The 2017 Highland Park Scots don’t want to become the 2013 Atlanta Falcons.
That Falcons team was coming off a season in which they tied for the NFL’s best regular-season record before a narrow loss in the NFC Championship Game. After a near-miss in 2012, they were poised for a Super Bowl run.
But nothing turned out as planned. The locker room became frayed under the weight of high expectations, and Atlanta tumbled to a shocking 4-12 season.
As the Scots look to repeat their magical run to last season’s Class 5A Division I state championship, the Falcons serve as a cautionary tale.
HP players and coaches spent part of their offseason reading You Win in the Locker Room First, a book co-authored by then-Falcons coach Mike Smith about how to deal with the pressure facing a team that’s on top and looking to stay there.
Longtime HP head coach Randy Allen said the book’s teachings include focusing on the process instead of the end result.
“You fight high expectations and complacency,” Allen said. “As a coach, you want your players to think about one game at a time. People remember what happens in December, but it’s about enjoying the journey and improving so that you’re playing your best at the right time.”
In other words, as they prepare to open their season on Sept. 1 at Rockwall, the Scots are aiming for a repeat — something the state’s all-time winningest program has never accomplished. They don’t shy away from the word. It’s even part of their team motto: “Reload. Repeat.”
However, as the book emphasizes, if those dreams are tripped up along the way, the season isn’t necessarily a failure.
Following the 16-7 win over Temple in December that brought HP its first state title since 2005, Allen knew the perception of his team would change heading into this year.
“Last year we had the mindset that we were underdogs and we were playing with a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “This year, it’s a different mindset.”
Among HP’s returning starters this year is quarterback John Stephen Jones, who won a battle for the starting job last season and wound up passing for more than 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns in 16 games. He also ran for nine scores.
“He’s bigger, faster, and stronger. He has experience in big games. That year of experience will make him a better decision-maker,” Allen said. “He’s a guy who has football smarts. He understands the game and knows what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Jones, who earned offensive MVP honors in the state championship game, is the grandson of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the son of Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones, both of whom were regulars in the stands at HP games last season.
With the title game coming on the first day of winter break last year, it made the holiday season that much merrier for the Scots. However, when the players returned to school in January, it was time to focus on the future.
“We had our time to celebrate,” Jones said. “Once school started again, we went back to work.”
Jones and his fellow team captains — running back Paxton Alexander, offensive tackle Thomas Shelmire, and safety James Herring — each were key contributors in the state title game.
With another chance at history, they know how fortunate they are to come back and play again — as Jones says, for 16 more games.
“It’s more motivation to do it one more time,” Jones said. “We know how hard we worked last year. We understand what it’s going to take.”