It was a harsh lesson, but one Whitney Keeling believes is part of the reason his current team is so focused and hungry.

A year ago, in the district opener, Waskom notched a 29-19 win over Elysian Fields. It could have been worse, and, as it turned out, it should have been.

Waskom went on to finish 5-5 overall and 4-3 in district play, tied for third with New Diana and Elysian Fields. The way the district tiebreaker shook out after New Diana beat Waskom and Elysian Fields defeated New Diana, Waskom was left out of the playoff picture based on points.

“We were out because we didn’t beat Elysian Fields by enough points,” Keeling said. “We took a knee on the 4-yard line leading 28-19 with 11 seconds left. Had we scored there, we would have gone to the playoffs, but I didn’t want to run up the score. It was learning thing for me. You have to max out whoever you are playing.”

Keeling said he, his coaching staff and his team were obviously disappointed to miss the playoffs for the first time in six years, but the Wildcats are quickly erasing that bad memory by rolling to a 5-0 start overall and moving to 2-0 in District 11-3A Division II play after Friday’s 49-8 win over Hughes Springs.

“We were so young last year. We started a lot of sophomores and juniors, and we probably didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs to be honest,” Keeling said. “It was a blessing in disguise. We started out offseason earlier, and it made the kids a lot hungrier.”

The Wildcats followed the same formula on Friday that has worked all season — run the ball and mix in a pass occasionally. Against Hughes Springs, Waskom finished with 275 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. They threw the ball just twice, but freshman quarterback Cole Watson completed both passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns to D.J. Feaster.

Feaster led the rushing attack with three carries for 128 yards and a TD.

For the season, the Wildcats have rushed for 209, 312, 430, 316 and 275 yards in wins over Garrison, Carthage’s JV, Arp, Queen City and Hughes Springs. Watson has completed 12 of 18 passes for 347 yards, and seven of the completions have gone the distance. Paxton Keeling completed the only pass he has attempted this season, and it went for a 51-yard touchdown.

“Most teams have to concentrate on stopping the run, because they know that’s what we want to do,” Keeling said. “But, if they get too many people at the line of scrimmage, the play action pass will get you. We’re not going to sit back there and throw it 20 times per game, but when we do throw we’re usually pretty efficient.”

Keeling said the numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the entire story when it comes to figuring out his team’s success so far this season.

“We’re playing unselfish football,” the coach said. “When you look at film, you see a lot of things that maybe some folks don’t pay attention to — like blocking downfield and getting excited about that. We have some talent, there’s no doubt about that. We returned every skill kid, and our freshman quarterback is playing lights out. When you add that unselfish element to it, you can do some good things.”

The Wildcats will visit 5-1 Queen City on Friday.

Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment in a season-long series on key games and happenings around East Texas Friday night football. Today, a look at Waskom’s 49-8 win over Hughes Springs and the Wildcats’ 5-0 start to the season.