Team to Watch: Greenville's 'uncomfortable' offseason leads to first playoff appearance since 2003

Greenville vs. Forney (Photo by Stephanie Flashains)

The Nov. 1 District 8-5A-2 contest between Forney and Greenville was not a rivalry affair, nor was it particularly close. Bot no one at Greenville’s T.A. “Cotton” Ford Stadium kept their seats when the clock finally struck 0:00, at least on the home side.

With Greenville’s 51-3 win over Forney, fans stormed the field to celebrate the school’s first playoff berth since 2003.

“It was a really great night for everyone,” Lions coach Darren Duke said. “It was big for our team, for our school and for our community.”

Times haven’t just been lean since the school’s playoff berth in 2003. They’ve been downright barren. Since that 2003 season, the Lions have managed just one winning season – 6-4 in 2009 – and went four years without a win at all, dropping 40-straight between 2010-2013.

“I had coached here in the 1990s and early 2000s and we were rolling then (nine straight winning seasons from 1995-2003),” Duke said, “and when I got back, we were really struggling, to say the least.”

Duke’s first three years in charge saw fits and starts, but injuries forced young players into the lineup, and the 2018 team struggled to a 2-7 finish. Yet Duke had reason to believe things would change heading into the season. The experienced gained was one thing, but Duke pointed out something else that lurked just below the surface.

“I’ve always liked this group of players because they have a competitiveness about them and they have a will to win,” he said. “Even if it’s a simple competitive offseason drill, these guys want to win.”

Duke took that mentality and sharpened it with a difficult, challenging offseason designed to get players to push past their limitations. From the first offseason practice, Duke and his staff made the Lions uncomfortable.

“We had to preach toughness,” Duke said. “Everybody does that, but we did a lot of things in the offseason to make them uncomfortable and make then fight through it. And that carried over.”

Throughout a regular season that’s seen Greenville win six games – just one fewer than they’ve won in the last two seasons combined – and overcome its share of adversity to get to the point that a win in week 10 could be meaningful.

“We’ve been behind in games and fought through it,” Duke said. “This team has a refuse to lose mentality. The work ethic and commitment to being tough-minded has paid off for us.”

The toughness paid off early. The team struggled out of the gate but stuck together, and district wins over Kaufman and North Forney finally gave the Lions some positive momentum.

“We didn’t play well early, but we always bounced back,” Duke said. “Our resiliency has paid off. We never fell into a ‘oh no, here we go again’ mentality. They bought into us and they are clearly seeing their rewards now.”

Following a district-opening loss to Corsicana, Greenville (6-3, 5-2) won three straight before stumbling against Royse City. The Lions regrouped and won at Sulphur Springs, setting up an opportunity to clinch last week.

“We needed to win last week to control our destiny,” Duke said.

And did they ever take control. Greenville jumped to a 38-0 halftime lead and the celebration was on. Receiver Miles Denson caught three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth. Tyrecus Davis returned an interception 70 yards for a score. Jeremiah Abrego returned a fumble 37 yards for another score.

When the dust settled, a playoff drought ended and the team celebrated with its fans on the field. When the team finally retired to the locker room for Duke to deliver his final message, there wasn’t much left to say.

“It was such a special thing,” he said. “We just reveled in it. We were all spent because there had been a lot of celebrating outside with everyone, but it was special to come back in and talk about it. We told them how proud we are, but at the same time, we don’t want to be satisfied with just making the playoffs. We want to make this last as long as we can.”

After 15 years away, who can blame them?

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