2018 Gridiron: Highland Cougars
Colors: Brown and Vegas gold
Total Returning Lettermen: 12
2017 Overall Record: 1-9
Head Coach: Dave Degarmo
Years at School: 2
Record at School: 1-9
Overall Record: 1-9
FIXER UPPER: NEW DIGS, VETERAN ROSTER ELVATE THE CURB APPEAL OF COUGAR FOOTBALL IN YEAR TWO OF THE DEGARMO RENO
WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE: Life in the rough and tumble Clarence Cannon Conference does not lend itself to easy football transformation. Dave Degarmo inherited the Highland Football job on late notice and without benefit of a full off-season to implement and teach. Not surprisingly given the degree of difficulty here, the Cougars were unable to break out of their long entrenched gridiron malaise. Highland won but a single game, besting Louisiana in the Bulldogs’ CCC Swan Song. The other nine games on the slate? An unfortunate, albeit bravely fought, string of growing pain games effectively delineating the Football Haves from the Have Nots in Northeast Missouri.
And yet for all the trials and tribulations that 2017 visited upon Highland Football, the Cougars turn the page to a new season with some much needed wind finally gusting positively in their sails; both for the short and long term betterment of the program it would seem. This past Spring, the Lewis C-1 School District a long need and potentially game changing capital improvement: the construction of a brand new state of the art Football/Track facility that is expected to be completed in time for the season opener in August with Clark County. For a program that has historically struggled to draw roster numbers, the shot of enthusiasm and excitement “christening” a new turf field could deliver in the hallways at Highland could be paradigm shifting for the long term health of Cougar Football. Kids love flashy and new and Lewis C-1 has delivered those kids on the fence about playing the sport a push in the right direction. And winning the hallways is huge for this program if it ever hopes to ascend the Cannon Food Chain.
The positive posturing doesn’t end there. Coach Degarmo gets to give a far truer accounting of his coaching and his vision for the future in season two. He’s been given the benefit of a full year to implement his system. He’s install a 365 day year plan for the improvement of the kids in his pigskin pipeline. And he enters this Autumn reaping the silver-lining benefit of last year’s forced youth movement: a returning roster that boasts seventeen starters. That may not make them Monroe City just yet. But it certainly puts Cougar Football on a far more intriguing trajectory.
TIME TO GET ROWDY: The quickest cure in football for a stagnant offense is better Offensive Line play. In quest to invigorate a squad that tallied just under 10 points per game on average a year ago, Dave Degarmo will bank on a mix of pre-existing chemistry, driven off-season weight room dedication, and improved toughness from his four returning Offensive Linemen to grade the road to better performance. There’s good size here with the returns of Junior Rowdy Kindhart (5’10” 287lbs) and Senior Bryan Smith (6’1” 265lbs) to the fold. Junior Elijah Mead brings quality athleticism and a Linebacker’s mentality to to the Offensive Line. Senior Stevie Chillion fits the profile of a mobile, physical drive blocker. If the Coaching Staff can coax early production from a couple of underclassmen, the scenario here holds promise in radically upgrading the run game. But it also helps that Dave Degarmo is wisely tweaking the backfield to better maximize his skill position assets behind that wall of bodyguards as well.
CHANCE ENCOUNTERS: It took me all of about two plays of watching Chance Newton at the Hannibal Jamboree last August to figure out this kid had a real electricity to his running skills. Granted, he was running Quarterback at the time but his ability to weave through frustrated defenders both on designed keeps and busted plays hinted at both his terrific field vision and his ability to reverse field faster than a bad politician. He’s a pretty unique talent, obscured a bit unfairly but Highland’s program struggles. In an effort to better get the ball in his hands and make things happen, the Highland Staff is moving him to Running Back in 2018. I am not going to suggest that he is at a Brock Wood-level as a Runner yet because South Shelby’s All Stater is his own level. But watching Newton’s natural elusiveness, it’s not hard to envision him as the Cougars version of Brock Wood. The Senior is a bit slight of build at just 5’10” and 150 pounds and hopefully time in the weight room this Summer enhances his durability. Beyond that concern however, Chance’s versatility and game breaking burst are the exact curealls for a program that desperately needs both.
THE NEW GUY: Sophomore Braedyn Hetzler is expected to succeed Newton at the controls of the Highland Spread Offense and will benefit from the return of a trio of Wide Receivers who can help thin the Defensive Box and open things up underneath for the Running Game. Kaden Koch is a 6’ 185 pound Junior who had a 100 yard receiving game to open the 2017 campaign. Kaden has shown the ability to separate from coverage and make good things happen with the Football in his hands. Like Newton, getting him more touches would seem beneficial for all involved. He will be coupled here with a pair of experience Slot Receivers in Senior Andrew Myers and Junior JT McDermott. Blake Meany is another athlete here who could help put some spice into the Highland attack.
THE LIFE OF BRYAN: The prognosis for improvement appears to be even brighter on Defense. Granted the strength of schedule is beastly, especially in this particular year when every single Cannon team seems to have at least one Weapon of Offensive Mass Destruction at the ready. But the Cougars have a structure in place and the looming potential of a formidable Front Six to anchor the entire group. Highland employs a four man line and there’s not only Front Line starters returning there, but enough depth for Dave Degarmo to rotate in fresh bodies and amplify the pressure on opponents. As the kids like to say: The Cougars low key have a pretty impressive set of Defensive Ends at the ready. Bryan Smith earned Second Team All-District Honors last Fall as a Junior in an absolutely loaded in a team grouping that included Clark County, Palmyra and Macon. He’s a hulking presence with the ability to jam up High School Offensive Tackles and deter teams from trying to get outside to his side of the field. Kaden Koch, who is sort of a DE/OLB hybrid of sorts, is a rangy, pursuit oriented compliment that the coaching staff thinks has difference making potential over his next two varsity season. These are two gents who will be asked to set an aggressive, physical tone here. With Nose Tackle Rowdy Kindhardt and Defensive Tackle Stevie Chillion returning inside, Highland also has some physical gravitas to try and slow down teams that try to run from guard to guard.
AMERICAN MEAD: The Cougars will need considerable improvement from their Linebackers and Secondary Guys in 2018 in quest to trim the fat here on a unit that allowed nearly 40 points per game a year ago. There’s an experience nucleus in play with five returnees in the back end; perhaps a sixth if Dave Degarmo finds another Defensive End to his liking among the underclassmen and swings Kaden Koch to full time Linebacker duty. While Highland doesn’t have a lot of imposing size in the back two tiers of the Defense, there is ample speed and athleticism amplified by the 4-2-5 scheme here. Junior Elijah Mead is a near 200 pound Junior who should enjoy better protection from the guys up front in his second season as a starter. He’s the traditional Linebacker type in this mix. Coach Degarmo has a pair of Rover-types here to potential pair him with speedster Chance Newton and Junior JT McDermott, a 5’7” bundle of quick twitch muscle fiber who has shown considerable explosion as a Jumper/Vaulter in the Spring during Track Season. This profiles as a group that will be hard to run away from. The x-factor here is whether Highland will tackle well enough when arriving to the ball. Looking back at tape from last season, better execution on first contact is a correctable bugaboo that certainly lends itself to an opportunity for rapid improvement.
With kids like Blake Hays, London Brunk, and Nash Waller around in the Conference, Highland figures to be tested through the air as well. Obviously, there’s advantage there in having mobile Linebackers like McDermott and Newton, who run better than most high school DB’s. It’s also a considered advantage to have quality Cornerbacks in the mix. Granted neither Blake Meany (5’9” 150lbs) or Andrew Myers boast prototype size, but they are guys who can run with just about anyone. And they certainly seem poised to profit from cutting their teeth in these spots a year ago.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: Swapping out EMO-departure Louisiana for Land of Lincoln power West Hancock certainly didn’t ease an already brutal schedule. And I would argue that no team in our area faces a more brutal five week opening run than the Cougars Clark County/Macon/Monroe City/Centralia/Palmyra stretch that carries into late September. There’s no way to sugarcoat or spin that stretch into something palatable. I would offer, however, that if the Cougars can fight through that gauntlet and get to October in good health, there are legitimate opportunities to be competitive, hunt a few wins, and improve the District Standing at the back end of the regular season.; especially with three of their last four contests at home at the new Pigskin Palace that is being transformed at Jerry Ball Field as we speak. The buzz word here is traction. There are some developing pockets of strength on this roster, as mentioned above. To see some of those pop in the early season, against elite opponents would be a real table setter here for the program moving forward; the young kids already in the program and those now considering it because football has been jazzed up considerably in Lewis County with the advent of a new playing facility. Use that promising line and Chance Newton’s speed to score a couple of touchdowns on a Macon or Centralia and that’s a net positive. Disrupt the awesome offensive artillery of Monroe City and Clark County for a series with all that Cougar speed? Another building block. These small victories might not secure you a “W” in the win column today, but it’s momentum and fodder moving forward. Start stringing enough of those together and suddenly Highland looms a little more dangerously. There’s clear potential for better here. If there wasn’t, the School District would not be investing so heavily into the future of Cougar Athletics. We saw the Highland Baseball program stun everyone this past Spring by winning a first ever Cannon Title. The Track and Field program simultaneously enjoyed a very balanced campaign. So don’t try telling me there aren’t enough athletes and competitors in this school to raise the level of Cougar Football to the same level of relative achievement. The potential has always been there, simmering below the surface. The unraveling of same has been the persistent year-to-year struggles and the culture of losing that pre-exists with Highland Football. That “why should I sacrifice my free time for the hard work it takes to play football when we are only going to get beat every Friday” mindset. The answer, my friends, is so that you can help your school and community end such defeatist thinking. That’s a forever legacy in your lifetime. It won’t be easy and it won’t come without personal sacrifice. But if you are the class that turns the tide on Highland Football for good, that’s a point of pride you will delight in until old age; a story for the grandchildren. The payoff here for your efforts isn’t as far away as it ever seems. Just four years ago, folks were writing the obituary on the once great Monroe City Football program. Look where those guys are now. And honestly, what does Monroe City have in terms of assets and talent that positions it on paper to be any more successful than Highland could be? A better facility?? Not anymore. This is a chance to get in on the ground floor of something that could potentially life chancing and community affirming. Like being part of that awesome baseball run, only to a far greater degree in a more visible sport. And the more of you who invest yourselves to that cause, the quicker the culture changes. There’s a good nucleus here already with the kids we’ve talked about. Only you can make it better. Take the leap and see how glowingly we may get to talk about Highland Cougar Football next year, compared to this. I guaranteeyou will be glad you did.