From the H(e)art: Decembers won in March

As I stood along the sideline of Lancaster's practice Wednesday, I couldn't help but think back to that 110-degree August morning, when I stood on the same sideline watching head coach Chris Gilbert and his guys push through two-a-days. It felt like yesterday; and here they sat a program-best 14-1 preparing for their first state title.

But how? Lancaster is the perennial "underachiever"; the "load of talent that can't do anything with it," right?

This year was different. This year, battles were won long before September 1, and without a football.

And oh yeah, that last minute phone call from four-star defensive end Daeshon Hall helped, too.



It was a typical sticky, triple-digit August morning. Mosquitoes drowning in your arm sweat kind of day.

The humming of lawn mowers along the fencing of Tiger Stadium filled the air, cut periodically by the sound of a whistle; each whistle quickly followed by cleats, like hooves, pounding the scorching turf, and heavy breathing.

It was the third day of two-a-days, those dreaded two weeks before season, concluded as usual with suicides.

Senior Demarcus Ayers was the first to sprint the width of the field and back, crossing the sideline a good 20 yards ahead of the remainder of the pack of Tigers, dropping to all fours to begin pushups. That was one set.

"Fifteen more," shouted Gilbert.

A collective groan surfaced from the group.

"We can stop now, though. No problem," he said.

The group looked up, questioningly.

"We can quit and go home. Let's go. No one thinks we're going to amount to anything anyway this year," Gilbert continued. "Let's just call it a day. In fact, let's just call it a season. Let's just quit. It's what Lancaster does, right? It's easy."

It was then that Ayers had heard enough, digging into his squad, lighting a fire beneath, demanding the whistle be blown again.

"We ain't done," he shouted.



Those same words from Ayers could be heard shouted on the same sideline under the Friday night lights of September, following John Tyler's back-to-back scores that cut Lancaster's lead to five late in the third.

And when the Tigers fell 20-3 to open the second half with Mansfield Legacy. And again when they were ahead 14-13 with minutes remaining in the regional final with Mesquite Poteet.

All battles that ended victoriously.

"This year, we worked on the preparation rather than worrying about the end result," explained Gilbert. "I was always so worried about the outcome, worried about winning, winning, winning. And I knew better. But winning's addictive. Once you start winning, you want to keep on."

"I forgot that I need to focus on the prep, the process. When we didn't do that, it showed. Red Oak (Lancaster's only loss, 17-0) beat us when we did not pay as much attention to detail and preparation- that's the coaches and the kids."

"'Do all you can do, so you can do all you can do.' That's what we preached this year, and what we put all of our attention on. And the kids bought into it. I've never had a bunch buy into it so well," he continued. "Plain and simple, we had the right bunch and we had an offseason that was the most outstanding offseason I've ever seen."

"It all started in March- the spring boot camp. Talk about a grueling week that really brought these guys together. I was so impresssed with how they carried themselves through it and really used it to prepare for the spring season and the fall."

Gilbert was quick to credit the leadership of Ayers, junior Nick Harvey, and four-star defensive end Daeshon Hall.

"Daeshon, it was big when he came back. Everybody was so excited. I really felt like when he showed back up, we could win it all."

Hall, a 6-foot-6, 220-pounder with Seattle, Washington roots, moved to Lancaster with his family for the 2012 spring semester. It was in the summer of this year that he made the move back to Washington, before ultimately winding back up at Lancaster in August, days before school started.

"I'll never forget that phone call," smiled Gilbert.

Hall and Ayers won't either.



It was the day Ayers had landed back in Dallas-Fort Worth following MVP performances for Team USA in Austin.

"I called Daeshon on my way to the eye doctor," he recalled. "I remember he was trying to enroll into Garfield. I told him we wanted him back, and that we could do it. We had his jersey, we had his cleats, everything was set up for him… He just said he'd think about it."

It was less than an hour later, following the exam, that Ayers' phone rang.

"I'm coming back," said Hall on the other line.

"I wanted to finish up in Texas, it's good football all over," he explained when news broke in August. "I was debating whether I was going to play basketball in college or football. If it was football, I knew I needed to be in a place that could prepare me best. Plus, I wanted to be back with my boys, finishing what we started. We want to be No. 1 in 4A, No. 1 in the state."

Said Ayers of his reaction to the call: "I knew right then we were going to do something special. When you got a kid like him and a kid like me, as humble as we are, the things we've been through, the ups and downs, the attributes we have, it rubs off on everyone else. When I knew he was coming back, it hit me. I thought, 'we got more than just a chance.'"

Hall now sits the The Associated Press 4A defensive player of the year, having tallied 83 tackles, including 24 for loss, 18 sacks and 20 quarterback pressures. He's also forced two fumbles, broken up four passes and blocked three kicks; Ayers, Mr. 'Do It All' carries into Friday 3,181 total yards of offense and 40 touchdowns passing, rushing and receiving.

"We wouldn't be where we are today without those two. No way," said Gilbert. "Daeshon, he's the leader of this defense [a defense that has limited its opponents to an average 14.8 points this season.] He just wrecks offenses, I mean just destroys them. You have to deal with him. You are not settled to do all the things you want to do because you're wondering if you're going to block him- and if ur not blocking him, you're holding him. Regardless, he's keeping you on your toes all game."

"The best thing about Ayers- of course he's a great athlete. Everybody knows that. But he has tremendous football instincts and savvy. He knows the game inside and out- sometimes a little too much- he always has a suggestion," he laughed. "But he studies the heck out of this game. I'm anxious to see those two in college."

[The two are Division I prospects. Hall, a soft verbal to Washington, and Ayers, having recently decommitted from Washington State, both look to make a few visits after season.]



"I've come a long way since last year," noted Ayers. "Last year we had a lot of ups and downs and selfishness. My philosophy last year was that I couldn't control what the rest of the team was doing, and to just come in and do my job. This year, my job is be the quarterback of this team, lead this team, and come through when they need me. That's what I've been coached to do."

"I'm calling the plays, controlling the offense, keeping everyone level headed. I take care of myself but also look after everyone else."

"Coach Gilbert and the coaching staff always tell me when I'm on and I'm having a great night and I'm going, the whole team's going. I pressure myself hard. I'm never really satisfied with anything. And I stay on everybody. Sometimes I'm mad at myself and I take it out on the team because I want it so bad as a team," Ayers admitted. "But, this year, the guys get that. We're all on the same page."

And as Gilbert mentioned, it all started with everything that had absolutely nothing to do with touching a football.

"We had a drill sargeant come in in the spring for boot camp," recapped Hall. "It was nothing but discipline, hard work, digging down deep, fighting through everything. A lot of people won't admit it, but that's really what got us better as a team. We could've ran plays every day out of the year, but it's the stuff off the field that's paid off."

"Those things helped us dig down deep in every game this season," chimed in Ayers. "When the going got tough, late in the game, we reverted back to boot camp, back in March, when we had to dig down, and do those pushups when we couldn't feel our arms, or when we had to attack the weights after we had just done suicides and ropes and cone drills. We dug down then and got it done, so it wasn't nothing, we knew we could do it again."

"Freight train comin'," he smiled. "That's been the theme this year. We're all on one train and we're trying to let everybody know its comin'."

The train will make its final stop Friday, when the Tigers take the field with Cedar Park amidst thousands at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in the Texas 4A-II state championship.

"There's really nothing to say or do at this point," said Hall. "It's more of a reminder. A reminder of everything we've done to this point -- like the two-minute pressure drill we do every day at the end of practice. We just remind ourselves of how we got it done all week at practice, it's no thing now, let's just do it again."

"Stick with the things that got you there," Ayers added. "Keep it simple."

On being one of two 4A-II teams left standing in the vast Lone Star State, Hall sighed, "There are really no words for it. It's every senior's dream. It's what I came back for. To end your high school legacy in the state championship, battling to win it all, it's a dream come true. Everyone worked so hard this year, from the coaching staff staying up late to break down film, to us executing at practice, pounding eachother, day in and day out. Just a dream come true."

"Something told me to come back this year, I don't know what it was. But I'm glad it did," he smiled.

Ayers nodded. "Being able to lead the guys, for them to be able to look in my eyes, and know I'm ready at all times, I'm ready to seize the moment, ready to make that big play and come through when they need me, it's undescribable. It's been a blessing to be the captain of this team this year. Best group of guys I've been with. Ever. This is a year I'll never forget for the rest of my life."

Ayers paused, looking down as if in deep thought.

"You know, I can't even tell you how many people have asked me how I felt about not making all-state, knowing Daeshon and Nick Harvey did."

He looked up.

"Everyone's not in the state championship right now and I am… Nothing would mean more to me than winning it."

That chance kicks off Friday at 8 p.m. CT at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

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