New kids in town: A father and son try to invigorate Peaster's debut into 11-man football

Gunner McElroy, the 16-year-old sophomore quarterback at Peaster, hopes to lead the Greyhounds to the playoffs this season under guidance from his father, Gary, the head coach and athletic director.

Fans of the Peaster Greyhounds might be cheering a McElroy at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Gunner McElroy is the varsity starter, a sophomore playing his first year at the 3A school. His younger brother, Gannon, is a quarterback at middle school and will be a sophomore in waiting when Gunner graduates in 2023.

After those two kids move on to college, Peaster fans can continue cheering another McElroy — athletic director and head football coach Gary McElroy.

All three McElroys, along with wife and mom Stephanie McElroy, left Burleson earlier this year and relocated to this small rural town about 10 miles northwest of Weatherford. Peaster’s population is about 100 -- the same as it was in the 1890s.

Since 2012, Gary McElroy had been athletic director and football coach at Burleson, compiling a winning record with four postseason visits. That first season, his 5A Elks team was split by the opening of nearby Centennial High and went 0-10. Gary rebuilt the team and saw them make playoff runs in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In 2017, he coached his team to nine wins in the regular season.

Gary McElroy comes with a pedigree, but he’s a small-town guy at heart and felt cramped in Burleson, which almost doubled its population (currently 50,000) during the years the McElroys lived there.

“We just prefer getting out of the Metro-mess,” the coach said. “We’re far enough out of the city where we don’t have to mess with that stuff, but we can be in Weatherford pretty quick if we want to go out to eat or go shop.”

The family moved into a house on two acres near Peaster. Gary and Stephanie had been considering small-town life for several years.

“We decided during Gunner’s freshman year we were going to look to make a move if we could find the right spot,” Gary said. “We felt like Peaster was the right place. The community is great. The kids are outstanding and work hard and want to be good and want to do what’s right. I have great people to work with and for here. We were lucky enough to find a home and sell a home. This is where we want to be.”

Gunner feels at home, too. He had lived in Burleson since he was 8 and made friends there, but didn’t mind being uprooted. The country life suits him fine.

“We get to do more out here -- go swimming, play sand volleyball, go fish and hunt and stuff like that,” he said.

Gunner didn’t know anyone when he started school but said the students made him feel welcome, including Zane O’Donnell, the guy who had helped quarterback the team the previous year. Gary didn’t arrive in town touting his son as the new starting quarterback. Once the offseason drills began, however, Gunner’s talent stood out, and the choice was obvious, his dad said.

The team, including O’Donnell, rallied around Gunner at the helm.

“They supported me,” Gunner said. “Zane said he didn’t have his heart set on playing quarterback anyway. He was glad I came because he wanted to play receiver, catch balls and run the ball. It worked out.”

O’Donnell is a superb athlete who will be utilized in many ways, Gary said.

“He is a really good running back and receiver and starts for us at cornerback on defense and returns punts and kicks,” Gary said. “Having Gunner emerge as the starter at quarterback helps the team in more ways than one, because we can utilize Zane in other areas to get the ball in his hands.”

The plan worked well in Week One. Peaster journeyed to Venus and shut out the Bulldogs 34-0.

“I was pretty nervous,” Gunner said. “I had never played varsity before, and I didn’t know how everyone else would take it or if they were ready to play.”

His nerves settled down quickly, he said.

“Our defense was doing really good and stopped them all the time,” Gunner said. “We will be fine. We are playing some good teams, but we will be OK.”

The win felt sweet in many ways. Gary earned his first coaching win at Peaster, Gunner notched his first win as a varsity gunslinger, and Peaster began its maiden voyage into 11-man UIL football with a confidence-boosting victory.

Skeptics doubted whether the Greyhounds were ready for prime time. The school had been developing an 11-man team for three years and playing in outlaw leagues with plans to join the UIL in 2020. Late last year, however, the previous coach and athletic director hesitated, wondering whether the 3A school was prepared for that level of competition with such a young team. In October, Peaster ISD’s board of trustees voted to wait until at least 2022 to apply for UIL inclusion.

Then, in December, Peaster hired new school superintendent Lance Johnson and followed a few months later by hiring Gary McElroy. After evaluating the team during strength and conditioning drills, those two declared the 3A District 4 Greyhounds ready to go to war.

“It’s not an easy district,” the coach said. “It’s probably one of the tougher districts in 3A. There are some winnable games in that district for the Peaster Greyhounds as long as we can stay healthy and get better every week. We have as good a shot as anybody at making the postseason.”

Until this year, Gary had never coached one of his son’s teams.

“I tried not to coach the boys when they were in youth sports because one day I was going to have them in high school, and I certainly didn’t want them to be tired of me by then,” he said. “Last year, Gunner being a freshman [at Burleson], I still didn’t really coach him. This is really the first year I’ve been completely hands on.”

So far, the prodigy isn’t complaining.

“It’s going good,” Gunner said. “We get along.”

Gary tries to resist the temptation of bringing up football at home. He wants both of his sons to excel not only in sports but in school and life, he said, and works to keep them well-rounded

“We don’t go home and watch film,” the coach said. “I don’t get the notebook out. At home, Gunner gets to be a kid, not the quarterback and not the coach’s son. Same with my younger son. We swim and watch movies and hunt and fish when we can. Family is important to us.”

After family comes football, and if the McElroys have their wish, the Greyhounds will be grinding their way to postseasons for years to come.

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