Denton’s final game of the season against Trophy Club Nelson doesn’t quite hold the significance the Broncos’ had hoped for, as they were eliminated from the playoff hunt with last week’s loss to Wichita Falls Rider, but Denton is looking to head into next season with confidence and optimism.
“If we can finish on a strong note, we can springboard that into the offseason,” Denton coach Kevin Atkinson said. “Regardless [of tonight’s outcome], we are going to springboard into next season compared with last year.”
Today’s road game will mark the end of Atkinson’s second season at Denton. A season before he arrived, Denton didn’t win a district game. Last season the Broncos won at Wichita Falls for their only district victory.
This season, the Broncos entered District 5-4A play with the same 2-1 record as last season and then fell to Lake Dallas, Guyer and Wichita Falls.
It was after those losses that Atkinson sat his players down and leveled with them.
“There was a time after the [Wichita Falls] Old High game that we had a real come-to-Jesus meeting,” Atkinson said. “I was hurting because they were hurt. ... I told them that I feel like I’m a dad during the Great Depression and I’m promising to my family that I’m working hard and if they are working hard that I’m going to bring home a steak dinner with all the trimmings and all the dessert they want.”
The losses to Lake Dallas and Wichita Falls seemed to kill whatever momentum the Broncos had accrued in their three nondistrict games.
“Most of them have done the things they need to do, but when it comes to eating time I just throw out some stale bread and water,” Atkinson said. “Those were hard times then, and it affected the head of the household the most. It was hard for us.”
The Broncos (4-5, 2-4 District 5-4A) then feasted on Fort Worth Brewer and Azle in back-to-back district wins. They lost 51-41 to Rider, but the Broncos were never out of the game and Atkinson said the program’s culture is changing.
“I think you can see the mark of the Denton High program,” Atkinson said. “It’s gotten better and we are transforming into the process to what we want them to go through. It’s very difficult to change mindsets. That part has been difficult, but we are seeing the changes that have been evident in that last three weeks.”
With one game left, Atkinson said this year’s season has a distinctly different feel.
“A season of football is like a life,” Atkinson said. “Your team is real fragile and then they start getting it and they mature up. Practices get easier and they kind of know what you’re thinking, but when it’s over, it’s over. They are all a little different. I don’t know if I’ve ever had two the same. I’ve had seasons at Keller where we were 3-7 and it felt like 7-3. Last year we were 3-7 and it felt like 3-77.”
Denton will have its hands full against Nelson (7-2, 4-2), which is third behind Guyer and Rider and coming off a 41-17 win over Azle. Last year’s matchup saw the Bobcats win 52-14 — one of three games in which Atkinson says his team lacked physicality.
After closing the gap in last week’s game, today is another opportunity to level the playing field.
“The offensive line is one of the bigger lines that we’ll see,” Atkinson said. “It was really evident last year that there were three teams that really pushed us around [so] we could see we needed a lot of work. I don’t think we’ve closed that gap yet, but Guyer, Wichita Falls Rider and Byron Nelson just physically moved us and did whatever they wanted.
“The hard work we’ve been doing in the weight room and the hard work we’ve been doing has got to work in our favor for us to be able to compete with them.”
The Broncos will be without junior quarterback Christian Rodriguez due to injury, which will give senior Cy Ward one last crack as starter after Rodriguez won the majority of the possessions with his play in recent weeks.
“I told Cy when we went that direction that he needs to stay positive and work hard because he’s a play away from being the full-time guy,” Atkinson said. “Anytime that happens, you can handle it two ways. You can get bitter or you can get better, and I’m glad he got better and has had a positive frame of mind. Now it’s back in his court, so he’s going to have to lead us.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.