MELISSA — Up in Melissa, where farmland is gradually turning into construction sites, expectations run high.
The expectations are in the Championship Center, Melissa High School’s new state-of-the-art indoor facility that opened in 2021. With a $21.3 million price tag, the center hosts a 5,200 square-foot rehabilitation clinic open to the community. Its builder claims the center to be the biggest sports facility of its kind in Texas (even bigger than those at Texas A&M, Texas or the Ford Center at The Star). Expectations are also in the massive $35 million dollar stadium being built next door to the players’ practice space on Melissa’s campus. It is scheduled to open in 2023 and will seat around 10,000 people, much more than Melissa ISD’s Cardinal Field, which accommodates 3,100.
New infrastructure doesn’t just signify growth, but communicates those weighty hopes, which say: As Melissa grows bolder on the map, the football program should match.
So far so good.
This season, Melissa’s football team moved up to Class 5A Division II, where it will compete for a regional championship on Friday night at Arlington’s Choctaw Stadium against reigning champion South Oak Cliff (10–3). Melissa (11–2) went undefeated in District 7-5AII to win its district for the second-straight year. Last season, Melissa beat Argyle, a fellow 5AII newcomer and title contender this season, for the District 7-4AI championship. The team advanced to the regional final where it lost to six-time state champion Stephenville.
Still, Melissa’s coaches and players don’t feel they are on the rise. More so that they have already arrived.
A win over SOC, and ultimately, a second state championship for the program will cement that. Melissa last won a title in 2011, when it competed in Class 2A Division I. Since then, its enrollment has grown from 370.5 to 1,317.
“When you think about Argyle, when you think about Midlothian Heritage, when you think about all these schools that we were a 4A and then we go to 5A, everyone’s kind of like, ‘You’re not going to make it,’” Melissa head football coach Matt Nally said. “And you can say what you want to say, but Argyle has proven it, Midlothian Heritage has proven that they’ve got a great program as well. And we want to be in that conversation.”
With a team mantra like BAWA, which stands for “Bring A Winning Attitude,” that moxie has trickled down to players.
“I don’t think there’s a big difference between 4ADI and 5ADII,” junior defensive end Nigel Smith said. “It’s just brought a lot more light into Melissa being a bigger school. Once you’re 5A, you’re kind of over that hump.”
Bigger schools also get noticed more by college recruiters. Smith, a 6-5, 260-pound four-star recruit, has offers from 34 schools, including Alabama, TCU, Georgia, Texas, USC, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Senior two-way player Jacob Fields is a three-star recruit committed to Louisiana Tech. Trevor Goosby, a 6-6, 280-pound offensive tackle, is a senior committed to Texas. Junior wide receiver Karson Maynard has an offer from North Texas.
The coaching staff has prioritized publicizing Melissa’s athletes on social media and beyond.
“Three years ago, this was not a school that many people thought about moving to or even heard of, especially colleges,” Smith said. “Now, we’ve got colleges coming through all the time.”
Even with a talented roster, Melissa didn’t initially win this season. The team started 0–2 in losses to top-ranked Argyle and reigning 4A Division I champion China Spring.
“The same thing happened last year, so we knew we weren’t in a bad position,” Fields said. " We knew we were going to bounce back.”
Nally said he doesn’t put much emphasis on the pre-district schedule. He likens that slate of the season to Halloween when “you get to dress up to practice those first few games.”
But things are more serious now. Anything can happen in the playoffs.
“You can look at what happened to us in the second round with a really good Ennis football team, and you know, you can look at what happened with SOC,” Nally said.
Ranked ninth in the state, Melissa edged out Ennis 42-38 in the area round. SOC, ranked eighth in the state, experienced a similar situation when it beat Midlothian Heritage 33-27 in overtime last Friday.
SOC, which Nally admits he’s watched film of since the beginning of the season, also started the year with losses. The District 6-5AII champion did not see a win until its fourth game of the season against Parish Episcopal, which seeks its fourth straight TAPPS DI championship this weekend.
SOC lost the previous three games to 2021 6A Division I runner-up Duncanville, 6A power DeSoto and 5A power Lancaster.
With seven players ranked among The Dallas Morning News’ Top 100 recruits, SOC also has deep talent. Cornerback Malik Muhammad and defensive end Billy Walton are committed to Texas. Wide receiver Randy Reece and cornerback Abdul Muhammad are committed to SMU. Cornerback Jayvon Thomas is committed to Texas A&M. Offensive lineman Brione Brooks is committed to TCU. Cornerback Taylor Starling is committed to Colorado.
SOC head football coach Jason Todd figured all eyes would be on his team.
“If they’ve been watching since the beginning of the season, they’ve probably seen five or six different teams,” Todd laughed. “... I hope [Nally] found out what we are because sometimes we don’t even know which team we are on a particular day, so I may have to get some advice from him.”
There’s no telling which SOC will show up on Friday or if Melissa will continue its championship quest. But, like the community investing into the school’s football future, Melissa’s players are ready to go.
“We come here and it’s just best on best everyday, getting people better, getting people ready for South Oak Cliff, which has a lot of good players,” Maynard said. “Just like we do.”
On Twitter: @t_myah