The final task for the St. John XXIII Lions before closing out the first day of practice on August 1 was to run 10 perfect 30-yard sprints. Run hard, sprint through the final yard and touch that 30-yard line.
For the players, it was an almost impossible endeavor—it took about 20 tries before they perfected 10—but for coach Clay Richardson, it was a teaching moment.
“We’re really big on emphasizing about doing the little things to be a champion,” Richardson said. “Young guys, especially, don’t understand that you’ve got to do it perfectly every single time. If you don’t, you’re letting the whole team down. I want them to realize that this is what it takes for us to be really, really good.”
The Lions know what it takes to be really, really good. They are the defending TAPPS Division V state champion, going 10-1 and beating Saint Mary’s Hall, out of San Antonio, 38-27 in the championship game last season. All but eight players return from that team.
But this year isn’t last year. The Lions are undergoing significant change, starting with a new offense. In is a spread offense, out is the flex bone. That is largely because there is a new starting quarterback, junior Matt Jasek. Jasek is more of a pure pocket-passer compared to his predecessor Ben Turner, who was more of a runner.
“I’ve been under center my two years of high school, so it’s a bit of an adjustment,” said Jasek, the varsity backup last season. “There are some similarities. All the plays have the same type of idea, so it’s getting easier as we go along. The options … even though they’re so much different, it’s still the typical reads.”
Richardson likes what he has in Jasek, a precocious talent with a strong arm.
“He’s one of those guys that no stage is too big for him,” Richardson said. “He was in a couple of high-stressed situations last year, and he was really poised and did really well. It’s really impressive.”
The Lions threw about five times per game last season. That number will be considerably higher this year.
Jasek will be accompanied by a new running back, sophomore Jackson MaGaha, and a stable set of receivers, like senior Jake Williams.
Williams is “95 percent” healthy after suffering a season-ending ACL injury last year. But he’s expecting to have a bigger role in the offense, and Richardson has made it known he would like to get Williams the ball more.
“Last year, I was more of a wingback, so I got a bunch of handoffs,” Williams said. “But I’m naturally more of a receiver. I think I’m going to be more comfortable, play better and get more touches.”
Richardson is optimistic the new offense will open things up more. The Lions averaged 20.7 points per game last season, and largely thrived because of a dominant defense.
“The biggest thing is just being a leader out there,” Jasek said. “I have to understand that these guys put all their faith in me, and that’s a responsibility. We have the heart. We just have to push through and keep going. We know there’s no room for error when you’re champions.”
Indeed, the Lions are marked young men this year. The 17 seniors know that. Richardson definitely understands that, which is why he was so adamant about being disciplined when running sprints to close the first practice of the season.
Richardson said, talent-wise, this year’s Lions could be just as good, if not better, than last year. But what made last season special was the leadership.
“It took trust in each other,” senior linebacker Kyle Paul said. “We had to pick each other up. It’s really more about the bonds that are created. You have to have strong chemistry. I think the key for every player when you go through a season like last is you can’t be successful on your own. You learn to rely on the teammates around you.”
“Where’s the leadership? Where are our leaders?” Richardson bellowed as his players struggled to run sprints perfectly last week.
Eventually, voices from players responded. “Touch the line!” “Run through!” “We don’t give up!” “Push!”
That was more like it.
“Last year, we were 5-0 in close games,” Richardson said. “That is really unusual, and I attribute it a lot to senior leadership that refused to give in. Now we’re hoping that the guys will carry that on. That when somebody hits you, you hit them back. It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, as long as you get up one more time than the other guy.”