JESSIEVILLE -- In his first season as a head coach, Jessieville's T.J. Burk had no shortage of obstacles to overcome.
From replacing the legendary Don Phillips to a schedule with two eventual state champions, Burk took it all in stride and guided the Lions to their first playoff appearance since 2012, Jessieville finishing 6-5 after totaling seven wins in the previous three seasons.
"A lot of the credit has to go to coach Phillips and what he did here; he built the foundation of the program," Burk said. "I think it showed in the senior class and obviously the seniors were a big reason for our success with Steven (Benson), Ruben (de Haas), Josh Zamudio, Christian Orrell and the rest of those guys. A lot of credit goes to them and a lot of credit goes to the assistant coaches and all the time they put in. I think it was an overall team effort really."
Burk quarterbacked the Phillips-coached 2006 state champion Lions and later played receiver at Arkansas State before spending time as an assistant coach at Genoa Central and Lakeside. For succeeding his former coach and restoring Jessieville to its winning ways, Burk is the Garland County coach of the year, as selected by The Sentinel-Record.
Just days before his coaching debut, Burk was dealt his first of many challenges for the season. Scheduled to host Mountain Pine and fellow first-year head coach Sam Counce in Week 1, Burk instead was forced to find an alternative opponent after the Red Devils forfeited due to low numbers.
On short notice, Lakeside coach Jared McBride agreed to send his junior Rams to Phillips Field for a matchup with the Lions.
"We knew that it was a possibility; the coach at Mountain Pine had texted me earlier and said their numbers were low, but I didn't really have a backup plan," said Burk. "I was kind of scrambling, but luckily Lakeside had played earlier and coach McBride was more than willing to help us out. I appreciate everything he did getting his JV squad over here, and they were a good group. It was a little worrisome early in the week, but it was good for us to just be able to line up against somebody different and get some game experience that first week."
After coming up short in their first two contests against playoff contenders (Class 2A state champion Mount Ida and Class 3A semifinalist Glen Rose), the Lions hosted Haskell Harmony Grove in Week 6. Looking to make a statement in Class 3A-5, Jessieville trailed the Cardinals 20-3 in the second quarter before a ferocious comeback to win 29-26 and improve its record to 4-2.
"There's always a turning point in a season where it either turns you around for the good or it turns you around for the bad," Burk said. "I think for the kids to just build some confidence in themselves in that win was big for us moving forward. I think more than anything they proved to themselves that they could do it. Confidence goes a long way with kids, and the confidence they gained from that win played a role for us over the rest of the season."
Just one week later, that new-found confidence was key in a come-from-behind win over Gurdon. Trailing at halftime, Jessieville struck for 28 third-quarter points and outscored the Go-Devils 40-0 in the second half of a 47-21 win.
"We went in the locker room at halftime and told the kids that we've been here before, we've come back and we're capable of doing this," said Burk. "It has a little more meaning when you tell them they're capable of doing something and they've done it before. They realize that we can get this done, we can turn it around in the second half and it just happened for us."
After a three-game winning streak, the season ended on a sour note for the Lions with losses to Centerpoint and eventual Class 3A state champion Prescott followed by a 55-21 loss to Elkins in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite the quick exit, Burk considered it a massive achievement for his team to reach the postseason and something that the Lions can build on.
"Any time that you can add games to the schedule, it's big for you," Burk said. "Not just for those seniors that were finally able to experience the playoffs for the first time, but even for the ninth-grade kids that moved up. Even the ones that didn't play in that game got an extra week of practice. It was big for our kids and our program to get back to the old tradition of making the playoffs. Hopefully we'll continue that success and eventually make some noise deeper in the playoffs, but you've got to start somewhere."
Transitioning from Phillips' signature Wing T to a Spread offense led to some bumps in the road this season, but Burk said the process was made easier thanks to junior quarterback Adam Saveall. The coach and quarterback had developed a relationship in leading the Lakeside junior Rams to a 4-4 record in 2015.
"I had the privilege of coaching Adam before this season and we have a great working relationship," said Burk. "He knows what I expect of him. He struggled at times early in the year, but it helps that he knows how I'm going to coach him and I know how I can coach him. I think Adam had the understanding that we were not going to be an air-attack offense. For him it was never about throwing for 5,000 yards, it was about winning games and making the playoffs. I think it was a great learning year for him and we may even add a little to the offense and rely on him more next year."
Checking off his first goal by reaching the playoffs in his first season at the helm, Burk has higher ambitions for the Lions.
"Sustaining that playoff tradition and being able to know that we're capable of making noise at any point every year is the big goal for us moving forward," Burk said. "Hopefully we can progress and win a couple of playoff games, and maybe eventually get back to competing for a state title. It's not something that's going to happen at the drop of a hat; we're going to have to work for it daily. I think so far with the offseason program we're implementing, the kids are buying into it and it's going to pay off."
Sports on 01/11/2017