Tim Russell Returns To Harmony High After Tragedy With A Team That Could Make Big Run
BIG SANDY -- It would have been easy for Tim Russell to lash out at the person driving a car that crossed the center line and killed his 17-year-old, newly graduated daughter as well as her 19-year-old friend two months ago.
It would have been easy for Russell to pack up his house and move his remaining family away from the area where the tragedy stole Bailee Russell and 2015 Harmony graduate Haley Johnson and left a 23-year-old man that had graduated from Harmony with an infinite level of guilt.
But Harmony's head football coach and his family don't do the easy things. They have decided to double down on Harmony High School.
So, Tim Russell was at work Saturday morning. Coaching the Harmony Eagles football team through most of a light practice before heading off to see his other daughter compete in a sporting event.
"I just love these guys," an upbeat Tim Russell said. "I think it's been the best two-a-days we've ever had. The most consistency. Having all the guys back and such a family atmosphere. Our slogan this year is 'All In.' We're definitely all in.
"We talk about having tragedy and stuff and this year we had it with my daughter. The guys have really rallied around that. Most of them, if not all of them, knew her and were very close with her. They're very close to my family. It's just nice to have guys you can really lean on that are really there. All of our players, their families and my family are really one close-knit group. It really is a special family we have right here."
Seeing Tim Russell doing something he loves to do will bring some joy back to Harmony.
Plus, this team just might be one of the coach's best.
The Eagles are bringing back 10 offensive starters and six defensive starters from a team that reached the area round of the Class 3A Division I playoffs en route to a 7-5 final record. This year, due to a slightly declining student population between the fall semester of 2013 and the fall semester of 2015, the University Interscholastic League placed Harmony football in 3A Division II.
Not that a half-class drop means all that much.
East Texas is very deep at the Division II level.
Leaving old district foe and eventual Division I state semifinalist Mineola behind also means embracing heavy Division II, Region II hitters like Hooks, Gunter and Henrietta. And only after getting out of a district featuring historically good programs like Alba-Golden, Edgewood, Winona and Lone Oak.
Things get even heavier deeper into East Texas.
Waskom is the two-time defending Division II champion, but it is situated in Region III. That means Harmony and Waskom would not face each other in a meaningful game until the state championship.
Of course, Harmony put Waskom on the schedule anyway for a non-district showdown in Week 2.
There is work to be done leading up to the start of the season.
Saturday's practice mostly revolved around installing the Eagles' passing package. Junior quarterback Spencer Seahorn and junior receiver Konrad Eichelman are already two-year starters, so they're going to get a little more leeway from Tim Russell in year three.
Eichelman also doubles as a safety.
Harmony is adding a four-wide aspect to compliment the duo as well as a relatively deep rotation completed at the starting spots by seniors Jacob Kimmen and Caleb Hart.
"We have always wanted to go spread," Seahorn said. "Even since junior high. We're more of a running team, but, what we did today, we looked pretty good."
Tim Russell's defense is in a good starting spot to make dreams of deep playoff run more vivid.
"We're replacing some guys on defense," the head coach said. "More so, we're just moving guys around. We're replacing a couple of defensive linemen. Last year, we had the defensive lineman of the year in our district in Rowdy Yordy. He graduated, so we're looking at some guys to fill his spot and those roles. Some of the guys that start out offensive line, maybe we move them to the defensive line.
"We're still a work in progress. We had the first day in pads (Friday). We're still trying to find the guys that can go and all that. I'd say, right now, defensive line is where we have the most holes and the most uncertainty. We have a lot of really good players there. We just don't know the pecking order yet."
Sixteen starters is 16 starters. Seven of them will return once again for the 2017 season, but they know the biggest part of the window of opportunity has nearly arrived.
Eichelman put it best.
"We look at it like this is our best team we're going have," the junior said. "Next year, we should be good, but this is the best team we're going to have. We have really high expectations. We expect to compete to the end of the year. Hopefully into December."
The 2016 campaign will no doubt be one of the most emotional of Tim Russell's career.
There will be challenges. There might be setbacks.
But, by nature of retaining every critical team member possible, Harmony's season will be a success story.
"On paper, it'd be a big deal dropping down from Division I to Division II," Tim Russell said. "But, really, most coaches would tell you right now it's more about your team. It's more about us.
"The best competition in Division II is in East Texas, as Waskom would attest to as a two-time defending state champion. We're all excited. But I think, most of all, we have a lot of returning players. A lot of kids that really love football, our community loves football and it's just a great time to be us."