KPark not ‘satisfied’ after playoff apperance
Editor’s Note: This season preview is the fourth in a series looking at the seven high schools within the Observer’s boundaries — including Humble, Atascocita, Summer Creek, Kingwood, Kingwood Park, Crosby and Huffman.
The bar is set.
Kingwood Park leaned on defense to make the playoffs for the first time in three years last season, and now they’re picked to return in District 9-5A, Division I by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
“I don’t remember what publication it was in, but we were picked ninth last year - or next to last, or whatever - and that was a good motivator for our guys,” fourth-year coach Clayton Maple said.
“Now, the motivation is - don’t be satisfied.”
Maple was elated after leading the Panthers to the playoffs for the first time. They went 3-7 his first season and 2-8 in 2016.
Last year, they finished 5-4 overall, 5-3 in District 21-5A.
“I was happy for those kids who were seniors,” Maple said.
“They were freshmen when I got there, and we had some of them on varsity as sophomores, so they had two disappointing seasons, and to see them keep working and keep on trusting the process, knowing we were about to turn the corner and get back to where we needed to be, was great.
“The night we made the playoffs is something I won’t forget.”
Maple credited his defense’s improvement for their turnaround, and former defensive coordinator Lee Wilkins was rewarded, landing the head job at 3A Division I Kemp, which is southeast of Dallas.
“They really, really stepped up,” Maple said. “It was night and day. If we continue on that course defensively, and then do the same thing offensively, we should be able to maintain what we’re doing.”
Looking back, their 13-7 win over Barbers Hill in the second district game may have been the biggest.
K-Park and The Hill tied for fourth, and K-Park owned the tiebreaker.
That win also established a blueprint for success going forward, and helped them forge a new defensive identity.
“They play so hard, and they get after it, and they take a lot of pride in what they’re doing,” Maple said.
“The rest of the team began to feed off that as well.”
The Panthers clinched a playoff return with a four-game winning streak to end district, including a 26-7 win over Dayton.
Now they’re looking to build on that success - and exceed those new expectations.
Wilkins left, but Maple landed Cory Sterling as his new DC, and Sterling has six returning starters to build around. He was retired coach Brian Ford’s assistant head coach/DC at Summer Creek for nine years, after following Ford from North Shore, where they worked together for five seasons.
Sterling began installing his system in the spring, but Maple said they won’t look much different.
“It’s still going to be an even front with two high, so it’s really terminology more than anything,” he said.
The key returning starters are cornerback Will Smoot, middle linebacker Clay Sowell and defensive end Hayden Park.
They’re all seniors who’ve played together since they were freshmen.
The Panthers aren’t as settled on offense.
They graduated eight starters, including quarterback Daniel Bresko, who replaced opening-day starter Thyrun Hurst after Hurst suffered a knee injury against New Caney in the first game of the season.
Maple said Sam Johansen is ready to replace them under center.
The senior played safety as a sophomore and outside backer last season but took reps both years as a backup QB.
“He’s a good passer,” Maple said. “The thing about him, though, is he’s a great leader.”
He’s also a 6-foot, 195-pound member of last year’s hard-nosed ‘D’, and Maple doesn’t expect him to lose that physicality at QB.
“He got quite a few snaps last year at quarterback, because when we would go into our short-yardage package, he came in and was the quarterback, because I know if it’s fourth-and-whatever, he’s going to get behind some guys, put his head down and go get a big first down,” Maple said.
“Now, that’s not what we’re transitioning to, by any means, but that shows you how he plays the game.”
Seniors wide receiver Tylan Johnson and guard Austin Wilding, and junior running back Desmond Benjamin also return.
Benjamin was the anchor leg on the track team’s 400-meter relay last spring.
“Those are the guys we’ll build around,” Maple said.
Jason McDaniel is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.