PEARLAND, Texas - The journey to the pinnacle of Texas high school football - as a head coach - was a long one for Pearland (Texas)
coach Tony Heath. It was eventful, memorable and in 2010 - heart-stopping all the way to the end.
With grace, class, professionalism and a burning competitive fire that drove his every step, Heath guided Pearland to its first state football championship by leading the Oilers to a 16-0 record en route to the Class 5A Division I title and has been named the U.S. Air Force National Coach of the Year for the 2010 season.
The Oilers have been no stranger to state title contention during Heath's tenure there - they've been state semifinalists three times and made the state quarterfinals four times. But prior to Heath's arrival at Pearland in 1997, the Oilers weren't known for success on the gridiron. They lost 43 consecutive district games heading into the 1997 season and their last playoff appearance was in 1986. Before that, 1962 was their last playoff appearance.
But coming from a winning program and pedigree at La Marque High School, where Heath was an assistant on a state championship-winning staff in the 1990s, strengthened his ability to help the Oilers rise to success. In his first season at Pearland, the Oilers made the playoffs and after posting .500 or better records the next two years but missing the postseason, the Oilers haven't missed the playoffs again since then and have compiled a 133-38 record.
The Oilers made their first state semifinal appearance under Heath in 2001 then again in 2006, but this year's team - which drew tempered expectations from observers outside of Pearland in the preseason - was the one to finally break through.
"Obviously I would have liked to have seen it happen in 2001 or 2006," Heath said. "It was tough getting over those because I felt we had teams that were capable of competing for the championship with the kind of quality kids that we had, but we didn't get it done.
"But this year going in really as an unknown team and to end up on top 16 weeks later made it pretty special."
Behind the offensive trio of quarterback Trey Anderson (2,898 passing yards, 25 touchdowns), running back Dustin Garrison (2,827 rushing yards, 46 touchdowns) and receiver Myles Kanipes (1,008 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) and a defense that was much maligned early in the season but got better as the year wore on behind defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, linebacker Kendall Ehrlich and Kanipes at defensive back, the Oilers became masters at the show-stopping finish. They won six games by seven points or fewer and five of their games were decided in the final minute, including two of their final three games.
The team motto of "Plus 1," which was prominently displayed on fan paraphernalia and spoken about by the team throughout the season, drove the Oilers. The words signified the Oilers' willingness to give an extra degree of effort to make the necessary plays to help the team achieve success.
The Oilers tackled some of the state's most well-known perennial powers along the way, including Katy, whom the Oilers beat in the Class 5A Region III championship game, and three-time state champion Euless Trinity, which was ranked No. 1 in the country entering the last week of the season, in the state title game.
"You're talking about so many things that - in the blink of an eye - could have (made for) a lot different season," Heath said. "But the commitment that the kids had to the 'Plus 1' and really having meaning behind it, was really really big. It was kind of a magical ride."
Now that coaches, team and the town of Pearland has soaked it in, with the town having thrown a parade for the champions on Jan. 8, Heath expresses gratitude that he was able to achieve the dream 14 years after arriving on campus. As the town grew and the district opened a second high school in 2007 (Dawson), which has also achieved great football success in a short amount of time, Heath wondered if this time would ever come.
Fortunately for him, it did.
"When they opened up (Dawson), I knew that the chances and percentages and opportunities to win it had gotten a lot tougher," Heath said. "But we've got great quality kids, great parents and a great school - a school that's about winners.
"We've had state softball champions, the band goes to state, a team that went to the Little League World Series, academics as high as you could achieve in this district, exemplary. Pearland, Texas is about winners and is about being successful and is about a commitment to excellence."Sam Khan Jr. is a reporter who covers Greater Houston area high school sports for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/skhanjr.