Keller coach Carl Stralow didn’t care how it happened, just that it did. He wanted the annual ceremony after the final regular season game to be just that: a ceremony, not the end.
“I said I wanted seniors to have the Senior Walk after our last game, then come in the next morning and lift, watch film and prepare for the playoffs,” Stralow said. “That was one of our goals, to just play again.”
Keller lost on Thursday but still clinched a UIL playoff berth for the first time since 2009. The Indians joined a handful of area teams ending lengthy postseason droughts. Other teams made the playoffs for the first time.
Fort Worth South Hills, Arlington Sam Houston and Fort Worth Trimble Tech also ended droughts. South Hills hadn’t been in eight years, Sam Houston in 11 and Trimble Tech in 25.
“I got calls from administrators and teachers, and emails, and a lot of kids are coming around the office congratulating guys and the coaching staff,” Trimble Tech coach Dwayne Henry said. “It’s the most energy I’ve seen in a long time for football.”
Mansfield Lake Ridge and Burleson Centennial both started varsity programs three years ago and had never made the playoffs.
Centennial went 3-7 that first year and 2-8 in 2013. Lake Ridge went winless in 2012, which wasn’t a surprise to coach Kirk Thor. He knew it would be rough. But that season also developed the Eagles into a competitive unit last year, as they lost four games by a touchdown or less.
Thor was not surprised that his team took the next step this season.
“I think  was a great learning experience for everybody,” Thor said. “We’re in a microwave society, but sometimes it takes an oven.”
This year, returning starters Jett Duffey (quarterback) and Duke Carter (running back) have sparked an explosive offense. Duffey has thrown for 1,274 yards and 16 touchdowns, while also rushing for 723 yards, and Carter leads the team with 18 rushing touchdowns and 1,466 yards.
While Lake Ridge’s progression seemed natural, Centennial coach Kyle Geller altered his program’s path with a rigorous off-season. After two seasons, he felt that his team hit a ceiling and he knew the reason why.
“Leadership, leadership, leadership,” he said. “We made [the off-season] like boot camp, to be honest with you. We had to do that. We just absolutely had to do it.”
At Keller, Stralow inherited a team that had won five games in two seasons. The Indians struggled again in 2012, going 3-7, before winning five games last year.
After a 1-3 start this season, including a 40-33 loss to Denton Guyer, Keller was left wondering how to convert improvement into wins. Things began clicking in October, when the Indians won four straight.
Sam Houston, meanwhile, ended not only a decade of missed postseasons but also a run of futility against Arlington schools. Until last month’s win over Arlington, the Texans hadn’t beaten another Arlington school in district play since 2004.
Their progress coincided with Anthony Criss’ fourth year as head coach.
Criss, a former Arlington Bowie coach and school district administrator, knew a turnaround at Sam Houston would take time. He made connections at junior high schools and convinced several kids, including senior quarterback Ervin Hill, to come out for the team once they reached ninth grade.
“I promised them that in four years, your senior year, we would be good,” Criss said. “But I told them, ‘You guys have to come and buy in.’ We talked about the progression. The third year we should be competitive, and we were. Everything I talked about they were able to see.”
School: Last appearance
Trimble Tech: 1989
Sam Houston: 2003
South Hills: 2006
Burleson : Never
Mansfield Lake Ridge: Never
Euless Trinity: 17
Southlake Carroll: 15
Nolan Catholic: 15
Saginaw Boswell: 6