Waco High

Waco High will lean heavily on (top row, left to right): Jamar Wheless, James Evans, David Chavez and Cory Ebron. Bottom row: Edward Coleman Jr. and Michael Stimpson.

Whenever Marty Herbst watches the film of those games, he can’t help but wince and fidget. It’s like an itch that he just can’t scratch.

Last fall, Herbst’s Waco High team drove right up to the on-ramp to the playoffs, as far as a team can possibly go without actually cruising onto the postseason highway. The Lions played six games in District 18-5A. They won two and lost four. Two of those losses, however, resulted in absolute gut punches.

Against Temple in mid-October, Waco High twice built double-digit leads against mighty Temple, only to see the Wildcats come storming back. Temple scored the go-ahead touchdown with 6:56 left in the game, and the Lions suffered a painful 48-45 defeat.

Two weeks later, Waco High again put itself in sniffing position of a victory formation. The Lions ran out to a two-touchdown advantage in a pivotal district battle with Bryan. Again, though, they let the Vikings back in the game, and gave up the lead for good with 6:37 to play following a Bryan touchdown and two-point conversion. End result? Bryan 22, Waco High 21.

If Waco High had won either of those games, it would have made the playoffs. Instead, the Lions lost them both, and were left to lament over their missed opportunities.

“Anytime in a close game you can always go back and look at the film and scratch your head and wonder why this mistake was made,” Herbst said. “You’ve practiced that enough to know that it shouldn’t have happened, and yet it did.”

The Lions could have pointed to injuries as a contributing factor to their shortfall. Several key starters limped to the sideline over the course of the season, including quarterback Jaylen Harris with a sprained ACL.

But, ultimately, Waco High’s players know the injury excuse rings hollow. They were able to build a lead in those games without their full complement of talent. A victory was just a few plays away. They just had breakdowns. They didn’t finish.

“It’s just mental mistakes that we have to (eliminate), because we get penalties and everything,” said Harris, the Super Centex Offensive Newcomer of the Year two years ago as a sophomore. “I think that hurts a lot, too. When you have a good drive going, penalties just hurt our momentum.”

When the Waco High players convened in January for offseason workouts, they were naturally disappointed. A one-point loss to Bryan? A field goal shy of Temple? Those numbers crawled into their helmets like an earworm and made them restless.

They also gave them fuel.

“To say we missed it by one point, so the first thing we talked about this year was that one point,” Herbst said. “How are we going to make up that one point this year, so we’re not sitting in the same situation after this season?”

What Herbst and his coaching staff found was a collection of kitchen sponges — a pack of will- ing students. They wanted to learn from their mistakes. They didn’t want a repeat of 2016.

“Losing by a point, there were some areas that we needed to work on,” tight end James Evans said. “But the more challenging it gets, it makes us better.”

Other than some sluggishness by some players on the first day of fall camp, Herbst has been satisfied with the effort his squad has put forth in practice. Led by the veterans, the Lions are working hard, trying to eliminate the mental lapses that derailed the 2016 season.

“It motivated us a lot. It motivated us to work harder, lift weights and stay healthy,” Harris said.

Most years at Waco High, one of Herbst’s offseason tasks is to pick up a picture frame. In the Lions’ fieldhouse, team photos of past Lion squads are scattered around the walls, offering a history lesson about the program’s tradition-rich past.

Here’s the kicker, though: In order to make it on the wall, you’ve got to reach the playoffs. Otherwise, no photo.

“We have a lot of things in our program that are predicated on making the playoffs and winning playoff games,” Herbst said. “If you don’t reach that level, it’s almost like we didn’t have a season. There’s no notoriety, nothing put up on the wall, for future classes to take a look at. As I told our senior class, ‘As juniors, you guys didn’t have a team.’ ”

Such words sting, but the players understand them. It’s the way it is at Waco High. They don’t feel entitled to attention and accolades. They realize such rewards are earned.

“I figure if you work that hard (to make the playoffs), you deserve your picture on the wall, but if you don’t, then you just don’t get your credit,” Evans said.

Since Waco ISD consolidation in 1986, the Lions have been regulars in the postseason, making 23 appearances, including a march to the state championship game in 2006. But in two of the past three years, the regular-season finale marked the last game of the season for Waco High.

The team’s seniors steadfastly believe that won’t happen again. They don’t want to walk through the fieldhouse and see a blank wall where their team photo should be.

“My senior year, it’s a must I get on that wall,” Harris said.

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