FEATURE: Winless to District Champions, Livingston wins first outright title in 57 years.


HOUSTON - When a group has been down for a while, at the first glimmer of success the natural reaction is to celebrate that moment.

For a team that went 0-19 in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, any win could feel like they just won a state championship. For Livingston, entering the 2020 season, the Lions were staring at a 2-26 record over the last three seasons - the last two being under Finis Vanover.

"We kept our eighth, ninth and 10th graders together and did not move them up two years ago when I got here," Vanover said. "We kept them together and coached the mess out of them. They won eight or nine games at every level for the last three years.

"We knew they were going to be exceptional and now here we are."

When Livingston started the year 0-2, some may have thought things hadn't changed. The Lions 2-28 in their last 30 games at that point.

But then it happened.

A 21-20 win over Orangefield. Then a 35-20 win over Diboll and then make it three-in-a-row with a 21-16 win over Madisonville. The Lions had a winning record at 3-2 on September 25. Livingston wasn't done.

Five wins, outscoring opponents 130-61, later, capping the year with a 21-20 victory over previously undefeated Huffman last week, the Lions were 8-2 overall and outright District 10-4A-DI Champions.

"It makes all the difference in the world in everybody's attitude and everybody's energy," Livingston third-year head coach Finis Vanover said. "The kids are absolutely reveling in it and justifiably so. We kept a lid on them all year and kept working. Using that next man up theory, next week up, don't get too high, don't get too low. It's really worked well. The kids have bought into our program and they never stopped believing."

Keeping a cap on the celebration throughout the season had to be a challenging task, especially for a team that hadn't won more than seven games since 2011 and hadn't been in the playoffs since 2012.

Once the final horn blew last Friday and the Lions had secured the first outright district title for the program since the John F. Kennedy administration, Vanover said there was nothing he could have done to stop that celebration.

"I was right in the middle of it with them," Vanover said with a hearty chuckle. "It was the ultimate goal. Number one was to win, number two was to get into the playoffs and number three was to win a district championship. So far, we're three for three.

"We celebrated all weekend. But now the kids are very focused and committed and understand what the whole deal is. But we had a blast on Friday night when that clock hit zero."

Being in the middle of that celebration, of a group of kids that had taken their lumps year after year, Vanover said is why you stay in his business for 44 years.

"Everything that's good about this business was demonstrated on Friday night," he said. "From the fans chanting and pounding the bleachers, it was like the old days. At the end of the game they would not leave. We had no bands, so the entire place - 586 people - and the entire team sang the school song acapella.

"That's what it's all about. That's special. That's what high school football is supposed to be about. It makes you want to stay another 44 years."

Vanover knows a thing or two about building a program.

Prior to Livingston, the veteran Texas high school football coach opened Tomball Memorial and made the playoffs with that group in just year two of being a varsity program. So, he knows where to start.

"We followed the same plan just like we were opening a new school," Vanover said. "We started from scratch, built it from the bottom up and I think it's going to be here for a long time."

A part of that group is junior quarterback Damian Ruiz, who is verbally committed to the University of Houston for baseball.

This year through 10 games Ruiz has passed for 1,344 yards and 15 touchdowns, while rushing for another 614 yards and 11 scores for the Lions.

"He is a very gifted athlete," Vanover said. "He takes coaching well and he's getting better every game."

Along with Ruiz, Lynn Johnson has led the team in rushing this year with 689 yards and eight scores on 102 carries, while Julian Gardner is leading the group at receiver with 436 yards and four touchdowns. Gardner also flipped to the defensive side of the ball where he led the team with four interceptions, followed by freshman Ja'Marri Green, who had three.

But the defensive unit overall has been stellar.

In 10 games, Livingston surrendered a total of 181 points, the most being 36 to Needville in the season opener, which was a one-point loss. Those 181 points allowed are the fewest given up since allowing opponents to score 179 back in 2006.

Two years ago, Livingston gave up - Vanover's first season - the Lions' defense gave up 507 points.

"Our defense is small but very fast, athletic and aggressive," Vanover said. "The defense has been in incredible. They tackle like crazy. [When I got here] they hated playing defense and hated tackling and couldn't run very well.

"The way we play defense is pull the trigger, let them run and huddle up for the next play and try to beat each other to the ball every play. They've bought into that and it's worked well for us."

What Vanover enjoys the most about this is he believes they are just getting started up the road in Livingston, Texas.

"We haven't even scratched the surface with how good this bunch can be," Vanover said. "We have not played a complete football game where everybody's talent was on display at the same time. When we do that it's going to be an awesome sight."

Livingston plays Tyler Chapel Hill this Saturday in the Bi-District round of the Texas High School Football Playoffs.