Spring Hill was a common mention among the best teams in East Texas in the early 2000s. Names such as Jamario and Demario Thomas, Trent Allen, DeMikel Shankle and Steven Prince were in the mix when you talked about the area's best players.

The Panthers went 72-41 from 2000-2009 and won the regional title in 2002, finishing with a 12-2 record.

And such is the case with most programs, the cycle changed and Spring Hill wasn't the same Spring Hill as it once was. It's now been 10 years since the Panthers reached the postseason and Kelly Mercer is the team's fifth head coach since Steve Gaddis ended his second long tenure at the helm in 2004.

But it looks like things are starting to turn around in Spring Hill.

"Early on our message was that we're not going to feel sorry for ourselves and our situation," Mercer said. "Whether it was being in a certain district, or being a small 4A (team) ... no more 'woe is me' stuff. I believe and my coaching staff believes that we're going to take advantage of what we got. And our kids are starting to buy in to that."

Now in his third year at Spring Hill, Mercer notched the most important win of his career in many eyes of Spring Hill fans last Friday night when the Panthers dominated arch-rival White Oak, 36-0. It was Spring Hill's first win over the Roughnecks in six years and White Oak had won three of the previous four meetings by at least 33 points.

"It was big, of course. That's a rivalry game and they've gotten after us pretty good the last couple of years," said Mercer, whose team is off to a 3-0 start in 2017. "To be able to turn the corner on that part of our schedule is a big step forward. But in all honesty it's really just another game. Beating White Oak doesn't put us in the playoffs and being 3-0 does not put us in the playoffs. It was a good win but we're working to make the playoffs. That's our ultimate goal."

Spring Hill's offense has put up an impressive 137 points in its first three games, largely thanks to a passing game with new life, Mercer said. Sophomore quarterback Gage White threw for 225 yards and three touchdowns on only five completions last week, while also running for a 94-yard touchdown. Two touchdowns went to Dayson Adaway for 73 and 52 yards.

"Our passing game has really gotten much better. 7-on-7 really helped us this year," Mercer said. "We've spent a lot of time on the deep ball since so many teams are loading the box on us. One of our question marks coming into this season was our offensive line ... we were concerned about those guys, but they've really put in a lot of extra work and they've become a stable portion of our offense."

Mercer said he's been impressed with his program's progression since he took the job in 2015. His focus now, he said, is getting his team to the point of peaking at the right time and making a run at a playoff spot.

"We've been having that growth mindset every year and we're seeing the benefits of that. Our football IQ has definitely increased over the last three years," Mercer said. "We're sitting at 3-0, but when we go back and look at video we have so much room to improve. We just have to get better each week. We don't want to be playing our best football right now, and we're not. We need to be doing it in Weeks 7, 8, 9 and 10 and hopefully get a playoff spot."