As Marcus head football coach Kevin Atkinson gathered his players at the end of Tuesday’s practice, he could barely contain his excitement.
“It’s Week 14 and we’re still practicing football,” he exclaimed. “It’s Thanksgiving week and we’re still practicing football.”
For the first time since 1997, that’s the case for the Marauders, immersed in their deepest playoff run in more than two decades after entering the week with postseason victories over Keller Central (34-7) and Lake Highlands (36-27) under their belts.
The playoff success has been a continuation of a resurgent regular season, with Marcus unbeaten since a season-opening setback to Arlington Bowie on Aug. 29. The 11 games since have produced some of the program’s best football in years and a galvanizing effort for Atkinson and his players.
“I’m really proud of them. They’ve done an outstanding job of being coachable and taking what we’ve given them and understanding the process,” Atkinson said. “It’s a crock pot, not a microwave type of thing when you’re talking about building a program.
“I think the difference with this team is there are four levels of kids — ones that are cynical, ones that are compliant, ones that are committed and ones that are compelled. I really feel like our roster is full of committed and compelled players, from top to bottom. It takes buy-in from their end and I couldn’t be more excited.”
That starts with the Marauders’ senior leadership, who have helped the team make amends for last year’s postseason-less campaign by setting the tone for a culture that has permeated all throughout the program.
“I have a connection with every single person on this team and I feel like with other teams I’ve been on that it hasn’t been like that,” said Collin Sutherland, Marcus senior tight end. “I know every person on this team personally and I feel like that builds such a great connection.”
“Everyone is really bought into the program and the culture of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to create for the future guys,” added Ethan Barr, Marcus senior linebacker.
The results have followed suit, with Marcus carrying an 11-game winning streak into the regional semifinal round of the postseason and racking up a score of notable accomplishments along the way — from regaining the axe from rival Lewisville, to halting a two-year losing streak against Flower Mound, to capturing a District 6-6A championship, and the program’s first three-round playoff voyage since 1997.
“We’re energized,” Sutherland said. “Everyone is so pumped to come in for this week of practice — usually during those first couple of weeks, it takes some time getting everyone excited for practice, but right now everyone is so heated up. We’re hungry.”
Within that 9-1 regular season, Marcus has also its share of crunch-time resilience, winning games against the quartet of Flower Mound, Lewisville, Hebron and Coppell by an average margin of 6.8 points, including overtime affairs with the Cowboys and Farmers.
The Marauders found themselves either tied or trailing during the fourth quarter in three of those games, but have found a response during each occasion.
“No one gets too flustered and we’re all really consistent in how we react to stuff,” Barr said. “We’ve really preached that all year — not getting too high or too low.”
Barr, fittingly enough, caught the two-point conversion in overtime following a touchdown run by junior Tyler Gainey for an eventual 15-7 victory over Coppell.
Against the Jaguars, despite falling behind 31-27 early in the fourth quarter, Marcus mounted an eight-play drive that culminated in another Gainey touchdown run with 54 seconds left in a 34-31 win.
And in the team’s regular-season finale against Lewisville, sophomore Dallas Dudley hauled in a 23-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Garrett Nussmeier for a 48-42 overtime win moments after the Marcus defense forced a turnover on downs.
“That’s what good teams do, win the close games,” Atkinson said. “You win the ones you’re supposed to convincingly, and I felt like we still won those games well. Each week, you’re either better or worse and I feel like we’ve gotten better each week.
“I think it’s part of the process and buying into our culture. I think it becomes part of your repertoire.”
The Marauders have also drawn motivation from a unique addition to its locker room, with a giant replica of the UIL Class 6A Division II playoff bracket draped across one of its walls — an idea Atkinson said came from his coaching staff. Marcus has updated the the bracket after each round of the postseason, adding an extra sense of gratification in advancing the Marauders’ tab from round to round.
“It makes it real. To me, it shows that there only so many teams left in their division and they’re one of them,” Atkinson said. “It starts off with 64 and then gets cut down to 32 and then to 16. The thing about it is that all the teams left are good. There’s a saying that once you’re playing football after Thanksgiving, there are no turkeys left.”
Among the final 16 in the 6A Div. II draw, the Marauders look to extend their banner run at 3 p.m. Saturday in Wichita Falls against Amarillo Tascosa.