There are many elements that go into the makeup of a winning athletic program.
First, you’ve got to have the kids who are interested in playing.
Second, you’ve got to have coaches with experience and knowledge of the sport, and who can translate that into teaching the players how to play the game, and how to excel in the heat of the competition.
Third, you have to have a modicum of luck, but winning championships is not so much about luck, as it is working hard, believing in what you’re doing, and then having the players respond positively to that.
It’s part inspirational, part motivational — but is all comes together when the players themselves take ownership of their team, and their program.
That’s what happened with this year’s Holcomb Longhorns football team.
At the beginning of the 2017 season, not so long ago in August, this group of Longhorns were the forgotten group — the backups to the studs of the past three seasons who had won a Class 4A-II state title in 2015 and played in two other state semifinal contests only to lose to the eventual champions, losing only six games in a three-year stretch while winning 41 games.
Having to replace 10 graduated starters on offense, nearly the same number on defense and moving players around to different positions from where they had previously played were some of the early-season challenges for head coach Kent Teeter and his staff — Jerry Johnson, Brandon Hill, Lance Cornelsen, Jack Johnson and Lucas Sullivan.
“There were times we were missing a player because of an injury, and we had to bring somebody in with no varsity experience,” said Hill, the defensive guru who dialed up much of the postseason success the Longhorns enjoyed. “We weren’t very good early, but the kids worked hard, and eventually they bought into what we were teaching, and they learned it.”
From a not-so-impressive 15-12 season-opening win against Cimarron, followed by a loss to rival Scott City in Week 2, to an 8-7 halftime score against Ulysses in Week 3, the Longhorns didn’t appear to have visions of a state championship at that point in time.
But something happened in the Ulysses game that would transcend into the remainder of this incomprehensible run to another Class 4A-II state championship that came on Saturday under a brilliant sun in Salina with a 40-20 thumping of Frontenac.
“The captains all had things to say at halftime of that Ulysses game,” Hill recalled. “We had told them that at some point, they had to step up and begin executing what we had been teaching them. From that point on (a 35-8 victory resulted), we got better each week.”
Not only did the Longhorns improve exponentially on defense from the first portion of the season, but so too did the offense. With a balanced attack that unnerved most defenses, the Longhorns event stepped it up a bit more in the four-game postseason run, effectively engineered by senior quarterback Trey Gilbert.
“He just became more and more comfortable with the offense, and knew exactly what we needed done — and was able to execute it,” Teeter said of his senior signal caller. “We pride ourselves on getting the ball to as many different players as possible to put as much pressure on defenses as we can, and it’s up to the quarterback to make that happen. This year, Trey did it about as well as you could ask.”
When Week 4 rolled around and an unbeaten Colby came to town, the Longhorns sent a message — that perhaps they had arrived — in the form of a 27-0 shellacking of the Eagles. They would follow it up with shutouts over previously unbeaten Lakin and then a 36-0 wipeout of a re-tooled Kingman team. Then came the big 19-14 home district win over Pratt, the team that had expelled the ‘Horns from the 2016 playoffs with a come-from-behind victory.
“I think that game really showed just how far we had come in every facet of the game,” Teeter said. “To only give up 14 points to them, and to be able to be productive offensively, I thought was a game where we showed we had matured and believed in what we were doing.”
The Longhorns would cap off the regular season with a solid win over Hugoton, and then began their four-game march through the playoffs.
A cakewalk victory over Colby (46-15) started things off, and then a big road win (26-6) in Lindsborg over Smoky Valley only built the confidence of the Longhorns even higher. Then came the big win over Scott City in the state semifinals before a concluding 40-20 dominant win Saturday over Frontenac.
It was quite a journey for a group of 15 seniors and their underclassmen teammates who bought into what Teeter and his staff was trying to teach them.
They began that journey last summer, and worked their tails off to just get better every day.
And, at the end of the day, 103 days to be exact from the first practice on Aug. 14, the Longhorns celebrated with their own championship — one not many thought possible just a few short months ago.
But that’s how championships are won, and champions made — nobody cares who gets the credit. It’s all about the team, and not about any one individual’s success.
Once again, the Holcomb Longhorns have shown their grit, and this year’s team can relish an accomplishment that will last them a lifetime.
Congratulations on a job well done!
Brett Marshall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org