Game of numbers: Coming off rare playoff berth, Sharks still fight for players

Published 9:42 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2017

SABINE PASS — In the course of a season, Sabine Pass went from the cellar of 2A Division II football to a playoff team.

The 82-0 loss to eventual Region III finalist Tenaha in the bi-district round did nothing to erase the high-water marks Jason Thibodeaux’s Sharks achieved. Sabine Pass, which went 6-5, had not posted a winning record since 1983 and had not been to the postseason since 2011.

In fact, the Sharks — who started preseason camp with 14 players — grew to a roster of 28 by season’s end.

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“I thought the biggest incentive we applied to my tenure here was last year’s season,” said Thibodeaux, who’s starting the second year of his second stint as head coach since coming to Sabine Pass 12 years ago.

“That little winning experience broke a lot of records. I thought that was going to be incentive enough.”

Actually, the Sharks are building all over again.

Their preseason camp opened Aug. 7 with just 11 players, all of whom Thibodeaux said have participated each day. On Monday, four more were working out, and all 15 players were in pads.

Thibodeaux just thought the number would be bigger.

“I thought we’d have a few more turn out, but it’s been like this ever since I came here in 2005, where the kids won’t come out until the first day of school,” he said. “I anticipate a few more. I thought, for sure, after last season, everybody would be excited to come out and see what we can build on. But they’ll come out and we’ll go from there.”

Like the coach, sophomore defensive tackle Javonte Lee thought the momentum of the Sharks’ 2016 growth would carry into this camp.

“It’s really no motivating,” he said. “If you’ve got the heart and you want to play football, you’re going to come out here and do it. If you don’t love the game, then you’re not going to show up. I’m here because I love the game.”

Thibodeaux, a 1986 Port Neches-Groves graduate, was first hired at Sabine Pass to reboot the football program after 18 years of dormancy. The program, which was winless in 2015, was saddled with 18 straight defeats, a skid that ended last Sept. 2 when they beat Galveston O’Connell 16-14. That started a five-game winning streak, when more players joined the team, Thibodeaux said.

Eleven players from the 2016 roster graduated, and six of this year’s players are freshmen. But Thibodeaux couldn’t quite put his finger on why numbers for preseason camp are always low.

“Not sure,” he said. “They know we’re not going to suit up 35 or 36. They know we’re going both ways. The ones who showed up Aug. 7, they know what they’re up against. We had one that looked at the team and said, ‘You know, we’re not going to be very good. I’m going to stay home.’ The same 11 we started with has been out here every day.’”

Said freshman running back Grayson Johnson: “It’s mainly them not wanting to play, their will, or just scared to be hurt. My determination keeps me playing to do great in this sport.”

Sabine Pass has an enrollment of 150 students in grades 9-12, but not everyone comes from the southern Port Arthur community. The school’s open enrollment policy allows for students from outside the area to attend.

“We just never had the blessing to have our kids in town,” Thibodeaux said. “I truly believe if we did, we’d have a bigger turnout. A lot of times when the parents work and they can’t get their kid to the bridge, there are a lot of cirumstances that come during getting the two-a-days off in the summer. Once the kids get here, they’re here, so they’re going to participate and we drive them to the bridge. I think it’s a situation where they can’t get a ride or anything.”

Sabine Pass competes District 12-2A, where five of its six schools has made the playoffs at least once since 2012 (Burkeville is the exception). But each school except Sabine Pass has the advantage of drawing players from its own location.

According to the 2017 edition of Friday Night Football Texas magazine, Hull-Daisetta has 154 students, with Evadale at 148, Iola at 134, Colmesneil at 121 and Burkeville at 87.

“It’s all about numbers,” Thibodeaux said. “Iola, Evadale and Hull, they have all their kids in town, which makes it nicer for them to come to practice. We have to shuttle a bus to pick up our kids to and from practice. When you get the numbers, then you get the numbers to choose from to support us.”

A bus picks up players at the Intracoastal Waterway bridge and takes them to and from practice.

Drawing players from bigger districts isn’t viewed as the answer for Sabine Pass’ fight for numbers in football.

“The 5A players look down at the 2A schools and don’t want to come down because there’s not really any competition if you’re coming from a 2A district,” said Lee, who played two years at South Park Middle School in Beaumont before coming to Sabine Pass. “You don’t really get looked at in a 2A school.”

The Sharks have a scrimmage scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 25 at Deweyville, a 2A Division I team of 211 students, according to Friday Night Football Texas. Thibodeaux said players must undergo 10 days of practice from the time they join the team before they are eligible to play in a regular-season game. Sabine Pass’ regular season begins Sept. 1 at Pasadena First Baptist.

“Some of them show up the first day of school, but that 10-day window won’t allow them to play the first game, so our motto is, ‘If that’s all we got, that’s all we need,’” Thibodeaux said. “We’ll have enough to finish the season, and God-willing, no injuries, we’ll finish the season with what we have.”

I.C. Murrell: 721-2435. Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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