WEST — As his players knelt in front of him, Mark Byrd smiled.
“How’d that feel?” the Whitney head coach asked his Wildcats after their 13-7 win over West, giving the Trojans their first district loss while moving the visitors to an unblemished 3-0 mark.
There were some yells of “great” in response to the first-year head coach at Whitney, but those were drowned out in shouts of joy.
While the win was a major get for these Wildcats, more on that later, Byrd was even more excited to see his guys come together for this true team victory, perhaps the first of its kind this season for Whitney.
“I think tonight, at the right time, we became a team,” Byrd said. “We got a couple of explosive players, but I think finally tonight we put 11 guys on the field fighting for 11. A lot of times you don’t get that. You worry about stats. You worry about if No. 6 (Devin Wilson) is going to get his plays. Granted, he’s going to make his plays, but you have some help along the way. It was good to see that part of the game.”
Devin Wilson absolutely made his plays Friday night. So much so that even the West fans were shaking their heads. There was nothing negative they could find in Wilson, nothing missed by the West defense. Wilson is just that good.
He almost looks like a kid on the field in recess, as he rolls out of the pocket with the ball in his right hand, not clutched close to his chest like you might see other quarterbacks do. Wilson doesn’t really need to that because, first, people can’t catch him, and second, he doesn’t need too long to sling it downfield to a waiting receiver.
Wilson connected with his favorite receiver — at least as far as stats are concerned — Kolby Tanner a few times. One of which came on what looked like a jackpot throw — where a kid throws a football to a group of waiting friends and the one who catches it becomes the next one who gets to throw the football — to Tanner in the back of the end zone.
But possibly his biggest jaw dropping play of the night came when he hurdled over a West defender, and landed on his feet, to step into the end zone. The defender wasn’t completely bent over but also wasn’t standing his tallest. No matter, Wilson cleared him with ease.
“I think everybody knows he’s a playmaker,” Byrd said. “Granted, he does some things that aren’t natural. I’m glad he’s on our team. I can tell you that much.”
After West got on the board halfway through the fourth quarter, with Trojan fans hungry for a comeback and Whitney fans praying for the game clock to run more quickly, Wilson stepped up again for the Wildcats and made some big time throws. He also scampered for a big gain, only to remain on the ground just out of bounds on the Whitney sidelines.
He was taken off the field on a stretcher as fans on both sides of the stadium rose to their feet to applaud him.
“He had feeling everywhere,” Byrd said. “He had a concussion back against Maypearl last week. Got him through the seven day protocol and got him back, but he took another shot to the head. I know he’s at the EMS right now, but he did have feeling everywhere.”
While Wilson and the offense got things done when needed, the Whitney defense was unphased by the rush attack they knew they would come up against in West quarterback Nathan Gerik and Preston Johnson. But the Wildcats didn’t care.
West struggled to find momentum throughout the contest. Johnson and Gerik, who usually bruise through the line of scrimmage for big gains, were struggling to move the chains.
“A lot of people don’t know but we had two freshman starting on that defense starting tonight,” Byrd said. “We brought a kid up off JV, No. 77 Geronimo Rodriguez. He was so excited. His family came in from Oklahoma. They just played with energy.”
After two missed field goals, West had the ball with around a minute and a half left on the clock. Gerik completed his first three pass attempts on the drive before throwing three consecutive incomplete passes to set the Trojans up at 4th-and-long with under a minute left.
His final pass was intercepted, Whitney’s fifth forced turnover of the night.
For a team usually known for its offense, these Wildcats are averaging around two turnovers a game.
“We preach turnovers. We have to have the ball,” Byrd said. “It’s all about ball positioning and ball possession. If we make one of those field goals, this game is in hand. Now you’re talking about a three possession ball game, but we just couldn’t get there. We’ve got to keep preaching special teams and possession of the ball and protect the ball. More than anything, go get the ball.”
Again, Byrd saw another step in the right direction from his team. They’re believing his message about coming together as a team. They’re buying into his game plan of focusing on turnovers. And they’re finally believing in themselves.
“I think a lot of times, we have to get over the stigma of being lake personnel and just waiting to the weekend so we can go ski,” Byrd said. “We have to accept that we can be a good football club. Coach (Kenneth) Gilchrist did a good job of getting that instilled. We still have to get over that hump of what other people think. I think we’re making that mark.”
Now, the Wildcats are the lone undefeated team in District 9-3A Div. I, atop the standings all by themselves with three weeks left in the regular season.
“We knew the grind of the season was going to come right now,” Byrd said. “Somewhere along the way we had to pick up a win in the next four. I didn’t know where it was going to be. I was hoping it was going to be tonight. You’re hoping each night, but man, these last four games are going to test us.”