By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Writer
I’ll be the first one to admit that I have probably run the story way down into the ground.
How many times this season have I prefaced a MHS football piece talking about how the Lions are overcoming the demons of a winless season a year ago to try and rebuild into a 5A powerhouse in District 10-5A? I think I lost count.
Going into my first season covering the beat for all things MISD high school football, I felt like I needed to be around all three teams around town before I made any kind of assessment on how they would do. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but half the knuckleheads on ESPN seem to have made a living by restating what other insiders have told them instead of observing a team firsthand. At least it seems that way sometimes. I digress.
I attended a fall practice at MHS back in August and was really impressed by a lot of what I saw. Quarterback Robert Somborn looked the part as a quarterback and seemed to have the respect of every player in that offensive huddle. The defense was flying around the field and getting to the football as fast as they could, all the while being pushed harder and harder by their coaches to get better every play. It didn’t feel like a team that hadn’t won a game in over a year.
However, one thing did stand out above anything else to me: the players aren’t super big. After watching some of the highlights from the Southlake Carroll and Allen games over the summer, the Lions seemed undersized to some of those big name programs on both the offensive and defensive lines and in other positions like linebacker and tight end.
But after talking with head coach Jeff Smith after practice that day, he assured me that while some of the other schools in District 10-5A like Allen and Plano East may have some bigger boys on the roster, he whole-heartedly believed in his team’s ability if they played smart football and stayed fundamentally strong.
As I was preparing for the gigantic football preview piece for the site, I decided to check out how some of the big name publications were predicting the Lions to finish in their new district and first season in class 5A. From the Dallas Morning News to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Magazine, almost anywhere you looked had MHS finishing last in the district and lucky to be walking off the field with a win in any game this season. Not exactly words of support there, huh?
I didn’t end up making a prediction about the team, or any MISD team for that matter, because I simply did not know the roster well enough and did not properly know the strength of their opponents. But when I was putting together the Lions piece, I kept hearing the same quotes from any player that I talked to. I would hear things like ‘We want to play as a team,’ and ‘we are focused on just getting better every day and trying to win some football games.’ Yes, it was totally uncontroversial and what sports writers hate to use as quotes because of their simplicity, but I was more amazed at how every player would say nearly the exact same thing. It was like this group of men were determined to turn this ship around and they didn’t care who was going to stand in their way. It felt like something special was brewing at MHS.
Now, a little more than a month later and entering the fourth game of the season for the McKinney Lions, the team sits at a perfect 3-0 mark and have the opportunity to make it 4-0 if they can win their third road game this season and knock off North Garland on Friday night. Somborn and receiver T.V. Williams have suddenly become one of the areas top QB-WR combos, with Somborn throwing area-high 12 touchdowns and Williams catching an area-high seven scores. They have the second most prolific offense in the 5A area at 519.0 yards per game, and while their defense is 23rd in the area giving up 24.7 points per game, they have continued to improve week-by-week and shown tremendous upside as the season progresses.
So, with an undefeated class 5A football team in the second best place to live in America, I wanted to know just how much the MHS community was supporting their football team. Not only that, but had the student support increased in the first month of school? Were students finally attending games to actually root on their fellow classmates and not just socialize by the concession stands?
“Yeah I think they are now,” said Emily Brightman, a senior at MHS and a member of the broadcast team at the school. “They were getting a lot of criticism at the beginning of the year, but I think that this is good and they are showing kids that they are going to do well and it’s getting more people excited about the football team.”
Brightman has been to a lot of games in her four years at McKinney and does believe that student turnout will continue to increase as the team keeps winning games. Tate Mulligan, a senior at MHS and a member of the school’s student council, says she knows seniors who went to their first football game this year because of the hype around the team.
“I’ve known some seniors who didn’t go to games at all before this year but wanted to go and be a part of the game. I thought that was really cool,” said Mulligan.
Even Smith and his staff see the increase in the interest in their football team and the energy that it has brought to the school in the first month of classes.
“I definitely think that (it has). And it’s not even just football – a lot of our athletic programs are successful right now and that definitely brings a lot of energy,” said Smith. “I think that McKinney High has a lot of changes going on right now, with the building and the new administrating staff that is doing a great job right now.
“With us coming out and having a good start and our volleyball team playing well, it really does make it a fun atmosphere and it makes everyone excited about McKinney High School. It’s a special place with a lot of people and a lot of families in this community, so it is important to us to try and live up to that tradition.”
So while the energy seems to have returned to the student body at MHS surrounding their football team, what about the actual team? How were those players dealing with all of the increased attention from the community and the headlines all of a sudden not being about how they can’t win a game, but how they can’t lose one?
If anyone could answer this question and get into the mind of a former high school football player, it would be former McKinney Lion linebacker Kyle Moore. Moore and his 1979 MHS football team defeated Bay City 20-9 at the Astrodome to claim the 3A State Championship, which is still the only football state championship in the history of McKinney.
When I asked him about what those magazine and analysts were saying about his team heading into the season in ’79, Moore told me that Dave Campbell and other publications has the Lions to finish right there at the top. But instead of puffing out their collective chests at that prediction and praise, Moore and his teammates approached the season as if they had something to prove to everyone.
“You know as well as I do how big high school football is in the state of Texas,” said Moore. “Even back in ’79, Dave Campbell, the high school football magazine guy, picked us to be number one right in the middle of the summer, so we kind of had a monkey on our back. But I still can hear Ron (Head Coach Ron Poe) saying this today, ‘Guys, everybody gets to play football in September and October, but only the chosen ones play football in December.’ And man how true that is.”
And while no publication was predicting a first place finish from this year’s Lions bunch, I asked him whether the 2012 squad could use the same approach mentally in playing with a chip on their shoulder.
“Oh yes, without a doubt,” said Moore. “The thing I learned the most from that ’79 team was to be successful it takes everybody with that gold hat on, not just the eleven that are out there on offense, defense, and special teams. It takes everybody learning to be together and to pick each other up when someone gets down. It takes an incredible camaraderie between players and coaches, and you can go ahead and put the town in there too backing up those kids because it takes a lot of work. There’s a lot more than just the X’s and O’s.”
In fact, he told me that he couldn’t remember more than a handful of players on his team who were above 200 pounds and that many guys were considered undersized compared to other schools. Yes, times have changed and athletes have morphed into almost supernatural beings in some cases, but Moore can recall an incident in the summer before the ’79 season where one of the local newscasts was filming at one of the team’s practices. The reporters commented on how tiny the Lions were and how they couldn’t understand how this group of guys was supposed to be so good being so little.
Maybe that is the same mindset that the players on the team and their fans have taken this season? On the field, they aren’t always going to be the biggest guys but they are going to bring you a fight for 60 minutes every Friday night. And in the stands, the student body and the parents and alumni are accepting their role as the underdog and showing that while they may not have the most number of kids attending school in the district, they are going to be loud and passionate for 60 minutes.
While district play could role around and burst the bubble around the Lions magical season up to this point, Mulligan really hopes that the student body doesn’t turn their back from this team regardless of what the record may say.
“I hope that people stay behind them. I think that would be the most positive thing – honestly. Knowing that a lot of people are not as positive, all I can say is that I hope. I’ve never seen a football team work that hard in my four years of high school. They are up there all the time in August, so I hope that the school sees they have worked their butts off and supports them no matter what.”
I asked Moore to tell me what advice he would give the 2012 Lions if he had the chance, and he told me that it takes an entire team coming together and playing as one collective unit.
“My advice would be to sell out to your coach’s system,” said Moore. “Whatever position they may play, they got to sell out to that specific coach and believe that what they are telling them is going to get them to the top. My next deal is the newspapers and the articles, that’s all good, but inside that locker room it’s got to be one for all and all for one. When someone is having a bad day or a bad game – whomever the captains are – that person needs to step up and take control of that locker room and pick each other up, and that could be in a school classroom or on the field, it doesn’t make a difference.”
So let’s officially retire the 2011 winless storyline and focus on what is going on in the present. For a community that has seen a state championship and many great years of high school football at Ron Poe Stadium, it is refreshing to finally have the fan base back to being active and proud among the city.
Who knows what the final record may be for the 2012 McKinney Lion football team, but regardless of if they win or lose the rest of the games, you cannot deny that they are building something special at MHS.