Winnsboro may have best team since '97

By BOBBY "BUTCH" BURNEY | News-Telegram Sports Editor

Aug. 30, 2007 - Winnsboro head coach Steve Pinnell doesn't take the 1997 Red Raider team lightly. It went farther in the playoffs than any team in school history, so when he compares this year's team to that squad, it's high praise.

It doesn't seem like Winnsboro should be better than last year after losing do-everything athlete Jake Hawkins to Southern Arkansas. But, Pinnell has been watching these players since they were in junior high, and he believes there is as much talent as with the 1997 squad.

And this year, Winnsboro is playing in Class 2A, not 3A like they were a decade ago.

"This team has more talent and speed than any team we've had since that playoff team," said Pinnell.

That was Pinnell's third year as head coach of his alma mater, and the Red Raiders put together a three-round run through the playoffs that included knocking off state-ranked and previously unbeaten Atlanta in the first round and White Oak in the second. The Red Raiders were finally ousted by Commerce, the eventual state champion, in the regional semifinals.

That year, they had Gary Jones at quarterback. This year, it is Sean Ditto filling the shoes of Hawkins, who had operated the broken wishbone for the last two seasons.

Ditto (5-10, 180) is an accurate passer, though the Raider don't throw very much in their run-first formation. At least Ditto will have a large offensive line in front of him and a good stable of running backs including Tommy Evans (6-3, 185, 4.5 in the 40) and Chaz Baxter (5-9, 170, 4.5). Evans ran for more than 1,1 yards and 12 TDs last year and Baxter averaged 12 yards per carry.

Those two will also start on the other side of the ball. Evans is strong safety, Baxter is linebacker, and they will be joined by defensive end Michael Leaks (6-1, 230), who had 56 tackles last season, hard-hitting free safety Zach Allen and linebacker Blake Bennett.

The Red Raiders will be building on last year's 9-2 record. The only regular season game they lost was to Hughes Springs, and they play the Mustangs in Winnsboro this season. The Raiders had the unfortunate draw of playing DeKalb, with two-time state MVP Terrence Ganaway in the backfield, in the first round of the Class 2A, Division I playoffs.

This year, Pinnell can believe the Raiders can match-up with anyone in Class 2A. They are rated No. 24 in the State Farm/Texas Football Top 25 poll.

Pinnell has five offensive and nine defensive starters returning from last year.

The Raiders will be gunning for back-to-back District 16-2A championships. After a non-district schedule that include White Oak, Hughes Springs, Harleton, long-time rival Mount Vernon and Spring Hill - all of whom are Class 3A except for Hughes Springs and Harleton - the Raiders have three of their district games at home. They will host Grand Saline and Alba-Golden and Hawkins, while traveling to Como-Pickton and then to Quitman for the season finale. Last year, the district title came down to that last game, but Winnsboro blew out Quitman to win the championship uncontested.

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