The week of Nov. 8 was already one of heartbreak for the Coppell football team.
That day, Hebron head coach Brian Brazil posted a letter onto the team’s Twitter account in which he said that the Hawks would shut down their football program for two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Games that week against Coppell and the following week versus Marcus were cancelled. Brazil disclosed that he tested positive for the virus and other members of Hebron's coaching staff have been impacted, either by positive tests or quarantines.
More bad news piled onto Coppell’s matters three days later on Nov. 11, when the school district announced that Coppell High School would move to remote learning, starting Nov. 11 and ending Nov. 17. That included remote learners who may only come onto school grounds for athletics, fine arts or other classes.
Coppell head coach Mike DeWitt learned of the temporary school closure on the day prior to the shutdown.
“There was not a whole lot that we could do with the kids,” he said. “We just tried to use the athletic period to maximize with our kids on the Zoom call and watch film. We watched opponent video and went through the scouting report, watched cut-ups. That was certainly a tough week."
For the Cowboys’ football program, that meant that team meetings and practices had to be conducted over a Zoom meeting. Preparation for the team’s next game against Lewisville was done virtually.
DeWitt said he went over the scouting report for the Lewisville game on the first day of virtual meetings and later began the installation of game-specific plays.
It was a Coppell team that was in the middle of a logjam to earn one of the fourth postseason berths that came out of 6-6A. Eventual district champion Marcus defeated Coppell 38-24 on Nov. 6, and after the Cowboys’ next scheduled game against Hebron was nixed, Coppell had one day of in-person practice to get ready for Lewisville’s high-flying offense.
And in a season in which there had already been numerous game cancellations across the state, one of the scenarios that the district executive committee voted on to determine which teams would get into the playoffs was the total number of district wins.
Coppell had won its first two district games – a 35-33 triumph over Plano and a 31-20 come-from-behind victory against Plano West – but the Cowboys slipped in the 6-6A standings after being tripped up by Marcus, 38-24, and Lewisville, 39-14.
DeWitt was curious to see how his Cowboys would respond to the adversity of not only the school shutdown, but watching his team lose back-to-back games.
The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Needing to win each of the final two games to qualify for the playoffs after missing out last season for the first time since 2011, Coppell senior quarterback Ryan Walker got the Cowboys started on the comeback trail, throwing for six touchdown passes on 20-of-23 through the air for 321 yards in a 49-26 victory at Plano East. K.J. Liggins and Anthony Black combined for 12 catches, 261 yards and four scores. Senior linebacker Tim O’Hearn had an interception late in the first half that turned the tide for the Cowboys.
Coppell also received a big spark during the final stretch from senior running back Jason Ngwu. He rushed for 141 yards on 22 carries against Plano East, but he saved his best work for Coppell in a must-win game the following week versus Flower Mound. All he did against the Jaguars’ defense was carry the ball 28 times for 226 yards – average of 8.1 yards per tote – with two touchdowns, lifting the Cowboys to a 51-28 rout of Flower Mound.
Coppell’s defense allowed just 30 passing yards to Flower Mound junior Nick Evers in the second half after he threw for 264 yards in the first half.
"I thought our kids played really hard all year, but especially toward the end of the season,” DeWitt said. “We had several coaches from other teams that commented after the game, 'Your kids played really hard.' That's probably one of the best compliments that you can receive, that your kids play hard and with great effort. I'm proud of the kids and certainly appreciate their effort."
One player who helped Coppell defeat Flower Mound, which clinched a playoff berth for the Cowboys, was the play of senior Zach Stricker. He was moved from safety to weak-side linebacker just for that game, and he went on to make several key plays, including a forced fumble as well as a pass break-up.
That position change was one of a few that was made by Coppell, none more obvious than the switch of senior Canon Peters from cornerback to outside linebacker midway through the season. Peters excelled in his new role to the tune of 86 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 1.5 sacks. He went on to earn a unanimous first-team all-district selection.
Fellow senior Preston Rogers was pressed into action at middle linebacker to fill a role that had been previously filled by Walker Polk. Rogers finished second on the team in tackles with 95, only bested by fellow first-team all-district senior linebacker Tim O’Hearn, who tallied 98 stops.
Offensively, Coppell’s offense took a big step in Walker’s first full season under center. He passed for 2,108 yards and 25 touchdowns. Liggins, who played his junior season for Denton Guyer, caught 13 touchdowns on 892 receiving yards. Black finished with 565 receiving yards and eight scores. Ngwu was the workhorse in Coppell’s backfield, rushing for 1,072 yards and six scores.
In Coppell’s playoff game against Guyer, the Cowboys rallied from a 24-3 deficit to tie the score at 24-all in the third quarter. But the Wildcats scored the game’s next 28 points to end Coppell’s season in the bi-district round of the Class 6A Division II playoffs.
"The fact that we got through this season during COVID was a success in itself,” DeWitt said. “And the fact that we got back in the playoffs was great. That's always huge in any year, but especially this year. I think the kind of effort that kids had shows a lot about the character of the kids and gives us something to build on going into the offseason."
Going forward, DeWitt hopes for a return to some resemblance of normalcy.
"We're going to try to move forward with the mindset that it's going to be a normal year,” he said. “Right now, we're in the offseason and it's pretty early. We're trying to focus on lifting weights and get stronger. Track season is starting to crank up. We're waiting to see what happens with spring ball. But, hopefully we can get back to somewhat of a normal routine."