WAXAHACHIE — In the world of high school football, success may be measured by state championships and playoff appearances — regardless of their consistency.
The media frenzy surrounding Highland Park High School, which beat Temple High School for the 5A Division I state title on Friday, and the lack of attention surrounding Waxahachie could be examples of how pundits may judge each team based on surface value.
Strangely enough, Waxahachie High School handed the Scots one of their two season defeats.
"We have to raise our football IQ. We're behind the majority of the teams in our district. When you walk on the field against Lancaster (High School), we don't look the same as them," said Jon Kitna the Indians' head football coach. "We're rebuilding a program. Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither was Cedar Hill or Lancaster (High Schools). Sitting and listening to [the Cedar Hill] staff talk about how they didn't make the playoffs the first two years and then two years later they won a state championship. [LHS Head Coach Chris Gilbert] has been there six years and they finally got to a championship level this year. It took (Mansfield) Lake Ridge four years and (Mansfield Timberview) eight years. These things take time if you want to do it right, not cut corners, do it the right way and train character.
That is not to say the city doesn't have existent cultural icons.
There is Jalen Reagor's father, Montae Reagor, 1995 WHS graduate and a Super Bowl Champion, Brian Waters, a member of the 1992 state champion Indians, a 1993 WHS graduate and a six-time Pro Bowl offensive guard, and Aldrick Robinson, a wide receiver with the Atlanta Falcons.
Waters received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2009.
"We don't talk much about state titles here," Kitna said. "We talk about playing up to our ceiling because I think that's all you really have is to play close to that [level of play] and focus intently on rebuilding character from the ground level. We just have to raise it."
If the Indians can mimic the 2002 Cedar Hill Longhorns' trajectory, Waxahachie could be on the verge of returning as a football powerhouse sooner rather than later.
During his 14-year stint as the Cedar Hill Head Football Coach, Joey McGuire won three state titles in two different classifications in 2006, 2013 and 2014 and lost to Katy High School in the 2012-13 5A Division II State Championship game.
The road for McGuire, who recently accepted a position at Baylor University under new Bear Head Coach Matt Rhule, and the Longhorns weren't blue skies and open roads, either. McGuire posted a 141-42 record but endured a rough start to the CHHS dynasty — including a 4-5 overall and 3-3 district finish in 2004.
The recent success of Lancaster High School, perhaps more than 6A Cedar Hill, may show the ebb and flow of a program when a new culture is injected into multiple grade levels, a new coach is introduced and the foundation of a program is built from the bottom up. Before making the UIL 4A and 5A playoffs five out of six years, Gilbert went 7-7 in 2009 and 2010 — his first two seasons as head coach.
Under former Head Coach Andrew Jackson, the Tigers went 66-22 overall but finished 16-12 in the district. Lancaster's best season between 2003 and 2008 was the 5-1 finish in his final year, making it to the area round twice in their three trips to the playoffs.
Lancaster, unlike Waxahachie, has never won a state championship in football. It lost its only trip — a 17-7 defeat to Cedar Park High School — in 2012. Until the 2013 season, Waxahachie held the active UIL record for consecutive playoff appearances dating back more than two decades.
While the rest of Texas could view victory as where teams fall in high school football standings, Kitna and those who reside in his world measure achievement by the kind of character that brings sustained success on and off the football field.
And the question is not where the Indians could potentially end. However, it's how they got there when the pinnacle is reached.
The answer, Kitna said, is patience, growth and an understanding of where the true mission destination lies. The second-year WHS head coach noted that he can already see the road taking shape — displayed in the lives of former Indians like Randon Haynes and Kenneth Washington — despite spending less than a calendar year with the 2015 senior class.
"The majority of people would tell you a player's character off the field is as important, if not more than their production on it," he continued, leaning back in a large leather chair in his Lumpkins Stadium office. "Guess what? Less than three percent of these kids are going to play college football at any level. One-hundred percent are going to grow up to be a man. That's what people care about here. It's in the daily emails we get and the daily conversations we see in the hallway about the change they see in the culture of the program and the effect it's having across the board. We think 100 percent of our seniors are going to graduate this year and those that graduated and went off to college are coming back with success stories."
Kitna said the proof that he and his staff are on the right path is in the smiles of the many former student-athletes that take the time to return to their old stomping grounds to pay respect to the program — especially the toothy grin of a current 6-foot-4 and 330-pound University of Louisiana at Lafayette offensive lineman.
"When Randon comes in and looks you dead in the eye and talks to you for five minutes, he has a joy and a peace about him. Kenneth is going to graduate this winter, which is a big deal for him and a really cool thing. Those situations speak volumes about the direction these young men are headed toward. I love what [former University of Texas Head Football Coach] Charlie Strong said. I'm paraphrasing, but he said, 'We succeeded in what our mission was. Our occupation is to win football games, but our occupation and our mission are two different things. We may not have succeeded in our occupation — wins and losses — but we trained real men. Those kids are better off because of it.' It's the mission of becoming R.E.A.L. men. They did it, and now that football's over, they're still doing it."
That adverse conditions of the previous season may become more so with the losses of Texas Christian University-bound wide receivers Jalen Reagor and Kenedy Snell, uber-talented and lightning-fast defensive back Trey Jackson, double-tough running back Eris Miles and 26 other seniors. The team's ability to handle adversity in last season, Kitna said, as well as playing a seven playoff teams during their 2016 schedule, was an important gauge on his Indians' proverbial "success-o-meter."
Three teams were playing up until last week and one — Highland Park — won the 5A state title.
He also said his team operated closer to their ceiling more often than not, noting the amount of all-district selections despite having three-fifths of their offensive line starters without prior varsity experience, a quarterback that had only played a handful of varsity games and a freshman and two sophomores starting on the defensive line. He noted those same situations gave the Indians' the advantage of getting young players real-world varsity experience with All-District selections that will be with the program for the nest year or two.
That type of positive influence and the ability to permanently prepare a culture to withstand the test of time is invaluable to men like Kitna.
Though coaches don't vote on their nominations or state their case for their players, those selected by Kitna and his staff were plentiful. Outside of Miles, Reagor, Snell, Caleb Carlile, Caleb High, Demani Richardson, Bryse Salik and Jack York, names like David Marshall and Will Morgan crossed the desks of the other eight district coaches.
"That's what I see when we conduct senior interviews and I can say, 'He should run a program someday, he'll be a pastor someday or he'll be a leader of men someday' about every person that sits across from me," Kitna said. "Our goal is to get better and I think we did, even if our record doesn't show it. We got better as we went along and I think our district selections and nominations shoe that.
"We're in a great district that a lot of kids play past high school. It doesn't mean you're not a great player if you don't get all-district, it may mean your name wasn't as big or your team wasn't as successful. The successful teams are going to have more players on those lists — and rightfully so. We nominated guys I believe in. Otherwise, I wouldn't have nominated. It's not just the district. It's Texas. When you're talking about that amount of players, being nominated means a lot. It's a big deal."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.