When Mitch Ables took over the Hawley football program in 2014, the Bearcats had posted more winless campaigns (eight) than winning seasons (six) in their history.
Despite fielding a team for 46 years to that point and being led by 15 different coaches, Hawley had managed only three playoff appearances — all since 2005 — and the Bearcats had never won a playoff game until the year before Ables arrived, when Brad Schoonmaker led them to a bi-district win over Alpine on the way to a 6-6 record.
So for HHS to be spoken about now among the Big Country’s elite, in the same breath as perennial small-school powers Albany and Cisco, is no small feat. In fact, it’s the product of a coaching effort that has been nothing short of legendary — and deserves to be viewed as such.
It may seem weird to see that type of language used to describe a head coaching tenure that hasn’t even reached its 10th year yet. But that doesn’t make it any less appropriate.
At this stage, given all the relevant context, I’m comfortable putting Ables’ efforts at Hawley up there with the most impressive coaching performances in Big Country football history. And if you’re not, a history lesson might be in order.
Now 96-22 at Hawley after leading the Bearcats to their second Class 2A Division I state championship game in as many seasons, Ables has — in only nine seasons — transformed a struggling HHS program into a legitimate 2A powerhouse.
Hawley, which has posted a winning record and won at least one playoff game every season Ables has been there, has averaged 12.6 victories per year over the past five seasons.
That number is impressive under any circumstances. But it’s even more so when you take into account that the Bearcats (still just 217-353-7 all time) had only won as many as seven games in a season (Ables’ low water mark) once in their history before the Hardin-Simmons grad arrived.
Put another way, 44 percent of the wins recorded by Hawley since it began playing football in 1968 have come during Ables’ tenure.
That Ables now has Hawley on the cusp of a state title — the Bearcats will take on five-time state champion Refugio at 11 a.m. Thursday at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium — is still awe-inspiring to me.
It’s not surprising, given the team he’s built and the success he’s had. But it remains, at least in this sports writer’s opinion, one of the most impressive accomplishments ever by a Big Country football coach — the historical ranks of which Ables is rapidly ascending.
Ables, whose .814 career win percentage stacks up well against recent Big Country coaching legends Brent West (.828), Denney Faith (.735) and Hugh Sandifer (.692), still has a long way to go to reach those guys’ longevity. But he’s in the process of building that kind of career.
And while the reserved, credit-averse Hawley mentor is unlikely to tell you about his personal achievements, I’m more than happy to do so.
After last week’s 34-20 win over previously unbeaten Crawford, Ables joins Albany’s Faith and Brock’s Billy Mathis, who will also be leading teams this week in Arlington, as the only active 11-man head coaches in the Big Country Preps coverage area to lead their teams to multiple state title game appearances. Only Jim Ned’s Matt Fanning and Stephenville’s Sterling Doty have hoisted state championship trophies.
If Ables’ Bearcats can can earn him that opportunity Thursday in a game that looks like a pick ’em on paper, he’ll add the only thing missing from his stellar coaching resume.
But with or without that pelt on the wall, I hope folks find the time this week to appreciate the near miraculous job he’s done at Hawley and acknowledge his place as one of the truly elite coaches in the Big Country and state.
He’s certainly earned that recognition.
BIG COUNTRY PREPS COVERAGE FROM
THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS IN ARLINGTON:
(Game stories, opinion pieces, photo galleries and video)
Wednesday, Dec. 14, AT&T Stadium
CLASS 1A DIV. II STATE CHAMPIONSHIP (Brandon McAuliffe)
Benjamin (13-0) vs. Loraine (13-1): 11 a.m. Dec. 14, Arlington’s AT&T Stadium
CLASS 1A DIV. I STATE CHAMPIONSHIP (Brandon McAuliffe)
Westbrook (13-1) vs. Abbott (14-0): 2 p.m. Dec. 14, Arlington’s AT&T Stadium
CLASS 2A DIV. II STATE CHAMPIONSHIP (Evan Ren and Daniel Youngblood)
Albany (13-2) vs. Mart (15-0): 7 p.m. Wednesday, Arlington’s AT&T Stadium
Thursday, Dec. 15, AT&T Stadium
CLASS 2A DIV. I STATE CHAMPIONSHIP (Evan Ren and Daniel Youngblood)
Hawley (15-0) vs. Refugio (14-1): 11 a.m. Thursday, Arlington’s AT&T Stadium
CLASS 3A DIV. I STATE CHAMPIONSHIP (Evan Ren and Daniel Youngblood)
Brock (11-4) vs. Franklin (15-0): 7 p.m. Thursday, Arlington’s AT&T Stadium