Ellison wasn’t expecting the Dream Team again, but it wasn’t expecting this either.
Coming off of its first playoff appearance in 12 years, the Eagles knew this season was going to be different.
Part of the reason was losing a valuable senior class that included All-8-5A first-teamers Ryan Stuckey and Ryan Telles.
And part of it was simply that teams like the 2013 Eagles don’t come along all that often.
“It was probably one of the best experiences so far in high school,” senior Juan Pulido said. “We call that team the ‘Dream Team.’ It was just a whole bunch of guys dedicated to just winning. It was our first winning season in 12 years and it was just a great experience.”
Fellow senior Anthony Harlan said the mentality from last year remains. But the personnel is a different story.
At the end of last season, it appeared juniors Mohamed Balde, the 8-5A Defensive MVP, and Nathan Diederich, an All-8-5A first-teamer and former Newcomer of the Year, were poised to lead the Eagles back into contention.
But when Diederich left the team for health reasons in the offseason, followed by Balde moving to Georgia before the start of the school year, Ellison had to retool on the fly.
“It was a real big setback,” Pulido said. “At the beginning of the year, we were just wondering what type of personnel we had, and we couldn’t really figure it out for the most part.”
Now, seniors like Pulido and Harlan, and captain William Barbrow, are the ones leading the way for an Ellison team eager to stay in the playoff conversation.
And after a slow start, the Eagles appear headed in that direction, having opened district play with a 4-0 win against Shoemaker on Tuesday and a 2-0 loss to defending co-district champion Waco Midway.
But that did not appear to be the case when Ellison opened the season by going 0-3 at the Justin Northwest Invitational, getting outscored 8-0 in the process.
“It kind of woke us up a little bit,” Harlan said. “We thought since last year was such a great year we were all good and then we kind of went in that tournament with that mentality and we kind of got woken up.”
The Eagles played well the next time they stepped on the field, at the Governor’s Cup in Georgetown as players began stepping up in new roles.
“That next weekend in the Governor’s Cup, it was a complete change of the previous team,” Eagle head coach Niles Dunnells said.
“So, if we can do that, day by day, game by game and improve, then it’s going to be a pretty good season.”
Perhaps the best example of a player embracing his increased role is Harlan.
Dunnells spoke highly of the work Harlan put in on the field and in the weight room this past offseason. Harlan has one of the best individual performances of the young season, recording a hat trick in a win against Bryan in the Eagles’ final non-district contest.
But for all the work he has done to reach this point, Harlan — taking cues from the selfless team from last year — preferred to spread the credit around.
“My teammates said I earned it, which was very big,” Harlan said. “And there wasn’t really a solo goal, everybody helped each other and I just happened to be lucky to be on the end of each one of them.
“So, I think my teammates are more important in this hat trick than I am.”
The players believe that willingness to put the team over the individual is what made ‘the Dream Team’ special last year.
And while the players from that team may not be back, the preservation of that attitude remains. And Ellison hopes it will allow it to remain contenders in the process.
“Last year we kind of knew that it was a different group of guys because we weren’t individualistic,” Pulido said. “We played for each other and that’s what made the difference between two years ago and last year.
“And that’s what’s making the difference now.”
Contact Jordan Mason at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-501-7562