Thursday's area games

(All kick off at 7 p.m.)

Blanco vs. Holy Cross, Wheatley Sports Complex

Canyon Lake vs. Austin Reagan, Nelson Field, Austin

Central Catholic vs. McCollum, Harlandale Memorial Stadium

Highlands vs. Holmes, Gustafson Stadium

O’Connor vs. Churchill, Comalander Stadium

Somerset vs. Sam Houston, Alamo Stadium

SAN ANTONIO – Thursday night’s Holmes-Highlands football game will be far more than just another nondistrict tuneup for first-year Holmes head coach Juan Morales.

When he looks across the field to the Owls’ sideline at Gustafson Stadium, he will see a good number of players he worked with as head coach at Highlands the previous two seasons.

Morales guided the Owls to consecutive 7-4 playoff seasons, turning around a once-proud program that had fallen on hard times since producing a 10-1 team in 1999. Highlands had recorded 15 consecutive losing seasons, including five 0-10 clunkers, before Morales landed his first head-coaching job with the Owls in 2015.

Eager to embrace the challenge that lay before him, Morales wasted no time in changing attitudes and the culture within the program at Highlands. He forged a close relationship with his players and the entire school community, including athletes in other sports.

Holmes and Highlands both won their season openers last week, making the games memorable for Morales and his successor at Highlands, Hank Willis.

“It’s going to be special,” Morales said Wednesday, looking ahead to Thursday night’s game against the Owls. “It will be like playing against your brother. Somebody’s got to lose and it will sting. It will be bittersweet.

“I’m so proud of those kids at Highlands. They worked hard the past two years, and it was great to see them have some success. I still live on that part of town, and I run into some of the kids at the store or when I go out to eat. They’ll tell me, ‘We’re coming after you, Coach.’”

Morales smiled when he said that.

The Owls’ winning season in 2015 came a year after they went 0-10, and four years after three consecutive 0-10 finishes.

Morales, who turns 48 on Sept. 29, faces a similar challenge at Holmes.

“I know we play in a tough district, but my goal at Holmes is the same as it was at Highlands: Make the playoffs,” Morales said. “We’re working hard to put ourselves in a position where we can be successful.”

Once among San Antonio’s elite, the Huskies haven’t had a winning season since going 10-2 in 2000 under coach David Sanchez. That was a year after they reached the state semifinals for the fourth time in school history, finishing 13-2 in Sanchez’s first season.

Holmes slipped to 5-5 in 2001 and dropped to 1-9 the following year, Sanchez’s last season at the school. The Huskies went 5-5 last year, snapping a streak of 14 losing seasons that started after the 5-5 finish in 2001.

Morales was hired at Holmes in January to succeed Eddie Salas, who left the Huskies to become head coach at Harlan, the Northside ISD’s newest high school.

Holmes made Morales’ debut with the Huskies a successful one last Thursday, beating Sam Houston 38-22. Highlands did the same for Willis, defeating Floresville 49-42 the next night. Morales went to Floresville to watch the Owls open the season.

“I was like a proud papa,” he said. “I was there to scout them, but it was great to see them win.”

Holmes coach Juan Morales, with senior linebacker Benny Cruz, left, and junior running back DQ Haney, faces his former team Thursday night when the Huskes play Highlands. 

Thursday night will be a different story, of course. All in at Holmes now, Morales is relishing the challenge of trying to wake up the echoes of the Huskies’ glory days.

Holmes’ roll call of standouts includes such names as Fred Hall, Rene Maldonado, Jimmie Hawkins, Wilbur Odom, Johnny Walker, Keith Cash, Kerry Cash, Tony Darden, Robert Quiroga, Sean Salinas, Cedric Griffin and Darold Williamson.

Salinas, who quarterbacked the Huskies to the state semifinals as a sophomore in 1999, is now Holmes’ co-offensive coordinator. He is among four former Highlands assistant coaches who moved to Holmes with Morales. The other three are defensive coordinator Adrian Trevino, co-offensive coordinator Adrian Velasquez and cornerback coach Sheridan Young.

“Things are going really well,” Morales said. “We laid out our plan, and we’re just working the plan. It took a little more work, maybe more motivation, to get them pointed in the right direction because they were coming off what they felt was a very successful year. And, in this case, it probably was.

“To be able to go 5-5 and not have a losing season, obviously, they’re going to feel good about it. So, that was the challenge. Basically, I told them, ‘I understand you guys are feeling good about things. It’s always good to have some confidence, but how far do you want to take it?’ Creating that ambition, creating that want for the next level, that was the challenge.”

Accordingly, the Huskies’ mantra for the season is “Set the tone.”

“From the beginning, I think our players understood that this is just the starting line,” Morales said. “It’s the first step. They’ve taken that to heart.”

Edgewood High School graduate Juan Morales was an assistant coach at Brennan for two years before landing his first head-coaching job at Highlands in mid-February of 2015.

Morales, who doubles as Holmes’ boys athletic coordinator, has made developing a closer bond between all the school’s athletes a top priority.

“Everybody pulled for each other when I was at Brennan and Highlands,” he said. “But I could see that that brotherhood, or that sense or feeling of family, was not as strong as I had experienced in those places when I got to Holmes. That was my task, also.

“Football-wise, it was to set the tone. But for the entire athletic program, it was how much camaraderie can we build. Everything we did in the offseason, in the spring and in the summer with our strength and conditioning program, we’ve focused on supporting each other. It was good to have so many kids from different sports working out together and having that sense of family.”

After coaching in the Northside ISD for 15 years before moving to Highlands, Morales said he felt like he was going home when he took the Holmes job. He coached at Northside ISD schools Jay (2000-12) and Brennan (2013-14) before he moved to Highlands. Brennan advanced to the 4A Division I state final in Morales’ first year at the school.

An Edgewood graduate, Morales also coached at Poteet for three football seasons (1995-97) and one each at Seguin (1998) and Kennedy (1999).

The players on this season’s Holmes teams were either infants or hadn’t been born yet the last time the Huskies finished with a winning record (2000).

“We’ve tried to make our players aware of the great tradition Holmes once had,” Morales said.

Holmes coach Juan Morales is back in the Northside ISD, where he coached at Jay and Brennan before landing his first head-coaching job at Highlands in mid-February 2015. 

To that end, Morales had Walker, who went on to star at Texas, speak to the team last spring before he was inducted into the Texas High School Football of Fame in Waco. Walker was a standout wide receiver on the 1985 team that advanced to the state semifinals, and had one of the most prolific passing games in city history with Odom at quarterback and the Cash twins at the receiver spots.

“To have somebody that was there in those days talk to our team was a great opportunity for our players,” Morales said, recalling Walker’s visit. “I had talked about the Cash twins, about Wilbur Odom. That’s why it’s great to have Sean Salinas on our staff. He can help bring some of that pride back.”

Salinas, 33, graduated from Holmes in 2002 and was a three-year starter for the Huskies.

“Coming back to the district, just in general, and Holmes, specifically, it’s been kind of a lot of community support,” Salinas said. “I have a lot of family and friends who are still in the area. My parents are still in the area. Everybody’s been very supportive.

“With all that support, it makes me think I’ve got to do more for us here. I’ve always felt that way for our programs, but being back home, there’s definitely an attachment to Holmes.”

When Holmes and Highlands kick off Thursday night, Morales will look across the field and see what the Huskies’ future could look like with more hard work.

“We’ll just keep working the plan,” he said.