Winona was one of those eight-and-whatever teams through 13 weeks of the 2016 season.

Those teams are as dreaded as they are rare. They're catching the breaks and they're definitely on the ascent.

Keylon Kincade oversaw the Wildcats' transformation from a 5-5 regular season team that barely made the postseason into a power that got within two games of the Class 3A Division II state championship. He's the East Texas Football Super Team's Coach of the Year.

"It was a fun ride," Kincade said. "All of the hard work you put in, it makes it worth it. We finally got healthy for the first time in the playoffs. I mean, there were only two or three games where we had almost all our kids. We went through a lot of adversity. Our offensive coordinator missed two games (to illness).

"We went through a lot, but we reached the fourth round of the playoffs and played the state champion. Watching the film, there's a play here and an adjustment there that we could have made. But our kids still accomplished things they never thought they would and things that haven't been done here in more than 30 years."

Kincade -- an SMU running back in the early 2000s ahead of quick stints with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys -- spent a lot of the early season biding time.

Winona was down 11 men after a season-opening loss to Alto and were still six men down after a Week 2 loss of Elysian Fields. Five of the six, Kincade said, were all-district selections.

The team limped into District 8-3A Division II play with a 2-3 record and won opening league games against Como-Pickton and Alba-Golden.

Kincade's squad dropped its next two contests, but the other district teams managed to lose the right games to clinch the Wildcats a playoff berth.

Still, how far could this up-and-down team go? Everything changed in Winona's regular season finale, which prevented an 8-1 Edgewood squad from winning the outright league championship.

"We knew it was going to come together once we got everyone back healthy and people in the right spots," Kincade said. "It showed them that they were good. There was proof in front of their eyes, and it wasn't just motivational speak. It showed them how good they were."

The big question is, how did Kincade barely manage to keep the team afloat during the lean depth games?

"My big philosophy is making sure kids learn more than one position to play," Kincade said. "That will always be my philosophy whether it's at a 6A school or here at 3A. Getting them in position to play in different spots. Somebody might sprain an ankle, somebody might get tired. If they can play multiple positions, they create their own depth.

"It's next man up. You're usually dealing with younger guys and try to let them know that they can do it and to not be scared of failure. Some kids are scared to fail, but I want mine to jump and trust that their wings are going come out before they hit the ground."

Winona downed a one-seed, a two-seed and a three-seed after the big win against Edgewood and drew a date with Gunter in the Region II championship game.

Gunter won, 45-22. It won the state championship game two weeks later by an even larger margin after a tight game with Canadian in the state semifinals.

Winona just might make it back to that level this season. Thirty-four letter winners return to the roster.

"I love that 2016 group," Kincade said. "They were eager to learn, even though they usually had the answer. Just observing those kids, I learned from them what I want most of our kids to be in the future. They were always willing to learn and get better. I'll use them as a reference point as well. They all loved football and wanted to get better at all times."

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