Things Are Starting to Look Up in Palestine After Wildcats Start Season 3-0
The door closed on Palestine's 2015 football season just as it began -- with a loss. It was a 1-9 showing for first-year coach Robby Clark and the second consecutive 1-9 finish for the Wildcats.
But on that Nov. 6, 2015 day in Brownsboro, that's when things started to turn around in Palestine.
The players took a new mindset into spring workouts and into the summer, when the Wildcats surprised many by reaching the state 7-on-7 tournament. Now they're sporting a 3-0 record for the first time since 2013, the latest being their first win against Fairfield in nearly a decade.
"Since that day (against Brownsboro) we've taken a lot of time to articulate our vision to our kids, and they have really bought into that," Clark said. "We all know in life that if you invest a lot into something, you want to have good returns. These kids have invested a lot into this season dating back to last November. The hard work these kids have put into to prepare their minds and bodies is showing up."
Palestine historically has been an up-and-down program, but for the most part since 2000 has been viewed as one of the top programs in its classification. Much of that has been in part to having an alumnus in Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, but the Wildcats have experienced plenty of success since then, until back-to-back 1-9 seasons in 2014 and 2015.
Clark knew he had a tall hill to climb when he took the Palestine job in 2015. He was taking over a team coming off a 1-9 season under coach Jay Brown, who only stayed one season. And Palestine was in easily the toughest district in its classification.
But even after a tumultuous season, the pieces were being put in place for a big turnaround.
"The people in town, our superintendent and the leadership in our administration really sold me on running a high-quality athletic program," said Clark, who has spent time at some of the most premier programs in Texas such as Brownwood, Austin Westlake and Odessa Permian. "There’s a wealth of talent in Palestine just like a lot of towns in East Texas. We just had to get pointed in the right direction and have the backing of our administration and community."
One of Palestine's biggest wins in recent memory came last Friday night against Fairfield, a 27-10 Wildcats victory that could be the game people point to when they look to see where the program's turnaround ignited. Palestine had lost six straight to Fairfield, but the Wildcats answered the challenge to the tune of picking off five passes and overcoming an early 10-0 deficit to get the win.
"We've got just tenacious, tough kids who hung in there the entire game. They kept challenging us and our kids rose to the occasion on every possession, one after another," Clark said. "In the past, even last year's team, it was commonplace that when the going got tough, we got gone. But our kids kept fighting."
It's easy to point to Palestine as one of East Texas' most improved football teams, and that's largely due to its defense. The Wildcats allowed at least 34 points in every game last season and at least 28 in every game over the past two seasons. While Palestine allowed 40 in a 49-40 win against Jacksonville in Week 2, it has allowed just 17 combined points in two other wins.
"We needed some time in the weight room. Tackling has a lot to do with your strength and when you get time in the weight room, that helps you get the guy down," Clark said. "We just didn't have kids who were interested in playing defense a year ago. We weren't a physically strong team, very passive. We started the season off with a good outing against Mabank and all of a sudden the kids had more pride, and it's began to take off."
Now 3-0, where can we expect Palestine to go from here? It's an understatement to say the Wildcats' schedule only gets more difficult each week, and it starts Friday night against Van. The Vandals have routed three straight to start the season, starting with a state finalist (Mineola) in Week 1 and last week against 5A Lindale. Not to mention Van has beaten Palestine by 31 points in each of the last two seasons.
"They're dang good, but our approach to this week is to be ready to play and put our best foot forward. We're winning no matter what the scoreboard says at the end of Friday night's game," Clark said. "But we have to play people like Fairfield and Van to play in our district. This is going to get us prepared to play some district ballgames that are actually criticial."
Speaking of district, The District of Doom Part II starts after Van. That's where teams like Kilgore, Henderson, Carthage and Chapel Hill await. The closest Palestine has played any of those four teams the past two years has been 34 points -- a 48-14 loss to Carthage in 2015.
But that's part of the game, Clark said, and he thinks his team will be ready to face the challenge.
"Right now we're sitting in a really good spot. We're all trying to do the same thing whether you're 3-0 or 0-3, we're all trying to get the best versions of ourselves ready for the meat of the season when it matters," Clark said. "But when you're winning, the kids are more excited to take direction and coaching. They take the chance to get better on a more escalated level. As far as what we've accomplished so far, we haven't accomplished anything except that we're a better team than we were a year ago. We just have to keep a workmanlike mentality and win the next one."
It's understanding and working through the process -- practices, Friday nights, the big-time games -- that, according to Clark, will get Palestine back to, well, being Palestine, and on the same level as the teams he plays during district.
"When you look at the 4A Division I landscape of our area, you have to run a top 10 program or you won't be able to even talk playoffs, and we want to be able to talk playoffs and have a top program," Clark said. "We aim to be one of those tough teams people see on their schedule. We aren't there yet; it's a building process. But we aim to build this program to a point where we have to play good people week in and week out because we'll be one of those programs, too."