HARKER HEIGHTS — At a 5 a.m. cross country practice last July, it occurred to Blake Stender that her senior soccer season was going to be different.
Harker Heights soccer players had been encouraged to participate in cross country before, but this was different. This time, everyone was there.
Stender said she’d never been up that early in July.
“Not to run,” she said.
Yet as Stender and teammates Kaylee Kellam and Casey Cox reflected Wednesday on how the program has changed since coach Jared Cruddas took over this past offseason, the dialogue, 5 a.m. workouts and all, was conspicuously upbeat.
For Cruddas, it isn’t hard to see why.
“The girls are tired of losing,” he said.
And Cruddas can certainly help fix that.
Cruddas, a 2001 Heights graduate, comes from, well, down the hall.
The first-year girls coach was the boys coach just last season and guided the Knights to their third straight playoff appearance with him at the helm.
The only season one of his teams didn’t reach the playoffs was his first.
“We tied for fourth and lost the coin flip,” Cruddas said.
After last season, Cruddas accepted a job to become the boys soccer and cross country coach at Brownwood.
“For family reasons, it didn’t work out,” he said.
But by then, Heights had already replaced him with former Ellison assistant Ryan Flanigan.
With two jobs open, the Killeen boys soccer job and the Heights girls, Cruddas applied for the Heights job to stay in his teaching field and for familiarity.
Now, he is bringing the same program that helped the Heights boys go 51-35-7 the past four years to the girls side.
And the girls, who went 9-13 last season, noticed an immediate difference — one that made two-plus years of varsity experience feel like no experience at all.
“We thought we were doing what we could — and then we met Cruddas,” senior Casey Cox said. “And he showed us what we weren’t doing.”
Competing on the cross country team was just the beginning.
“(It was) a lot of work we weren’t used to doing,” Kellam said.
But for the girls, it was a big first step to raising the bar for the program.
“Not only was it taxing on your body, but mentally making yourself get up at five in the morning to go run was pretty awful in the summer,” Cox said. “So, I think it showed dedication towards him and it showed dedication that you had towards your teammates as well that you were willing to get up because you knew they were going to be up there as well.”
Now that the season has started, Cruddas has made it a point to help his team see the highest level of competition before district play begins.
“When the season started, the highest level these girls had played at was district play,” Cruddas said. “They’d never seen any playoff competition.”
So, Cruddas had the Lady Knights play competition like Lewisville Hebron, the No. 11 team in the nation, according to the Winter FAB 50 high school rankings.
He even had the junior varsity team play varsity competition at the Centex Showcase to open the season.
Heading into this past weekend, both teams had an 0-4 record, but the Lady Knights don’t talk like a winless team.
“We came away with four losses, but we learned so much about ourselves,” Cruddas said. “We learned what kind of pressure we can handle, what level of play we’re ready for.”
And the Lady Knights are better for it.
Cruddas wants them to shoot for a district title.
The players believe anything can happen.
“We’re (more) optimistic I feel like than we were last year,” Stender said. “I think last year was a lot of we were hopeful, and I think this year we’re more certain that we’re going to be successful.”
Only this time, that confidence didn’t start with blind optimism.
It started with 5 a.m. workouts in July.