HOUSTON – Engraved on the inside of North Shore’s most recent State Championship ring are three words surrounding a cleat.
Relax. Focus. Ball.
With a semi-youthful football team this year – a roster that will carry 10 sophomores and five freshmen, including starting quarterback Kaleb Bailey into Saturday’s UIL 6A Division I State Championship game against Duncanville – veteran coach Jon Kay’s message to the team resides around those three words.
“Just relax, focus and trust your training,” Kay said. “I think sometimes as young kids you feel like you have to hit some switch or create some superpower that doesn’t exist. Our message to the entire team is just relax, focus and do what you do.”
Heading into this season, the defense was a piece of this team that was experienced and talented.
The secondary is led by national-recruit Denver Harris, while the line up front is anchored by the likes of Texas-signee Kris Ross, HBU-signee Jacoby Brass, Tai Leonard and Ronald Wilson.
“Our defensive line is so productive right now,” Kay said.
It is a line that has amassed 26 ½ sacks this season with 30 quarterback pressures and even one interception.
The rest of the defensive unit has been highlighted by the play of senior linebacker Kent Battle’s team-leading 93 tackles, James Douglas’ 76 tackles and Jayvon Anderson’s 70 tackles.
This unit is the same one that just took Lake Travis, a team that was averaging 47.5 points per game and held them to just 21 – only the second time that has happened all year, the other to Austin Westlake – in the State Semifinals a week ago.
“Way better than I thought, I knew we had a lot to improve on from last year but I knew we had something to work with,” Harris said. “We just came in here, competed with our great offense and it made us a better defense.”
The offense was the biggest question, of course having to replace now-Auburn quarterback Dematrius Davis – a player who passed for more than 10,000 yards and won two state titles in his career – was item No. 1.
So far, the 15-year-old Kaleb Bailey has stepped up in his freshman year.
Bailey in just nine games played, his first start coming against Atascocita for the District 21-6A Championship in the regular season finale, has progressed each week.
Entering the state title game, Bailey has gone 51 of 77 for 821 yards and 10 scores, while rushing for another 729 yards and seven scores.
“You could see the growth from the Atascocita game as a district game and then when we played them a couple of weeks later in the round four game,” North Shore offensive coordinator Willie Gaston said. “Credit to him for just coming here and putting in the work.”
While Bailey has starred at the signal-caller position, he has had some veteran leadership around him like David Amador II.
The junior receiver is getting his first shot at a state title come Saturday. He has led the offense with 45 catches for 934 yards and 10 scores and has been one of the leaders of the offensive unit.
“Just coming out here and telling my teammates that we have to keep working hard,” Amador II said about leading the young guys. “Keep coming out here and practicing and we’ll be fine.”
Out of the backfield has been a plethora of different backs from Xavier Owens (1,171 yards, 16 touchdowns, Rashaad Johnson (547 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Damon Ford (368 yards, 7 touchdowns) to go along with Bailey.
“I love the depth we have at running back,” Gaston said. “We’re fortunate to have so many guys you can throw in there. There’s really no dropoff. They each have their own style. We’ve got a guy who’s big and has power, we have some smaller guys that are quick.”
As North Shore approaches its third state championship game in four seasons, Kay has watched this team grow.
He has seen the seniors settle in and “embrace their leadership role” as they year goes on. He has seen the young kids just “listen” to the coaches. Now, with them “pulling In the same direction”, Kay has seen this team improve for 15 weeks.
“To see them grow as young men and get mature, understand what they have at stake and work together it has been fun to watch and be part of,” Kay said.