Cougars football goes into season opener with clean slate mentality

The Cougars go into their season opener Thursday against Westwood High School with a rebuilt offense. Head coach Richard McClure had to strategize the transition to 8-man football from an 11-man team. 

He has a young team with a handful of first-time players, so installing a new offense while teaching fundamentals has been a delicate balance for the first-year head coach. But McClure said the “X’s and O’s” don’t matter if he doesn’t instill the intangibles into his players first.

“It doesn’t matter, even if we know the plays, If we’re not hustling,” McClure said. “I just want to see intensity and maximum effort from the guys, giving everything they’ve got. So when the game is over, they’re saying, ‘Man, I expended all of my energy, all of my effort.’”

As part of installing the new offense, McClure has been teaching his players the “why” behind the plays. He said it’s important for the team to understand the underlying meaning of the offense to better adapt to the opposition.

“It doesn’t matter if a different formation lines up in front of them,” McClure said. “When they get on the field, they understand where they’re supposed to go and what they’re supposed to do so they can better change on the fly.”

The Cougars got a late start to practice over the summer. McClure said he installed the base of the offense in the month and a half of the team’s practice.

“What we’ve tried to do for this first week for this first game is build that foundation,” McClure said.  “As we move through the year, we’ll continue to install the rest of it.” 

The Cougars enter their fourth year ever as a football program. The 14-player team is made up of new and experienced guys, some being their first year playing the sport. 

Junior fullback Preston Barnett and senior center Evan Sigman have been with the team since the football program started.

“The two guys that have been with us the longest… they’re going to touch the ball more than anybody,” McClure said.

Junior running back Dawson Worsley and junior wide receiver Cade Wells have played two of the three years the program has existed. Along with Barnett and Sigmon, these four are the players returning from last year. 

The team lost a core group of four seniors last year, and McClure said some players did not return from last year’s team.

“It’s going to be football by committee,” McClure said. 

McClure’s goal this season is to build a foundation for the future. He said that’s not something he can do on his own.

“You’ve got to get the students, the guys who play, to take ownership,” McClure said. “It’s having the guys see what they have, the facility… and reality just try to build the tradition.”

One way he hopes to build that tradition is to put the pieces in place to add a middle school/junior varsity team to the program to get younger players interested in the sport. 

He said a feeder team like that is essential because it allows the players to learn the fundamentals of the game before playing on the varsity level.

“It’s going to be critical that we get that younger team built and get those younger guys playing,” McClure said. “By the time they move on to varsity, they’re already established and have already learned, rather than coming out in tenth, eleventh grade and having to teach fundamentals when you should be teaching scheme and game plan and all of that stuff.”

McClure said one of the speed bumps to building a football program at a small school such as Grace is the dependency on class makeup. There are two boys in this year’s senior class and around 15-20 boys in the junior class.

“50% of the seniors are playing football,” McClure said jokingly. “That’s the other thing you kind of fight, and I think that’s why you go through, especially the small schools, very cyclical in terms of health and strength of the program.”

The Cougars travel to Westwood Thursday, kickoff at 7 p.m.

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