“Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”
That’s the quote head baseball coach Bruce Cox and his Kingwood Park High School team lived by long before the 2018 season started. The school is near Houston.
Cox is a Class of 2000 graduate of Copperas Cove, and although he was a multisport athlete for the Bulldawgs, he never made the playoffs as a member of the baseball team.
“I think the closest we got was my sophomore year on varsity,” Cox said. “We were just a couple games out from that last playoff spot.
“But I never really experienced playoffs until I got into coaching.”
One thing that stuck with him from his high school career was his various coaches advising him that he would make a great coach.
“When somebody you respect that much tells you that this is the route you need to go, I went all in on it,” Cox said.
Cox graduated from Tarleton State University, where he earned a degree in exercise and sports studies.
“I continued to study the game, continued to learn the game all throughout college even though I wasn’t playing,” he said. “I applied all those lessons to what I do now.”
He formerly coached at Pflugerville Connally and is now in his sixth year at Kingwood Park.
“This is my first time and our program’s first time to go to state tournament,” he said.
Before the season even started, his team came together after many of his players lost their homes and family heirlooms in Hurricane Harvey in August.
“We had several players’ houses flood,” Cox said. “We currently still have several players who aren’t back in their homes.”
Cox has preached to his players, their parents and the community that they are family.
As soon as Hurricane Harvey hit, the team started communicating over group texts to all the families they knew were in affected areas.
“As soon as the water receded and we could get to those places, that’s when the cleanup effort started,” Cox said. “And the amount of baseball kids was unbelievable.”
While most teams host bonding events in order to unite a group before the season starts, Cox and his team bonded over the tragedy.
His players used their experiences to remember the reasons they play the game in the first place.
“Usually you use baseball to teach kids life lessons,” he explained. “In this case, we used life lessons to enhance their baseball performance in terms of letting it be their escape and letting it be enjoyable and fun instead of something that they have to do.
“They’ve taken that energy and love for the game all the way to the Dell Diamond.”
After completing District 21-5A play with a 13-1 record, Kingwood Park battled through the playoffs and headed to Round Rock on Wednesday morning to face Northwest Eaton in a state semifinal Thursday.
It has been bumpy road to this point as the Panthers came face to face with tragedy once again in the regional quarterfinals.
Kingwood Park faced Santa Fe on May 17 — one day before a mass shooting at the school made national headlines.
“That was the hardest week I’ve had as a coach,” Cox said.
The shooting claimed the lives of 10 people with 13 more injured.
Cox was notified by another coach about what was happening at the school before searching news outlets to get more details.
“That is the worst thing that we think about as educators,” he said, remembering the horrific feelings as he read the details coming out of the school that day.
The second game of the series was postponed, and Cox wasn’t sure what Santa Fe would decide to do.
“We didn’t know if they wanted to play or end the series,” Cox recalled.
But baseball helped the community of Santa Fe begin to heal, and the Indians wanted to play.
The Panthers gathered before getting on the bus to face Santa Fe — a meeting that was very emotional for all involved.
“As a coach, what do you say to motivate your team that just went through that?” Cox said.
The starting pitcher for Santa Fe and one of their catchers were both shot, and while both survived, it made the reality of the situation much more real.
“It was very emotional game, and our kids handled it with class,” Cox said as the Panthers went on to win 7-0 that night. “There was no emotion from our guys after the game.
“They just rolled the ball back to the mound, lined up, and we made shirts for them and through the handshake line we gave them the shirts.”
Cox and his coaching staff hugged every kid and coach on the team.
“It was a very emotional night for everybody,” he said, “and we just wanted to be a part of the healing process.”
Kingwood Park also tipped their caps to the players of Santa Fe who wanted to get out there in front of their community to send a clear message.
“(They were) moving on beyond this evil to something better,” Cox said. “Our two programs will forever be connected through tragedy, but it was a great step in the right direction to start the healing process.”
The Panthers advanced to the fourth round of the playoffs against Georgetown where they took a 3-2 loss in the opener.
“There was no panic in our team,” Cox recalled. “They were just ready to compete the next day.”
That’s when he knew his team was poised to keep advancing, seeing the players were still determined and focused.
Kingwood Park won both Game 2 and Game 3.
It was deja vu in the regional finals as Tomball Memorial took the first game before the Panthers rallied to win 6-2 and 5-3 in order to advance to the state semifinals.
“It’s been an awesome experience to be alongside them on this journey,” Cox said.
Despite the outcome, after all they’ve been through in the last 10 months, Cox hopes his team walks away learning a lesson.
“As devastating as life experiences can be,” Cox said, “there is hope.”
“When it’s all said and done, no matter what happens at this point, I’m proud of my boys, and I’m proud of our community. We’ve given the city of Kingwood something to smile about, and it’s been a great run. I think our boys are ready to compete and get the job done.”
The Panthers first state tournament bid ended with the semifinalist trophy as they lost 3-2 in eight innings against Northwest Eaton in Round Rock on Thursday evening.