With one second remaining in the first half of Lake Ridge’s 42-21 victory over Aledo in Friday night’s 5A Division I state semifinal, a tipped pass from Jett Duffy landed in the chest of Tyler Robinson in the end zone, giving the Eagles a 28-7 lead over the two-time defending state champion Bearcats, and the sense was palpable that it was simply Lake Ridge’s night.
But very little of the Eagles’ rise from less-than-humble beginnings has had to do with lucky breaks. Theirs is the story that every coach preaches to a building or rebuilding program. Theirs is the tale of a graph moving up and to the right; steady progress at each interval. Theirs is a story of having a plan and following through.
Lake Ridge’s rise from 0-10 in its first season three years ago is well chronicled. It’s the culmination of a vision that coach Kirk Thor had when he left the MISD Athletics front office to start and mold something. And while Thor says there weren’t specific targets on where to end each season, he maintains he always thought this was possible, even if the players had their initial doubts.
“Never did we doubt that our kids would be able to play well,” Thor said. “I’m not just talking about records. We set the process in place as a coaching staff and we tried to establish a culture that would produce success.”
But zero wins in Year One and 10 demoralizing losses can test the resolve of any ardent believer.
“We talked about not looking at the scoreboard and not looking at records,” Thor said. “We tried really hard that first year to remain upbeat and positive and then showed the kids on video when they didn’t play well that they did have the potential they had to get better.”
“We never wavered as a coaching staff,” he added. “It wasn’t easy. Nobody likes to go 0-10 or 2-8. I think our coaches understood there was a process. When the kids saw that we were unwavering in our attitude and our passion to be better every day, I think our kids bought into it.”
Some were quicker to buy in than others. Running back Duke Carter, who scored three first-half touchdowns against Aledo, admits the early days were challenging.
“It was rough in the beginning because we were losing and we didn’t know what to do,” Carter said. “But as time went on we understood what Coach was talking about. Then we had some success and it was like, ‘OK he knows what he’s talking about.’ After that first win our sophomore year, we understood and bought in from that point on that’s what we did.”
Robinson, who had that dagger touchdown reception against Aledo just before halftime, never anticipated they would progress this far in three years.
“To be honest, not at all,” he said. “But the grind and effort we give out, it made it feel like we could go farther than usual this year. I felt like we had something in us to do something great.”
Some players will tell you they never doubted. Defensive back Arnold Azunna says he knew from the very beginning they would play for a state title someday.
“I did,” he said. “We put in enough hard work. We worked our butts off during summertime, during the offseason. We took our workouts serious. I knew this was coming.”
Interestingly enough, the team Lake Ridge will face in the state title game – Richmond George Ranch – is also in its fourth varsity season, though its ascent was quite different. The Longhorns have never had a losing season. After a 5-5 start in 2012, George Ranch has gone a combined 41-3 over the last three years.
But none of the previous records matter come Friday night at NRG Stadium in Houston. The best team on that night will win that respective school’s first state football championship.
For Lake Ridge, that means doing what got it here.
“Everybody just has to buy into what coach is saying,” Carter said. “This is exactly what happens when everybody buys in.”