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Fast rise for Longhorns football program

Lanier quarterback Canyon Cook (6) finds some running room near the goal line against Eastside earlier this season. Cook and the Longhorns have made big strides, making the playoffs in just the program’s fourth year. (Photo: Craig Cappy)

Lanier quarterback Canyon Cook (6) finds some running room near the goal line against Eastside earlier this season. Cook and the Longhorns have made big strides, making the playoffs in just the program’s fourth year. (Photo: Craig Cappy)

There’s no question about the talent.

Even through the early seasons where the wins weren’t as plentiful, Lanier’s fledgling football program showed plenty of promise. The trick is turning the talent into wins and harnessing the winning and building consistent success from it.

In reaching the playoffs this year, just the school’s fourth in existence, the Lanier football program showed it could do just that. Head coach Billy Wells made his team’s approach clear following last week’s dominating win. The Longhorns had locked up a playoff spot and the No. 3 seed win or lose. They won 41-0.

Wells after the game said, “It’s important when you get to Week 10 to finish strong. This week was preparation for next week.”

That’s the most longterm Wells ever allowed his team to look. He has a longer view, one he admitted to Friday.

“When we started the program four years ago we kind of had a time table to get to the playoffs in Year 4,” Well said. “We feel like we’re on track. We’ve made history by being the first playoff team and now we’d like to be the first playoff team to win.”

But while Wells, as head coach and athletic director, is charged with a big-picture, program-building approach, he attacked his goals by working on the minutia and keeping his team hyper-focused on the present.

As Wells put it earlier this season, success in close games comes from “focusing on the small things, the here and now, rather than looking at the big picture too much.”

“We’ve pretty much kept the same approach that we’ve had all season,” Wells said this week. “It seems to have worked for us so far this year and we’ve stayed with it.”

And just as his team has played over the past four seasons, likewise was Well’s approach: consistent.

But within the consistency are plenty of highlights.

The standouts are easy to find. There’s 1,000-yard rusher Tario Fuller, 1,000-yard passer Canyon Cook and 500-yard receiver Devin Valentine. On defense, Michael Shaw and Ricky Viengxay made more than 100 tackles each with Shaw averaging nearly 12 per game. Trevon McSwain racked up nine sacks and Grey Lee Williams picked off a team-high four passes.

That’s the talent. But for sustained success over 10 games, overcoming halftime deficits and winning a school-record eight times, there can’t just be a few players collecting big numbers.

Last week, players like offensive lineman Travis Taylor and back-up running backs Marcella Baity and Ashton Barnes played a roll in the large output. Every week, on both sides of the ball, different players make a positive impact for Lanier. Then there is the added benefit of strong special teams from kicker and punter Mason Harwood who averages more than 37 yards a punt.

“As the season has progressed, offensively, we’ve involved more and more kids into the program,” Wells said this week, nothing the improvement of Baity and Barnes as well as back-up quarterback and athlete Tahj Tolbert. “We have tried to incorporate more guys into the system.”

More weapons make the Longhorns tougher to prepare for and adds depth to their attack. Just like the seasons past there is consistent growth.

That’s been the secret to the fast rise of the Longhorns.

They took a foundation of talent and added effort and a step-by-step approach. Friday is just another step on the journey.