This year, the players of the Lake Highlands Wildcats football team have their eyes on the prize – another District Championship.

This season begins Coach Jerry Gayden’s tenure at the helm; Gayden was defensive coordinator for the Wildcats before replacing former Coach Mike Zoffuto, who resigned in May. During the past six years of Zoffuto’s leadership, the Wildcats won nearly 70 games, a record Gayden hopes to continue.

Tradition is the key to winning, Gayden says, as is the supportive network of players, coaches and parents.

“Success on our part has been due to the fact we’ve had some real hard-working kids and some great parents to help them along,” Gayden says.

“Coach Gayden is well-respected within coaching circles,” says offensive coordinator Jim Ledford. “(Gayden’s coaching style is) laid back, but with a strong emotional side.

“A lot of people don’t see that. But I’ve seen him motivate the kids to a higher level, and he has a special ability to get the athletes to respond.”

For the team, the priority is qualifying for District, but that’s 10 long, tough games down the road.

“In our division, we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Ledford says. “Anytime you’ve got a state championship like Plano, you’ve got to give them a nod. It’s going to be tough to displace the Plano schools.”

“Seven in a row would be great, but we’ve got to take it one game at a time right now, and not get caught up in the games later on down the line,” Gayden says.

Challenges to another winning season include the loss of several valuable seniors.

“Dexter Ford went to Baylor,” Gayden says. “And we’ll miss Anthony Hicks as well, who was picked up by UT. There were a lot of great players.”

Nonetheless, many sophomores are eager for the challenge. Some to watch include Davern Hightower, a rookie running back, and Steve Holley, a second-year free safety and back-up quarterback to regular quarterback Marcus Stiggers.

On the defensive end, cornerback Jason Gaut, defensive end Craig Phelps, and defensive tackles Jeff Robinson and Scott Ferguson make an imposing barricade to any team.

But at the heart of the Wildcats’ success is tradition.

“You’ve got kids in grade school who were watching what we do, and then in junior high, so by the time they get here, they’re willing to work really hard to live up to what they saw as youngsters,” Gayden says.

While tradition forms the team’s core, the Wildcat’s trademark wishbone offense doesn’t hurt. This triple-option threat highlights the running talents of the team: running back Hightower, fullback Juanapha Gibson and quarterback Stiggers.

And while Lake Highlands benefits from the talents of receivers Terry Snow and Casey Foreman, Gayden says he will stick with the running game unless he finds an opportunity to exploit the pass.

“They always expect us to run, so when we use the pass, like we did against Plano last year, it’s very effective,” he says.

The Wildcats kick-off the regular season Sept. 8 against Irving Nimitz at the Cotton Bowl.