“If you go deep into the playoffs, almost every team ends it in a loss,” Henderson head coach Phil Castles says matter-of-factly from across his desk just a few days removed from the Lions’ 28-7 state quarterfinal loss to the Carthage Bulldogs.
It’s a simple truth, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing for Castles and his team that found so much success over the course of the 2018 season.
“It puts a bad taste in your mouth,” Castles said. “You’re not happy about a loss at any time. But then they come in and we talk to them about the positive parts of the season. It’s really the last meeting you’ll have as the 2018 Lions football team. It’s kind of bittersweet for us.”
It doesn’t make it any easier that the team’s postseason loss to Carthage mirrored last year’s outcome where the Lions were shut out at the same point by the Bulldogs in a bitterly cold regional championship game. But even though things didn’t end how the Lions had hoped, Castles has no shortage of compliments for a team that far outworked their initial prospects.
“We want to focus on the things that I’m proud of them for,” Castles said. “There are so many kids that start off playing football, but the demands of the game mean most can’t stay with it. It takes a special type of kid to be able to play here.”
Throughout the season, Castles has been particularly complimentary of this year’s crop of seniors. Not only did they go deep in the playoffs despite losing four of their ten regular season games, Castles has a particular connection with them since his son Cameron counts himself among their numbers.
“I know those kids really well because I followed them,” Castles said. “What a pleasure it has been to watch those kids be little, tiny seventh graders and play football and then go all the way up to seniors now. It’s been unbelievable.”
Many of the team’s seniors did play together from middle school onward. Some even played together longer than that as a part of Henderson’s peewee program. Castles notes that when you are a part of something for that long, especially as young men, the end of the senior season isn’t just the end of a year of football. It’s the end of a particular way of life they have come to know and used to define themselves.
“When you couple the work that these kids have had to put in, not just this year, not just last year, but for four years, seven years counting junior high, and summers, seven-on-seven workouts, and all of a sudden they’re seniors, it’s the end of a way of life,” Castles said. “The reality of that hasn’t hit them yet. So because of that, it’s important to have that closure time.”
One of the biggest factors working against the Lions all year was the unprecedented number of injuries they racked up, particularly in the early part of the season, as they took on a tough group of pre-district opponents. And with the losses against Whitehouse, Pleasant Grove, and particularly Carthage and Van in the regular season, Castles and the Lions also heard no small amount of criticism. But Castles counters that criticism with some interesting statistics.
“They won three championships this year,” Castles said. “That’s a huge accomplishment. Championships don’t come cheap. It’s not an individual trophy. It’s a team trophy. And those are the best ones.
“Coming into this year, they were a part of a four-year period where they won more games than any other team in school history. Forty games won in four years. Well at the end of this year, after five years, they did it again. After five years, we’ve won 49 games which is the most in school history. And those kids were a part of that.”
But despite their many accolades, Castles contends that the relationships that have been built from player to player and even from staff member to player are his teams most important achievements.
“They don’t realize, there are men that couldn’t tell you what they ate for lunch yesterday,” Castles said. “But they can describe every play of the last ballgame they played in and tell you all of their teammates. And as they get older, they’ll realize how special it was to be a part of this team.”
According to Castles, his team couldn’t have been more supportive of each other whether they won or lost. That chemistry shined through in several aspects of Henderson’s offense throughout the year. When injuries forced different players into different roles, suddenly the team found themselves with multiple running backs and a slew of weathered receivers. Even Sevastian DeLeon and Caleb Medford occasionally split duties at the quarterback position. This cohesion played a notable role in a number of close victories for the Lions, particularly in the postseason.
“Everybody’s got great team chemistry when you’re winning,” Castles said. “But as soon as you start losing some ballgames and losing kiddos, can you keep your team together? I was most proud of the leadership. A lot of those running backs split time, but they were unselfish and had great attitudes.”
Castles spent time reflecting on several of the key seniors that has formed the backbone of his team over the last several years, many of whom he hopes will continue to play throughout their collegiate years. One of these players was Kourtland Jackson who may not have been Henderson’s flashiest player, but was a consistent go-to guy for DeLeon with multiple catches in most games.
“Kourtland is one of those unselfish kids,” Castles said. “He ended up playing different roles in different games. Sometimes starting, sometimes not. But he always had a good attitude.”
Another key player for the Lions was kicker Axel Romero, who Castles called on for the majority of the Lions’ extra point attempts and all of the team’s field goals. Throughout the season, Romero rarely missed and was a key part of their success over the Crandall Pirates in the first playoff game with three 40-plus yard field goals in a game that was decided by just seven points. But even when he did have trouble like in Henderson’s postseason game against Van that saw him miss two extra points, Castles had nothing but praise for his demeanor.
“What a great year he had,” Castles said. “We had some issues on all those things that factor into a kick. There’s snapping issues, there’s protection issues, there’s holding issues. You’ve got to have all three of those things before you even get to kick. The neat thing about him is he never turned on anybody. He never blamed others or came off with an excuse. Not one time in any of his misses. He’s super unselfish. And I would say that would typify the whole senior bunch.”
Ke’untaye Dunham, who regularly played on both sides of the ball, had a great year as well. He filled in for Alexander fielding kicks in special teams during the mid-season and made some first down conversions as a receiver in the post.
“He had a fantastic year,” Castles said. “He played a really good defensive back and probably turned into our best cover guy. We usually put him on whoever we thought was their best. He always stepped up and did a good job.”
Keive Rose was another big defensive force for the Lions regularly making key tackles, but according to Castles his biggest contribution may have been the leadership he brought to the whole locker room.
“Keive is probably the inspirational leader of our team,” Castles said. “He’s quiet. He never says a word unless he’s breaking the team out. He gets them all together before and after the games and the kids all love him. He’s got some offers from some colleges and will have the opportunity to play on some Saturdays next year. But he doesn’t like the limelight. He likes playing with his partners.”
All season, Castles has been complimentary toward DeLeon who played as the backup quarterback for Caleb Medford in the team’s opening game against Whitehouse before taking over the position from the second game onward. Like many members of the team, he battled injuries all year, but only allowed himself to miss a single game, despite the regular pain he endured each time he threw a deep ball.
“He was unbelievable,” Castles said. “His shoulder kept popping out when he threw the ball. If he threw the ball hard and straight, it sublexed inside. Then he had an AC sprain on top of that, all on his throwing arm. Normal kids probably don’t play with that. But he’s an abnormal kid.”
But nobody bounced back from injuries this year like Keshoyn Alexander. Alexander scored the Lions’ first touchdown of the season when he fielded a kickoff and ran the ball 90-plus yards into the Whitehouse end zone. But his senior season hit a major roadblock when he tore both his ACL and MCL in his knee early in the season.
“He was told he was through,” Castles said. “The doctor looked at his knee and came back shaking his head saying he’s through for the year.”
He was wrong. Alexander came back with a vengeance in the late regular season and was a major offensive force for the Lions averaging over 20 yards per carry in multiple games.
“It was like he was on fire,” Castles said. “He was so glad to have a second chance. He wanted to make the most of it and he played so hard. But he’s super quiet. Super humble. Just a likable kid. What a great senior year he had.”
These weren’t the only seniors, of course. Will Gonzalez, Bryce McMurtray, Hernan Hernandez, Trey Polk, Datavius Hamilton, Salvador Bazaldua, Christian Kind, Chris Hubbard, CJ Conrad, Bruce Mack, Cameron Castles, Mekhi Whitehead and Jay Barnett all suited up with the Lions each game and filled a number of roles.
“Not all of these kids played a bunch,” Castles said. “Some played very little. And yet, they played a huge part of our team. They had a role. And for those kids, the character that they formed over the last four years is huge.”
But despite all of the time Castles and the Lions are spending celebrating the efforts of the seniors and the year’s accomplishments, they are also already looking ahead toward the horizon. Many key players including Kevin Fields, Caleb Medford, Pedro Garza, Jy Fuller and Eli Jones will be returning to the fold next year and Castles is confident that with the experience they gained this year, the future is bright.
“Every game is experience and the more experience the better,” Castles said. “I tell the kids all the time if you want to get faster, you run. If you want to get stronger, you’ve got to lift weights. If you want to get better at a video game, you’ve got to play it all the time. There’s no substitute for experience. And those guys got to experience 14 games this year when there’s only 10 that are guaranteed. In the last few years, we’ve played a lot of extra playoff games and gotten a lot of valuable experience for those kids.”
Many of the team’s younger players got more playtime this year than they normally would have due to the number of injuries the older players combatted. Some filled positions they normally wouldn’t or played at a high level that wouldn’t normally be expected of them until their junior or even senior year. Castles expects the strengths that developed from that unpredictability to pay off down the line.
“They learned that they’re just one play away from playing,” Castles said. “We had a lot of kids that had to step into roles all of a sudden. So I think it was good for our young kids.
“The bar continues to raise. Expectations are always high. Our kids know that and they don’t mind working and getting better for the next season.”
Even as he says goodbye to a strong group of seniors and prepares to buckle down in the months ahead in preparation for yet another season of football in East Texas, Castles thinks it’s important to remember the contributions that the players that have played under him and graduated, and even the players that played for the team in the years prior to Castles’ involvement, have made. Castles says the invitation is always open for them to return to the fold and celebrate what he hopes will be the continued success of the Henderson Lion football program. Many previous players took Castles up on that offer during the 2018 season, cheering on the current team from the sidelines and even attending practices.
“The neat thing is, our kids come back,” Castles said. “If you graduate from here as a football player, then I’m willing to give you a sideline pass. I want them to know all the generations that came before them and got us to where we are. The door is never closed. You’re never not a Henderson Lion.”