The 2016 season was an emotional rollercoaster for Killeen.
It started with senior defensive end Shakim Wright being informed that his mother, Nicole Dennis, had passed away just prior to the Kangaroos departing for Austin to open their slate against Round Rock Stony Point.
Ten weeks later, the Maroon and White were celebrating a 4-2 District 8-6A tally (5-5 overall) and a playoff berth as a second seed in Class 6A, Division II. It was the first time they had reached the postseason since 2012.
Despite being dealt a 51-7 loss in the bi-district round to No. 2-ranked and still-unbeaten DeSoto, the season meant a lot to Killeen and its second-year head coach, Neil Searcy.
“It was a great experience for our kids to be able to have that opportunity to get back into the playoffs,” Searcy said. “It was big for us and big for our program, and I think it’s something we’re going to build upon. Now, it’s not just a goal to get into the playoffs.
“It’s a goal to get in and play a lot.”
The tone for the Roos’ magical season was set right from the get-go when, rather than depart to be with his family, Wright bravely elected to go ahead and travel with his teammates to play their season opener against Stony Point.
Killeen played inspired and defeated the Tigers 21-14.
“It was an emotional night, and we felt really good for Shakim,” Searcy said. “As a coach, you work in the offseason and when you play your first game, you know there are going to be mistakes. But you win the game.”
While it was a magical season for the Roos, it didn’t happen without its share of hiccups along the way.
After defeating Stony Point, they lost five games in a row — three nondistrict tilts against Waco, Austin Vandegrift and Round Rock McNeil, and two league games to Belton and Waco Midway to open 8-6A play.
Searcy felt Killeen let one get away in their final nonleague tuneup at home against McNeil, a 14-9 defeat that featured many miscues by the Roos.
“That was a game we felt we should’ve won,” Searcy said. “That was a win for us, it felt like, and it should’ve been.
“Then, we went into our open week, and you never want to go into your open week off a loss.”
Killeen was defeated by Belton and Midway by a combined 84 points and after the bye before hosting Shoemaker on Oct. 13. That is when it all changed.
Down 13-9 late against the Grey Wolves, the Roos’ offense went 81 yards on 12 plays to score the game’s winning touchdown with under a minute left to capture their first district victory.
They then proceeded to defeat Ellison 26-25, Copperas Cove 28-16 and Harker Heights 30-29 to not only reach the postseason, but to win the city championship.
Integral in Killeen’s success offensively was junior quarterback Marcellus Johnson, who completed 104 of 187 passes for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns with six interceptions. He also rushed 124 times for 671 yards and five scores.
Junior wide receiver Montego Muckelvaney caught 44 passes for 782 yards and seven TDs, and senior running back Isaac Tolbert tallied 513 yards and four touchdowns on 81 carries.
Senior center Chaydon Panapa, junior guard Alyzcha Ulafale-Hentz and senior tackle Tyler Kanaly, among others, anchored the offensive line.
Wright, who collected 51 total tackles — 10 for a loss — two sacks and one fumble recovery, was the rock defensively.
Senior linebacker Jalil Bethel led a stiff linebacker corps with 112 total tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, and senior cornerback Carlos Wilson spearheaded the secondary with 51 total tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception.
Overall, Searcy was proud of the season that was for the Roos.
“I was happy from where we started,” he said. “We embraced the underdog role. The expectation from everybody else was really low, but ours were really high.
“We started off slow and didn’t play well for a couple games, but all of a sudden we flipped the switch.”