Here’s the thing: the early bird gets the worm not just because he arose before the rest of the flock, but because he actually reached out and snatched it.
Midway through the season, the Live Oak Falcons weren’t snatching it. Sure, Live Oak was busy engaging in its standard 6 a.m. practices — they’ve been a staple since the program began — but some players were admittedly going through the motions. After four straight trips to the state championship game entering the season, some of the Falcons just figured they could fall out of bed and win football games.
Then they received a nasty wakeup call.
“When you have 30 guys come out and nearly a third of them aren’t ready to go, it affects your depth,” Live Oak coach Jordan Barker said. “There was definitely some complacency. … That’s one of the negative aspects, I guess, of success.”
After a 60-14 loss to fellow TAPPS six-man powerhouse Austin Veritas on Oct. 13, Live Oak’s record sat at 1-6. To say that’s abnormal would be an understatement. The Falcons had dropped six games in the 2015-16 seasons combined. Live Oak had never suffered a losing season in its entire decade-long history, and had posted seven straight seasons of double-digit wins entering 2017.
Injuries and a rigorous schedule compounded the problem. Live Oak played games against such UIL six-man stalwarts as Calvert and Blum. But when the Falcons looked at themselves in the mirror and were truthful about the main issue, they recognized it was self-inflicted.
“Going into it, we expected, ‘Hey, we won last year, we can just cruise through this,’” senior Cole Jahrmarkt said. “And we didn’t put our foot on their throats and really dig in.”
Senior running back Chase Hill, the 2016 Super Centex Six-Man Player of the Year, said he could sense trouble as far back as July.
“Some people weren’t putting in the work,” Hill said. “We had summer workouts all summer, and they didn’t show up. We were like, ‘Well, now we’re suffering for it as a team.’ It’s just really effort. That’s the big thing.”
The players said that having to walk off the field after so many defeats was frustrating — even shocking. But those humbling losses at least served to shake the Falcons out of their doldrums.
“There was also belief,” Hill said. “We knew that on paper we were a 1-6 team, but in our hearts we were always a 12-0 team. We knew how good we are, we just didn’t portray it. Once we figured out how to mesh with each other we turned it on and haven’t looked back.”
In the past six weeks, Live Oak has looked a lot more like Live Oak. The Falcons have won six straight games to reach the TAPPS Six-Man Division II state final yet again. They’ll duel with Bulverde Bracken Christian (10-2) for the state trophy at 7 p.m. Thursday at Midway.
Barker said that the players started paying more attention to the seemingly little details in practice that coaches know aren’t so small at all. “It was like, ‘OK, let’s not eat the elephant all in one day,’” Barker said.
When the work increased, the winning followed. “It 100 percent increased,” Hill said. “You can’t make it to a state game in any division if you don’t increase that workload.”
The Falcons never expected to take such a bumpy journey to the state title game. But they certainly are appreciative of a shot at another state title, which would be the program’s fourth if they were able to win it. When they were sitting at 1-6, such a proposition seemed dicey.
“It’s fantastic,” said senior quarterback Matthew Bailey. “I could have imagined it any other way, especially after the past three years, having gone to the state game in all of them. It wouldn’t feel complete if we didn’t.”
In a way, the Falcons are almost proud of those early-season losses now. Or they’ve at least been able to glean a sense of purpose from them. Sometimes you’ve got to take a few punches to remember how to fight back.
“I think we’ve really matured, and those losses, while not necessary, were a good thing,” Bailey said. “Because we were able to get better. We’ve put in a lot harder work, I would say, than we would have if we’d won.”