At the Coppell baseball team banquet, held the day after the Cowboys’ final game of the regular season, senior left fielder Ryan Walker recalled the first time that he met Ryan Howard.
Howard had just been hired as the next head baseball coach at Coppell after three seasons at the same position with Lake Dallas, and during a meet-and-greet session with his new team, Walker heard the plan that his new head coach laid out for his vision of the program. And Walker liked what he heard.
“We met him and he told us all about his coaching career and then how he took some not highly talented Lake Dallas teams to the third or fourth round of the playoffs,” Walker said. “He just talked about his plans for the program and things like that, and I think that it got everybody fired up. After that, I really trusted what he said."
In his third and final season at Lake Dallas in 2019, Howard led the Falcons to an appearance in the regional semifinals.
The evidence was clear that Howard built a mentally tough team during his stay in Corinth.
Upon his arrival at Coppell, Howard’s vision was to instill the same type of mentality – one in which the Cowboys would be the hardest-working team around and for his players to play for one another.
"Just blue collar, get the country club out of it," he said. "We're going to show up. We're going to work hard every day. We're not going to talk about what we're going to do. We're going to do the work and do what we do. It's a day-in, day-out process and we're not looking too much into the future."
Howard’s plan began to make headway last year.
As the season wore on, the more the Cowboys grew and molded together into a dangerous team.
In a loaded tournament schedule, Coppell’s fortunes changed dramatically. Five days after recording its third win of the season, it stormed back from an eight-run deficit to defeat Rockwall in 11-8 fashion, knocking down the 12th-ranked team in Texas’ largest classification.
And the next contest featured a 7-1 victory over Georgetown, who was the No. 19 squad in 5A and was coming off a state championship appearance a year ago.
“At the end of the season, we had been in games with teams that we shouldn't have,” Walker said. “I think after that point, everyone bought in and said that this guy knows what he is talking about.”
This season, Coppell looked to pick up where he had left off in the previous year.
The Cowboys earned an 8-6 victory over two-time defending state champion in the March 13 season opener. Coppell split each of its first three two-game series to commence District 6-6A, but then the team got on a roll, losing just one game for the remainder of the regular season – a 3-2 loss to Richardson Pearce on April 10.
The Cowboys entered the postseason not wanting to endure another early exit. Since falling to Midland Lee in the regional semifinals in 2016, Coppell hadn’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs since.
Coppell downed Denton Guyer in two games in the bi-district round, but the Cowboys faced perhaps their biggest dose of adversity in the area round when senior Chayton Krauss wasn’t able to play due to an illness. All the Cowboys did was post a sweep of Jesuit.
Coppell’s confidence only grew.
Senior Tony Vernars lined a walk-off single during Game 2 of a Region 1-6A quarterfinal to help the Cowboys complete a sweep of Prosper.
In the regional semifinals, Coppell found out how much Howard is the type of coach who had his players’ backs – regardless of the situation. In Game 2 against Keller, the Cowboys not only trailed the Indians on the scoreboard, but also were unhappy with several borderline calls for strikes that were made by the home-plate umpire.
"We were getting some horrible calls and he was not afraid to let the umpires hear it,” Walker said. “That fired us up because it showed that we had a coach who was willing to go to battle for us because he didn't want to see us getting screwed out of bad strike calls. He would get ejected the minute the calls were unfair after that, no problem. He was willing to stand up for us and that showed us a lot about who he is."
Although Keller went on to defeat Coppell in three games, Howard showed his appreciation for his players postgame. Standing in right field, he exchanged a hug with each player and member of the Cowboys’ coaching staff. Coppell finished with a record of 31-9-1 in Howard’s first full season as head coach.
"I think this team is in really good hands with coach Howard," Walker said. "He keeps us focused during practice and makes practice fun but also makes us better each and every day. It's not just at practice. It's with summer skills and falls games to morning workouts in the winter. He does a great job of developing everybody and creating an atmosphere where they can win tough ballgames."