By RICK PETERSON
It isn't much of a chore to handle winning, but what has made veteran Shawnee Heights football coach Jason Swift so proud is how his suddenly-hot T-Birds handled losing.
Coming off an injury-ravaged 1-8 campaign in 2020, Heights was looking for a turnaround this fall, only to start the current season with three heartbreaking losses by a total of 11 points, including a 1-point double-overtime loss to Bonner Springs and a 3-point loss to Lansing.
Having lost 10 straight games at that point, it would have been easy for the T-Birds to give up. Instead, they learned how to win.
"What I'm the most proud about is the makeup of this team, specifically the seniors,'' said Swift, whose T-Birds will take a 3-4 record into Friday night's Homecoming game against Turner. "They had a tough year last year and we went into this year not knowing who we were. As coaches we believed in them and we were excited for the season and we kept telling them, 'We're going to have a good year,' but it didn't happen at the start.
"The first three games were really close losses. We were making mistakes and they were mistakes you make when you hope to win a game and not believe you'll win a game.''
Shawnee Heights' shot at a successful season was hanging by a thread at that point, but the T-Birds have responded with their best football of the year, including back-to-back wins over highly-respected De Soto (21-20) and Blue Valley Southwest (23-7).
"We as coaches were looking at each other and were like, "These kids can do it, we just can't lose these kids,' '' Swift said. "While the assistant coaches have just been outstanding in letting the kids know that we believe in them, you've just got to believe in yourself and it really came down to 16, 17 and 18-year-old kids making up their minds to do it.
"The way they practiced every day after a loss was exceptional. They practiced harder than most teams I've been a part of, and the grit of this team is incredible. The kids never wavered. Never once did we have to re-sell them, 'Hey, we can be a good team.' It's all been them. They never got on each other but they just continuously pushed each other and practices got more and more competitive. We made plays and we made stops and got it done against De Soto and then the week going into Southwest was our best week of practice. When we got on the bus to go to Southwest we knew we were going to be good.''
With a win Friday over the 1-6 Bears Shawnee Heights can not only post a .500 regular-season record, but depending on what happens in other Class 5A contests, the T-Birds have a good shot to earn a homefield advantage for their first game in the playoffs.
Senior running back Jarin Sanders has rushed for 816 yards and seven touchdowns on 157 carries and has also caught 21 passes for 156 yards and three TDs.
In his first season as Heights' quarterback, senior Callan Carver has completed 85 of 147 pass attempts for 897 yards and nine touchdowns while adding 283 yards and five TDs on 61 rushing attempts.
Sophomore Jacob Malcom has caught 24 passes for 223 yards and four touchdowns while sophomore Jayden Moore has 20 catches for 297 yards and a score.
Seniors Matthew Etzel and Orrin Busenitz have been standouts for Shawnee Heights in the trenches to help key the T-Birds' turnaround.
"One of the things I've always said is, 'Men, at the end of the year we're going to be a tough out,' and I think they believe it now,'' Swift said. "However this season finishes we're going to be a tough out because of the confidence they're playing with and just the physical toughness that they're bringing to the field.
"It's kind of like as a parent. When your kid does something where they've worked real hard and they have success, that's one of your proudest moments as a parent. I think that's what makes this one of my proudest moments as a coach because of what these kids have overcome and accomplished.''