Written by Corbett Smith
After century-long drought, Whitesboro finally in high school football playoffs
WHITESBORO, Texas — On stadiums, school gyms and water towers, high schools keep a sense of their histories by marking off the years of their athletic successes.
It serves both as a reminder to the community, and a warning shot across the bow of its opponents: “We are rich with tradition.”
Whitesboro, though, is suspiciously absent of such signs. The powder-blue water tower in the community 75 miles north of Dallas simply reads “Whitesboro, Texas” with the school’s mascot, a Bearcat, faded from maroon to a rusty orange.
Perhaps that’s what happens when the football team goes 100 years without making the playoffs.
But that streak is now in the past.
Whitesboro begins its first-ever playoff journey at 7:30 Friday night at Little Elm, in a Class 3A game against Van Alstyne.
Last Friday, Whitesboro secured its first playoff berth in school history with a win over rival Pilot Point.
It broke the state’s longest playoff drought — from the program’s inception — dating back to the Taft presidency, when football was helmet-optional and the forward pass was in its infancy.
“One hundred years is a very long time,” senior wide receiver Garrett Hickman said. “We’ve had our teams that have come close, but it never seemed to work out for us.”
Behind his granite-countered soda fountain, nestled into the back of a boutique on the main drag, Whitesboro native Hank Lovejoy rattled off some of the greats in his town’s football history.
From Oklahoma running back Gary Wylie in the late ’50s to current Texas A&M walk-on Travis Labhart, Whitesboro hasn’t been bereft of football talent. Yet …
“It just hadn’t meant to be, I guess,” Lovejoy said. “Some of the guys that have played … I mean, golly.”
Whitesboro’s been close — as recently as 2007, current head coach Eddie Gill’s second year at the school.
But his team lost in a three-way tiebreaker for the third playoff spot to Prosper, a team it had beaten in the regular season.
Whitesboro won seven games in the next three seasons before going 7-3 this year.
Gill attributes a large portion of the struggles to the districts Whitesboro has been placed in.
Sandwiched between great football towns, Whitesboro has faced some of the area’s best programs in district play: Allen, Southlake Carroll, Wylie, Commerce, Plano and Celina.
Current district opponents Gainesville, Pilot Point and Argyle all have been either highly ranked or have won state titles in the last decade.
“If you aren’t playing great football, you’d better start doing it,” Gill said. “Or you’re going to get your lips knocked off.”
Under a slightly different format, Whitesboro would have gotten into the playoffs long ago.
But the UIL didn’t expand its playoff system to include multiple teams from each district until 1982, keeping some good Whitesboro teams home for the playoffs.
One of Lovejoy’s classmates, Billy Mack Hough, was a 120-pound pulling guard on the 1960 team, one of Whitesboro’s best.
That season, Whitesboro was the co-district champion — the school’s only district title — but didn’t advance to the playoffs; instead, Honey Grove, which dealt Whitesboro its only loss of the season, advanced.
“We didn’t have anything like the team they’ve got now,” Hough said.
Eighteen seniors are a big reason for Whitesboro’s success this year; 11 started as sophomores, three as freshmen.
For the lantern-jawed Gill, who played for Texas high school legend Gordon Wood at Brownwood, that’s a big reason why this experience is “double special.”
His son, Jordan, is one of those seniors. The team’s quarterback, Jordan broke his collarbone in the fifth game this season, but returned after missing just two games.
“I’ve been preaching to these kids that you get there by hard work, and keeping your nose to the grindstone,” Gill said.
“Those are the kind of folks that win wars, the kind of folks that win football games.
In the end, it’s going to pay off. So it was very fulfilling to me to share that moment with not just the kids, but my own son.”
School board member Gregg Hickman, Garrett’s father, said he felt the same way, standing on the track when the final seconds ticked off the clock in Whitesboro’s 60-7 win over Pilot Point, the first win against its rival since 1976.
Gregg, who played on struggling Whitesboro’s teams through the mid-1980s, handed out T-shirts that read, “We Are History!”
“Had we even made the playoffs when I was in school, I would have traded it just to be able to watch this group of boys do it,” Gregg Hickman said. “There’s never been a group — in my opinion — that’s more deserving than this group of kids that have come through Whitesboro. … There’ve been better athletes that have come through here, but there’s never been a better team.”
AT A GLANCE: Longest active playoff droughts
1942 — Savoy
1952 — North Dallas
1954 — Fort Worth Diamond Hill-Jarvis
1956 — Cleveland Tarkington
1968 — Gladewater Union Grove
1973 — Kountze
1975 — Lubbock
1976 — Dimmitt
1979 — Fort Worth North Side