John Paul II junior Grayson James and the Cardinals won a program-best four games last season.

In a year devoted to taking its football program to new heights, John Paul II saw the fruits of its labor rewarded in a big way just moments after concluding spring ball last month.

On May 25, the Cardinals posted a 3-1 record at the Blue Raider 7-on-7 state-qualifying tournament in Hurst, advancing to the semifinal round and racking up wins over several Class 5A and 6A programs along the way. It’s a stage where John Paul took its lumps just one year prior, but in holding its own against UIL athletes over a full tournament, that afternoon in Hurst offered a glimpse at the progress being made under third-year head coach George Teague.

“That was absolutely amazing. I remember last year going to a UIL tournament for the first time last year and not really knowing what to expect and everybody, from coaches to kids, being a little nervous,” Teague said. “We didn’t compete as well as we needed to, but we came into this year with a lot of confidence. That goes back to how we’ve handled our offseason and the competition we’ve put into our workouts and practices.

“We knew that, mentally, we were ready to compete.”

That mindset has permeated the program all over since the Cardinals’ concluded their 2018 season – a year that netted a single-season program-high four wins. Not long removed from a 33-game losing streak and winless campaigns from 2014-16, John Paul has finally seen the arrow begin to point up since that slump, with Teague attributing the strides made to embracing a more competitive mentality throughout the offseason.

“Some of it is coaching philosophy and just changing the process of what we could add to the kids to put more mental strain on them, be it in workout and practices,” he said. “… I’ve really enjoyed our level of competition. It has definitely gone up and I think our winning mindset has changed for the better, which has allowed us to do better both in the weight room, during spring football and in 7-on-7.”

Having players willing and able to bring that mindset to fruition helps as well, as John Paul looks to one day match the physical profile of district bunkmates like Bishop Dunne and Bishop Lynch, who both clashed for the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools state championship last year, as well as perennial rival Prestonwood Christian.

Steeling that vision for the Cardinals this spring has been a glut of experienced skill-position players, including the quarterback-receiver combo of juniors Grayson James and Jerand Bradley. The two connected for 32 completions for 593 yards and six touchdowns in 2018 and that chemistry hummed plenty during the Hurst SQT.

“They started that last year, just understanding the timing and concepts of our offense. It’s definitely a dynamic duo,” Teague said. “With [Bradley] being the Division I receiver that he is, he understands how to run the routes and use his body.

“When you have a receiver who’s 6-foot-5, 200 pounds and runs a 4.6, and a quarterback that can throw it high, behind or in the pocket, that’s hard to defend.”

Although the Cardinals averaged 31 points per game in their 2019 7-on-7 debut, that production could have arguably been higher, given that the offense was without senior tight end Donavon Johnson, a three-star prospect with double-digit Division I college offers.

Johnson’s absence opened up opportunities for some of the program’s newer faces – players like sophomore Jordyn Tyson and junior Kyle Taylor, both of whom have turned in productive springs, according to Teague.

The head coach is also confident John Paul’s running game will remain formidable with senior Carson Collins, despite the graduation of dynamic rusher Donavyn Lester, but the biggest key for the team this spring has been handling matters up front.

“We feel like we have some good skill-position players all the way around … and we just have solid offensive and defensive lines but still need to develop depth,” Teague said. “We’ve got to stay healthy up front all year.”

With the 2019 season drawing near, the Cardinals will look to junior Nathan Brown, senior Kevin Harris and sophomore Cameron Robertson as three anchors in the trenches, with Robertson athletic enough to be used as a receiver during 7-on-7 competition.

The Cardinals’ stint in Hurst won’t be their last chance at testing their mettle against UIL competition, currently slated to compete in a 7-on-7 event at SMU on June 13 that’ll include the likes of Southlake Carroll, Mansfield Timberview and Louisiana private school power Evangel Christian.

John Paul also has the TAPPS 7-on-7 state tournament, slated for June 28-29 in Waco, on its radar as well – ramping up the grind toward Aug. 1 for the start of fall practices.

“We’re not letting off the gas pedal. These will all be new things for us, so we’re in no position to take it easy,” Teague said. “We’re still trying to find ways to elevate the program to new heights.”

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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