopards as he averaged 24.8 yards per punt return with a 64-yard TD.
Jr, China Spring
Spearheaded Cougars defense up front with 104 tackles, including 12 TFLs.
Panthers defensive star made 97 stops, including 12 TFLs to earn district defensive MVP honor.
Sr, Bishop Reicher
Helped Cougars reach state final with 87 tackles and 11 sacks in 6 games.
Trojans pass rusher rang up 16 TFLs among his 48 tackles with 4 sacks, 2 PBUs and an INT.
Two-way playmaker led the Panthers with 101 tackles, posting 14 TFLs, forcing 3 fumbles and recovering 2.
Cadets defensive standout led the team with 105 tackles with a pair of sacks among 6 TFLs.
Sr, La Vega
Pirates playmaker at LB led team with 123 tackles including a pair of TFLs and forced a fumble.
Pirates defensive playmaker racked up 121 tackles with 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and an INT for state semifinalist.
Cadets two-way star posted 81 tackles with 5 TFLs and forced 3 fumbles while also leading the offense at QB.
Sr, La Vega
Huge part of a fantastic Pirates defense posted 83 tackles with 3 INTs and 3 fumble recoveries, 6 pass breakups and a TFL.
Bulldog was a headache for defenses as a WR and excelled on defense, making 83 tackles and picking off 10 passes.
Cougars' two-way star came up with 9 INTs on defense and returned 3 for TDs. Also caught 25 passes for 539 yards on offense.
Pirates punter excelled in all three phases. Averaged 40.3 yards per punt in helping Crawford reach state semifinals.
Made high school football debut by catching 44 passes for 890 yards and 7 TDs, leading the Leopards in all three categories.
Leopard interior lineman was a disruptive force as he had 18 TFLs and 10 sacks among his 50 tackles.
Coach, China Spring
Third-year coach guided Cougars to a 10-3 record, wins over three straight top 10 opponents in the playoffs.