Harker Heights opened the season with a unified mindset of taking no game for granted.
Last year, the Knights failed to make the playoffs, finishing in a fifth place tie in then-District 8-6A with a record of 5-7-2
A core of 12 seniors returned this season, however, determined to get back on the winning side of history.
“Our sophomore year, we won the bi-district round,” Harker Heights senior Thomas Walsh said. “Then, last year, it was kind of back to the agony of getting kicked out in our final game.”
The pain of missing the playoffs still lingered at the start of the year, but a lot of changes happened.
Last year was head coach Christopher Padilla’s first season leading the program, and with such a large returning group of players, the Knights had overcome a learning curve.
“Transition is always difficult, and to go from one philosophy to another,” Padilla said, “I always knew that we might have some growing pains.
“So, last year, we struggled a bit, but this group I think they just had a huge buy in to the program.”
Not only did the Knights buy into their new coach, they bought into each other.
“We’ve all been together growing up,” Knighs senior Angelo Quintero said. “So, we know each other really well, and the chemistry is just great.”
Although senior Justin Williams has played varsity for Harker Heights since his military family was relocated to Central Texas from Tennessee his sophomore year, he had a good feeling about the season back in December.
“As we got into the preseason, I started to see that we were going to
do good things this year,” Williams said.
As the Knights prepared for the season, another change came from the University Interscholastic League.
San Angelo Central led the district standings with an 13-1 record last year was moved out when the UIL realigned the districts, but while the Bobcats were moved out, Temple and Waco were moved in to create District 12-6A, leaving the Knights to compete against eight teams for four playoff spots.
“Going into a bigger district, we knew, obviously, there were going to be more challenges,” Padilla said. “Our biggest focus was on training and changing our mindset.”
The Knights started to see that change among themselves when they played Keller in the Keller ISD tournament in January.
“They had beaten the state champions,” Williams said, “and we were going toe to toe with them, and we didn’t give up.
“We were down one goal against Keller, and last year, we would have rolled over, but this year we had more determination, heart and drive. We wanted it more.”
As the season progressed, the Knights’ confidence grew as they earned a 2-1 home win over Waco Midway.
“I feel like that’s when everyone on the team knew we had something special,” Williams said.
For Walsh and Quintero, tying Belton to start district play was the moment they knew this team could find their way back to the playoffs.
Harker Heights clinched the fourth postseason spot with a home win on penalty kicks against Copperas Cove.
Last Thursday, Harker Heights faced Longview in the bi-district round and fell 2-1.
Although the season came to an end sooner than the Knights wanted, they achieved what they set out to do from the very beginning.
“A lot of things are hectic right now,” Walsh said. “Besides prom, graduation and all that, a lot of us are getting ready for college and getting ready for our futures.
“But it feels good that we can at least say that we did it, we made it to the playoffs.”
Next year, six juniors will return to lead the team with another four sophomores from this year’s squad.
“They need to keep their heads up, don’t lose faith in your teammates,” Williams said. “Your teammates are going to be your lifelong friends no matter what happens.”
“It’s not about you,” Quintero said. “It’s about the team.”
With a group of returning players next season, the biggest lesson Walsh has for his younger teammates is to remember the mental side of the game.
“Don’t get negative, even when you’re losing,” he said. “The worst thing you can do is get negative.
“Just stay positive.”