Waskom’s Third Straight State Semifinals Appearance Was Years In The Making
Any coach will tell you it takes a lot to sustain a winning program. The victories don't pile up as cleanly in reality as they do in Saturday's sports section.
What on earth then does it take to pull a program -- even a program with athletic potential -- away from the pack?
Waskom's Whitney Keeling knows a thing or two about the initial process and now the perpetual process. The once lowly Wildcats will make a third state semifinals appearance in as many years at 7:30 p.m. Friday. This time against Idalou at Mineral Wells' Ram Stadium as the defending Class 3A Division II state champions.
"I don't know if you could even call them middle-of-the-road," Keeling said, repeating the question's phrasing. "They were 4-36 in the four years before our staff was hired. I just think it's been a long process. We really focussed in on the lower levels when we got here. Building a winning tradition was one of the main things. They hadn't won very much at any level, so we were going to try to focus in and work extremely hard with the younger ones.
"Not that we gave up on the older ones, but it's a whole lot tougher to change a senior than it is a seventh grader."
Those seventh graders in the winter of 2010, when Keeling joined from his position as the head soccer coach and assistant football coach at Pleasant Grove High School, are now his senior class. Key components of a 14-0 team averaging 460 yards of offense and a defense with more than 260 tackles for negative yardage.
Then there were those eighth graders who have now moved on to their next endeavors in life. That was the class that really got the ball rolling.
There were universal athletes Kevin Johnson and Junebug Johnson. Fullback Dillon Benton and quarterback Trace Carter. Those guys helped push Waskom from a 4-6 record as sophomores to a state semifinals loss the very next year.
From there, they bruised their way to a 15-1 record last season with only a season-opening loss to a Class 4A Division II program en route to the town's first state championship.
The exposure the Wildcats received helped Kevin Johnson advance to SMU, where he spent this past season as an active true freshman defensive back and kick returner. Junebug Johnson could have the opportunity to play NCAA Division I football as well after another season as a receiver at Tyler Junior College.
With those four long-term starters and several other key contributors gone, however, Waskom was expected to have a bit of a down year despite retaining defensive strength. There's no shame in becoming a tough out in the playoffs, but you have to score to remain competitive in the Texas title chase.
Instead, the less-heralded 2015 roster is in position to beat the state championship team by one win. It defeated that same Class 4A Division II team, a squad which reached the third round of its own playoff bracket.
The current team will tie the second-best Waskom team ever if it loses to Idalou (13-0).
"Nobody, including myself, expected us to be at the point where we're at right now," Keeling said.
This season or through time?
Whatever Keeling managed with the younger players in his lean first two varsity campaigns at Waskom is showing right now. Other than maybe senior running back and linebacker Chan Amie, who won Defensive Most Valuable Player in last year's state championship game, no one has the explosiveness of the Johnsons. But, even then, there were two of them.
And yet this team still can't be ruled out as Waskom's best ever.
Amie has shouldered the load the Johnsons left behind to an East Texas fourth-best 2,187 rushing yards in addition to a second-best 34 touchdowns plus a third-best 176 tackles and a second-best 43 tackles for loss.
Teammate Keileon Johnson, a senior and converted defensive end from defensive back, leads East Texas with 47 tackles for loss.
Fellow linebacker Mike Reason also is up there for a second season in a row with 162 tackles, including 48 for negative yardage.
Most importantly though, senior quarterback Dylan Harkrider, senior slotback and defensive back Lucas Norton plus athlete Kaleb Haynes have risen to the occasion in their breakout and final seasons as starters behind a strong offensive line.
None of those players have less than 600 rushing yards, and Harkrider has given the team's passing game some bite with 1,116 yards and 20 touchdowns to just three interceptions.
It wasn't an interim year after all.
"That's always the goal, to work for state," Reason, who doubles as a slotback, said. "Coming into the season, we knew we had some big shoes to fill with the guys that we lost. But I knew that the guys that didn't get as much playing time last year could step up and help out in a big way to hopefully get us back here. Now, here we are."
Idalou, a team from just east of Lubbock, has something to say about how this Waskom roster will be weighed in history.
If Amie's rushing yardage is a big number, Idalou running back Brandt Schilling's number is gargantuan. Schilling has 2,943 yards, and Idalou has played one less game than Waskom.
Of course, Waskom puts on an aerial assault out of the double wing compared to Idalou with 1,251 total passing yards in 117 attempts to the West Texas team's 298 yards on 32 attempts. The point being teams know Schilling is the key and, still, no one has stopped him.
"They're going to run the ball until we stop it," Hughes said. "They're going to play hard and play physical."
Idalou won its first and last state championship in 2010 with successful seasons before and after. This one though, even if it ends Friday, will be its best since.
Entirely since Idalou won it all, Waskom has built something special to show it also belongs on this December stage.
"Definitely a long process to get here since Coach Keeling has been here," Reason said. "Everything has slowly started to get better and we've worked hard in the weight room and on and off the field for years to get here. Now, we're here. Again."