What Does It Take To Win A State Title?

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Photo via Gary Coronado, Houston Chronicle
By: Hunter Cooke (@HunterCooke45)
November 7th, 2016

 

There’s nothing that can compare to the fanfare and adulation that come from winning a state title. Your name, and that of your teammates, gets etched into record books, depicting the highest honor in the country at this level of football. While it can be argued that at times, certain teams might be better than those in Texas, there’s no comparison to the depth of good teams in Texas.

The playoffs is a 6-round meat grinder, if you make it all the way to the semifinals or finals, you’ve literally played another half of a season. There are seniors at dominant high schools, those who somehow pull this feat off every year, that could potentially get 2 more full seasons than a senior at another school. It’s a brutally long stretch that consumes Thanksgiving, and the way some of the Texan cities are expanding, might be overtaking Christmas as well sometime in the next 10-20 years.

Every single classification is split into divisions, and there are 64 teams in each division’s playoffs. In 4A’s Division 1, there are 94 teams. In order to win the 4A Division 1 title, you must first survive elimination in the regular season. If you do that, you must then play through a 64 team gauntlet against teams of varying degrees of great. You could be like Euless Trinity, who drew the human-driven killing machine known as Allen in the first round. You could have lucked out and drew a four loss team in the first round. Every road is different, but there are several things that you need if you’re even thinking about bringing one home.

To illustrate how you would go about winning a title, I’m going to be drawing on my own experience, as well as the words of several coaches and players who have been there. There are some of you reading this that are wondering why I have any authority to speak on the subject. I’ll clue you in: I played three years for Abilene High School, ranging from 2007-2009.

photo via abilene reporter-news

Hunter Cooke – Photo via Abilene Reporter-News

During that time, I went 38-3 as a starter and won a title in 2009. I’ve been there, I’ve felt that emotion, I’ve blinked the sweat out of my eyelashes on mat drills, I’ve felt the scorching, cleat-melting heat in August, I’ve cried, I’ve bled, I’ve done every cliché thing imaginable.

From talking to those who have been there, and from my experiences, there’s a few common trends. I’m going to break them down into 5 points and give insight into each one. In no particular order, they are: Talent, Work Ethic, Unity, Location, and Luck.

TALENT

This is the one most will disagree with, but it’s the most important one and it isn’t even close. You must have talented football players in order to win football games. Period. End. Full Stop. Fin.

There’s something to be said for work ethic, but that’s another conversation entirely. The best teams always have some form of talent on them, they always have athletes that are bigger, stronger, or faster than the average human being should be. That’s okay, it’s part of life to not be #1 at everything you do.

I can already hear the pushback now, and it comes in quotes written on the walls of weight rooms across the nation. “Hard work beats talent when talent won’t work hard”, “The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand”, and so on and so forth. They’re halfway right: there is no substitute for hard work. If that’s true, then the flip side is true also, there isn’t a substitute for talent. We look to the stories in “Rudy”, “Rocky”, and “Hoosiers”, but the reality is that Rudy never played a meaningful snap or started a game for Notre Dame, Rocky lost to Apollo Creed in Rocky, and Hickory High needed the skill of Jimmy Chitwood to win a title.

You need talent. It isn’t negotiable. It’s required. The level of talent doesn’t have to be ridiculous, you don’t need Division 1 recruits at every single position. You will however likely need a few, especially in the bigger divisions. You need the quarterback with a cannon, you need the running back with breakaway speed, you need the corner who covers wideouts like Texas Tech games cover the over. The level of talent can vary, but you need some of it.

WORK ETHIC

Possibly the truest cliché in sports is that games are won in practice and the offseason. Of every single person that I talked to, this was the constant. You need the will to win, you need to want to work hard even when it’s tough. You need those 6 A.M. mats. You need the late night film sessions.

For those without the talent, work ethic helps even the odds. When you have a talented team that also works hard, you have a force. When you have lots of talent and work ethic that rivals the best in the business, you become a Ford F-350 Superduty with the brake lines cut, barreling at a sheet of plywood. Work ethic and talent are intrinsically tied, you cannot have one without the other if your hope is winning it all. There will be teams that can beat your own with sheer speed and skill. There will be teams that outwork you. A team that can do both is terrifying.

Sometimes we see the talented teams and assume that they don’t work hard. We see an irresponsible tweet and say that the person who sent it is obviously unfocused and a poor athlete because of it. Maybe we assume that the quarterback is afraid of contact because he doesn’t slam himself into every linebacker he sees like a large drunk rhinoceros around brick walls. Talent doesn’t always equal lazy. When that talent works hard, when the duality of skill and will come together, teams win championships.

Collin Wilder - by Diana porter

Collin Wilder – 2015 State Champion – Katy – Photo by Diana Porter

WILDER – What it takes to win a state championship is every single player on that team has to buy into how much that team wants to sacrifice to win. If all players don’t buy into the plan such as the extra work, the time at the facility, and the time away from distractions such as parties and such, then the team is likely to fall short. That leads into love as well. If the players don’t love each other deeply in that locker room, then they won’t sacrifice for each other to the fullest. But if everyone on that team does truly love one another and sacrifices everything they’re willing to, then greatness can come out of it.

UNITY

There must be a sense of unity in the locker room, on the field, and off of it. Everything must be clicking at all times, because there’s no telling what the drama of the season brings. unity bleeds into everything, it energizes people to work hard, it gives teams an all-important feeling of trust on the field, and it pushes the young men to succeed for the sake of the young man next to them.

It’s arguably the most talked about and least acted upon of the formula. It’s the one thing that everyone loves crow about, but few truly practice. It’s a simple thing to say that you love someone. It’s another thing entirely to go through with the acts of love.

This means saying hard things and dispensing tough love, but making sure that tough love isn’t all you dispense. It means that when a teammate asks for something at 3 AM, you don’t just help them, you’re genuinely happy to help them. It’s rare, but that unity is the kind of Unity that wins titles. It’s a unity that might be impossible to achieve perfectly, the human condition mixed with the violence, rage, and untamed emotion of football lead to inter-squad confrontations more often than not.

Sometimes unity can be manufactured, some times it’s given by the tragically short and empirically unfair human life. It’s depressingly commonplace to see teams rally around slain teammates or community members, or other random acts of life that weren’t fatal but alter someone’s life dramatically. The unification of humanity through shared tragedy is one of the strongest things that pull people together.

Hal Wasson - mysouthlakenews

Hal Wasson – 2011 State Title Winning Coach – Southlake Carroll – Photo via MySouthlakeNews.com

WASSON – Obviously, winning a state championship is very difficult.  We all know it involves being good, staying healthy, and getting a few breaks along the way. However,  there are three things that stand out in my mind;  being at your best when it matters the most, have a special TEAM chemistry, and you must play great defense along with having a physical running game.  I also believe there is strength in numbers because you can build quality depth and maintain a competitive edge in practice.

LOCATION

In High School football, we have dynasties. We have incredible playoff teams. We have dominant coaches that have the brains to run circles around their peers. We have recruiting hotbeds that produce skilled athletes with such alarming regularity that the postman is put to shame.

If you aren’t from one of those specific locations, good luck. These locations change over time, at one point it was more ideal to live in Brownwood when Gordon Wood was coaching there in the ’60s and ’70s or in Carroll during the early 2000’s than in a area that was districted to Katy. If we’re talking about dynasties, then Texas High School football has its kings and peasants, the haves and the have nots.

Those who don’t win it all consistently still make it to the big show – Austin Westlake has only hoisted the trophy once, but has been to the finals eight times.

If you’re not from one of those traditionally dominant areas, good luck breaking into that elite fraternity. Every single year, no matter what happens in the regular season, we routinely see the same names deep in the playoffs, year after year after year. Life is inherently cruel to those who weren’t born in the perfect place, and no matter how talented you are or how hard you work, sometimes that team from that school always gets the best of you.

Ronnell Sims - Thomas Metthe

Ronnell Sims – 2009 State Title Winner/Offensive MVP of 2009 State Title Game – Abilene – Photo via Thomas Metthe

SIMS – First I’d say that you gotta want it, not just as an individual but as a team. It also has to be actions and just not words. Film study, killing the weights, summer workouts, 7v7, anything they’ll make you a better athlete. Find something that’s gonna push you to strive to be the best player & teammate you can be. Set the individual stats aside in order to benefit the greater goal, which is the team goal. Respect the game and enjoy it while you can. It’s not just a game to some people. To some it’s their way out of a certain lifestyle or a get away to get away from troubles, so keep that in mind as well. Lastly, enjoy that family atmosphere. There’s nothing like it.

LUCK

There’s no stat or metric that can be used to perfectly quantify the sheer blind, dumb luck that sometimes happens in football. Sometimes it’s a ball bouncing a strange way. Sometimes the throw is just a tad bit off, and the receiver who hasn’t dropped a pass all year drops one. Sometimes the football gods throw all conventional wisdom aside and say “this team will not run the football well today.”

Luck exists in other forms too. It’s in injuries. How many great teams completely lose their seasons when their star player goes down? How many quarterbacks are sacked 5 times a game after they lose four-fifths of an offensive line? How many linebackers look like fools when the big, beefy, run stuffing defensive tackle is nursing a torn MCL? It’s truly rare to see a team that makes it through the entire season with the same starting lineup intact throughout all sixteen potential games.

It’s in matchups, too. Oh, that team with a defense that’s seemingly built to stop your team’s high flying, spread offense? They were bounced in the second round by a team that still runs the Wing-T. That team that’s beaten you the past three years, the one that just has your number no matter how good you are? They didn’t make the playoffs this year. Or, they had their share of injuries. The injury luck works both ways.

Last year, George Ranch dominated an injured Jett Duffey, an injured Duke Carter, and a Lake Ridge down its two unquestioned top players in the 5A D1 finals, winning 56-0. While it’s wildly irresponsible and completely insulting to George Ranch to say that Lake Ridge definitely wins if they’re at full health, it’s insane not to think that the score might be a little different if they did play at full health. Injuries matter. Luck matters.

***

It’s not required to have all of these things, or even have all of these things in spades. There are teams that beat the odds, there are teams that maybe aren’t supremely talented that win anyways, or a team gets decimated by injuries but just so happens to have superstar quality backups. None of these things are universal, and they can all exist at different points during the season, and sometimes not at all.

However, if you’re looking to win a title, they’d be a good place to start.

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