Sports are not and never will be a life-or-death proposition — Roman gladiator duels be damned.
They’re more like a pleasant diversion from the rigors of reality. They’re a respite. We who work — and play — in the realm of sports take them seriously, pursue them passionately, but we also understand that the loss of a game should never mirror the grief that accompanies the loss of a life.
On April 17, 2013, the community of West experienced a tragedy that rocked the town to its core. A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Company killed 15 people, injured more than 150, and caused millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses.
Even as West has rebuilt, it’s a loss that will never completely be overcome. Such pain leaves a scar.
In the five years since, West ISD has experienced its greatest period of athletic success in the history of the school district. It’s not even debatable.
Prior to the explosion, West High School had won two team state championships in school history — in girls basketball in 1962 and in baseball in 1999. Since, West has claimed three more state titles, back-to-back crowns by Cory Beckham’s baseball squad in 2015 and ’16, as well as a long-awaited breakthrough by Guyla Smith’s softball program in 2016.
That same season, Smith ascended to the No. 1 spot in career wins by a Texas high school softball coach, and later won the Tribune-Herald’s Sportsperson of the Year honor.
West football has accumulated a 34-23 record over the past five seasons, and has reached the playoffs in each of the past three years. In the five-year period just prior, the Trojans went 16-36 with one playoff trip and had a two-year stretch where they won just once.
Sandy Dickerson’s West volleyball program has rolled off 60 straight district wins and has made some strong postseason runs over the past couple of seasons. Kevin Zuehlke’s girls basketball team is a consistent playoff qualifier. Other sports have helped stock the trophy cases as well.
West athletic director and head football coach David Woodard is a fervent believer that such victories have helped the town move through the healing process.
“No doubt. I’ve talked a bunch of times that the amount of time you spend at practices, getting ready for games and the preparation that goes with getting ready for those contests, it helps you wander away,” Woodard said. “You have to just focus on the task at hand, and not worry about other events. Kids do the same thing.”
Naturally, you never forget. The explosion was personal to everyone in town. Woodard lost his home in the blast.
But you pick up the pieces and try your best to move on. You grasp for a sense of normalcy. Sometimes that means just going to a game and cheering your lungs out.
Some of the warmest, most enjoyable, memories for the people of West over the past five years were seeing those baseball and softball state championship triumphs. West loves its hardball. When those teams were rightly feted with post-championship parades through the streets of town, it was a moment for the townspeople to kick back and smile and laugh.
“It was really cool,” Woodard said. “For baseball to go back-to-back was incredible, and then for Coach Smith and softball to win after so many tries, those were just really special evenings.”
High school coaches are a family unto themselves. They spend innumerable hours working with your kids — our kids — even to the point of being away from their own families. Remember, they’re teachers too, and they put in a full day of work in the classroom even before hitting the athletic field or stepping onto a bus to travel to the next game on the schedule.
Woodard loves the group of coaches he gets to work with at West, which is a community where many stick and stay.
“The biggest thing about our coaches is that we’ve had a lot of consistency is our coaching staff,” he said. “Most of us that are here now have been here this entire time (the past five years), and that consistency makes a difference, and it’s played a big part in the success that we’ve had. It’s just a great group of guys and gals to work with.”
Football is always the most visible of all the sports. In 2015, Woodard’s Trojans experienced a breakthrough that was bigger than any paper sign-ripping pregame charge. West went 11-2 that season — just a year after going 7-3 and missing the playoffs by one win — for the program’s first 10-win season since 1992.
It was a year in which hope was reborn.
“That was the time when our kids expected to win each and every night out,” Woodard said. “We had some lean years there, from ’10 to ’13, I think we won five games over four years. Then in ’14, we go 7-3 and barely missed the playoffs. In ’15, that was when we really started believing we could win. The kids expected to go out there and win, and that was the attitude the coaching staff was looking for. That season was really the turning point.”
One of the favorite, fallback phrases high school coaches use is “bought in.” Something of a trust contract exists between a student-athlete and his or her high school coaches. If the athlete feels that the coach has his best interests at heart, he is more likely to follow instruction and perform the steps necessary to strengthen that bond of trust between teacher and pupil.
West is blessed with dozens of willing, coachable kids, Woodard said, which makes all the difference in the world when you’re going out and trying to beat Rival High on a Tuesday or Friday night.
The coach believes that the character of those students is a reflection on their parents and the people of West as a whole. It’s a community that has been through hell and back — and yet perseveres.
“Their resiliency, their competitiveness, their toughness — it’s just a great group of people,” Woodard said. “I think through everything we’ve been through, we’ve learned to compete and work in order to get things done. It’s part of our heritage.”