At times, Harper’s 2017 season devastated Josh Talavera. In fact, he even considered giving up football entirely.
The woes began as early as Harper’s season opener. Talavera rose to intercept a pass before awkwardly landing, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. His junior season had ended before the Longhorns could even finish the first game.
He was then forced to watch his teammates experience similar fates. What had started as a season with high expectations, ended with Harper missing the postseason altogether due to season-ending injuries. The adversity gnawed at Talavera.
“I was wondering if it was all worth it,” Talavera said.
Then, something changed. He was no longer moping over 2017’s misfortunes. The injury eventually produced the opposite effect — it inspired him to be a leader in 2018, to not allow a single second of his senior year go to waste.
“It made me want to come into my senior year faster and stronger, so I could lead my team,” he said.
His teammates possess a similar mentality, a willingness to work as hard as ever to bounce back in 2018. That’s evident when attending a Harper practice. On one particular August morning, the Longhorns were in the field house lifting weights, hollering encouragements at teammates as they push through exercises. Last season taught the Longhorns that the sport of football can be fleeting. This season, they are savoring every practice, every workout and every moment.
“This year, our theme is ‘Take it back,’” Harper coach Dusty Gibbs said in his office. “(Last year) was tough -- there’s no doubt about it, especially when the expectations are that high and you have some injuries that happen. … But our kids are great. They forget that stuff pretty quick and look past it. They are ready for 2018.”
Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Magazine predicts Harper to finish second in District 14-2A Division I, only behind perennial powerhouse Mason. That’s probably because when healthy, Harper is flush with talent. Talavera, who goes by his initials “JT,” is a dynamic receiver and defensive back. Linebacker Carson Sivells returns after leading Harper in nearly every defensive category last year (69 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions). Dylan Sivells, meanwhile, is a game-changer at running back. He savaged defenses last season for 1,117 yards on only 98 carries before his season was hampered by injuries.
Now, Sivells is healthy. And his coach is expecting more big plays from the senior tailback.
“He wants to have a good senior year,” Gibbs said. “He wants the team to do well, and he wants to do well for himself. And he is the big part of what we do. We saw that last year when he was on the field, our point total was up. When he was out, our point level dipped.”
Last season, while frustrating, also offered another benefit for this season — the injuries gave younger players an opportunity to receive playing time. For example, sophomore Sean Baethge became the Longhorns’ starting quarterback after former player Chance Lange suffered a season-ending injury in the third game. Baethge, like any normal freshman, experienced growing pains. But, that experience is sure to come in handy this season as a sophomore.
“It’s tough anytime you become a varsity player for the first time, especially when you are a freshman,” Gibbs said. “It’s something that you don’t even see at the 2A level very much. Sean handled it well, and he’s going to handle it well this year. Having that experience from last year is tremendous. Where he is at now compared to where he was at last year is 10 times better.”
And that’s why Talavera and his senior comrades are excited about the upcoming season. Every Wednesday, they meet for youth group. The seniors decided to discuss their expectations for their final season at Harper.
One thing was for sure: 2017 is behind them. They are confident that 2018 is going to be their year.
“Senior year is going to be our time to shine,” they told each other. “We have to come to God, and do this for us. We have to come together as a team.”
Their coach is no less optimistic.
“It’s all good feelings right now,” Gibbs said “We are ready to get going.”