TYLER – It’s just past 8 a.m. and practice is wrapping up at John Tyler.

Lions coach Ricklan Holmes has long implemented 6 a.m. practices because he feels it teaches his players discipline. He also doesn’t like the heat. There’s no heat to worry about this November morning, with temperatures on the brink of freezing and breath seeping through players’ facemasks like fog.

This is the one time of year the Lions will gladly embrace the cold of a winter morning. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, JT (7-2) bounced back to win the District 7-5A Division I championship. It will host Tomball (6-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the bi-district round.

All year long, the memory of last season has served as motivation for John Tyler.

“It was terrible,” Holmes said. “It was about how these kids and community felt about it. It’s a lot of pride in what we do for this football program. All the people who have won the three state championships already. To let them down, that was a feeling you don’t ever want to have. People always say things like that make you stronger. My deal behind that is you need to be strong without being tested. There are going to be tests, but you’ve got to be prepared for them. I don’t think we were prepared.”

The Lions seem better equipped for tests this season. Ke’Andre Street (745 yards receiving, 10 TDs), the team’s top receiver, and quarterback Devlen Woods (1,637 yards passing, 19 TDs) have emerged as leaders offensively. Both seniors, they bring playoff experience and said they carry lessons from Bryson Smith and Damion Miller in 2016, when the Lions made it three rounds deep.

John Tyler Devlen Woods (1), gets rid of the ball, before getting sacked.
John Tyler quarterback Devlen Woods (© ETSN.fm)

Perhaps the most perfect example of that leadership came two weeks ago.

JT trailed Mesquite Poteet, 44-41 with two seconds remaining and the district title on the line. After Woods was sacked on the previous play, he let a Hail Mary fly in a desperation attempt at the victory. Street went up against several Poteet defenders to miraculously come down with the catch.

“I never thought I would be in that situation,” Street said. “We prepared for that because we go through that on our little walk throughs. Our last play we’ll throw a jump ball. You gotta believe. I believed I could catch it.”

Woods has endured his fair share of hardship on his way to becoming one of the Lions’ most influential players. He was a receiver for the Lions as a sophomore, where he racked up 627 yards and four touchdowns.

He made the switch to quarterback last season, throwing for barely more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns.

“It was a learning curve,” Woods said. “I always practiced quarterback my sophomore year, so I kind of knew how to do it. But, I was also playing receiver at that time. Bryson told me, ‘This is your team. They’re only going to be as good as you are. However hard you push them, that’s how hard they’re gonna work.’”

Woods’ first season at quarterback ended with the Lions going 5-5. A week after the Lions were eliminated from playoff contention, he got back to work.

“Going into the offseason, my quarterback coach used to call me ‘Average,’” he said. “We had a 5-5 season. Every time I’d feel like I was tired or bending over he’d say, ‘This is why we’re average. If they see you bend over, they think it’s all right to bend over.’ I kind of had a chip on my shoulder that we weren’t going to be how we were the year before.”

John Tyler head coach Ricklan Holmes.
John Tyler coach Ricklan Holmes (© ETSN.fm)

With he and Street leading the way, the offense appears ready for the challenge of Tomball on Friday.

“Don’t none of them put fear in my heart,” Street said. “If you line up against me, I’m gonna kill you. That really means you think you can go against me in your head.”

There will be one difference when JT takes the field on Friday. The Lions will don their ‘Cujo’ jerseys, a tradition that started in the playoffs under legendary JT coach Allen Wilson. The design is simple: ‘Cujo’ replaces ‘Lions’ across the front of the jersey. Seeing the Cujo jersey for the first time is something each player cherishes.

“You don’t even say Cujo until it’s playoff time,” Holmes said.

Woods and Street have acknowledged their time at John Tyler is ending. They leave behind several memories, most notably the Hail Mary, which should find a place in John Tyler lore. After not having put on the Cujo jerseys for two years, they’re hopeful they’ll get the chance to make a few memories with them on.

“It’s bigger than me,” Street said. “We had people that have come through here that are legends. They wear this and it means more to me. It stands for ‘Never quit, never die.’ Go back to the Hail Mary pass. It was two seconds left. For those Cujo jerseys to be on, it means a lot.

“I’m excited, but I’m tryna get me a ring before I leave.”

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