Two wins and seven losses later Cook was down, but not out. He was convinced talent wasn’t the problem, just discipline, work ethic and mental toughness.
Nonetheless, North Adams-Jerome has won just 11 games the past four years combined and it is going to take results, not hope, to convince the SCAA the Rams of old are back.
With a team stacked with three-year varsity players Cook said all of last year’s problems have been addressed for months on end, and if practices and scrimmages are any indication, things could be different.
“Most of these kids, it’s their third year. We had great expectations for them last year with it being their second year on varsity and things didn’t work out that way,” Cook said. “I don’t think they had matured yet, which they have now. It shows in their leadership amongst the core group of seniors, they are more vocal. I’m not having to stop every play in practice to give them a 10-minute speech.”
Cook said losing has finally gotten to the kids and that means they are more willing than ever to buy into their head coaches’ philosophy that nothing is given to you, only earned.
“They’ve been here three years and they have to take some ownership in what they do,” he said. “Last year we had a lot of bad practices and the results came out on Fridays. I’m preaching to them that it’s just like a bank account; what you put in during the week is what you can take out on the weekend.”
Cook said the players offseason condition regimens really improved and year-round dedication is more of a theme with his top players — one of them being returning starting QB Dakota George.
He showed signs of brilliance against weaker competition last year, but Cook said not until this year did his signal caller finally start taking command of the offense.
“The two previous years I’d have to give him the entire play, number, formation, everything…now I can tell him to get into a formation and run a trap and he knows the number, the system and he knows what he’s doing,” Cook said. “I have confidence in him.”
He is kind of quiet for a quarterback, but Cook said teammates took notice of how he hit the weights this spring.
His key weapons are much the same as last season.
Dekota Borton, who scored five TDs on one occasion last year, is the wingback, while Jeremy Smith returns at split end and Josh Kast is back at tight end.
Handling the load at running back is senior David Wick, an athlete with loads of potential who showed off some flair and elusiveness last year.
Cook said his biggest problem last year was he tended to shy away from contact.
“I kept trying to tell him that one of these times he’s going to get hurt doing that,” he said. “Someone will blow you up or set you up or you’ll get a shoulder smashed, and the last couple games of the year he put his shoulder down finally, and ran some people over.”
Cook said he saw a little hesitation from Wick in the scrimmages last week, but he’s confident his feature back knows what is expected of him.
Wick ran for a season-high 201 yards against Burr Oak in 2008.
The offensive line will return four starters, losing only Bernie Fansler to graduation.
Lucky for Cook though, Logan Longman, a senior who missed all of last season with an injury, is back for his final campaign.
He will take over at center, allowing sophomore Matt McCormick to move over to his natural position of guard. McCormick started his entire freshman year and Cook knows he has a huge asset in the youngster.
“He’s really good. He’s not real vocal yet, but he sets an example with his work ethic and he’s easily the strongest guy on the squad,” Cook said.
Defensively, Fansler is the only player gone as well, but Cook said every single one of his players have to tackle better this year than they did last.
“We did a lot of reaching and grabbing instead of putting a shoulder pad on somebody, we didn’t do that very well,” he said. “This year we saw in the scrimmage that kids were putting shoulder pads on, keeping their feet, and there was more than one person there. It seems like more of a team effort, like it’s supposed to be.”
Cook said they have a plethora of capable offensive and defensive linemen and he’ll rotate athletes in and out on defense to give his offensive line starters a rest when possible.
The linebackers look to be a strength of the defense, as Longman takes over duties in the middle.
“It’s his first year playing at the linebacker position and he’s coming along. What I like is that he asks questions every day,” Cook said. “Instead of just trying to go through and do things on his own he’ll say ‘ coach, how do I read this, what’s my key on this?”
What’s a key for everyone according to Cook is the ability to not just ask questions, but to listen to the coaches and put their strategies into practice.
“They all have better recall this year I think,” he said. “Last year we would get the board out at halftime sometimes and set up a play, show what the defense might do, and then how we were going to block it. The situation would arise and it happened and the kids didn’t block the right way.”
Situations like that shed some light on why Cook had plenty of complaints about practices “not being fun” last year, something he just shrugs his shoulders at and says is a part of trying to rebuild a program mired in losing.
“Last year it wasn’t physical mistakes, it was mental mistakes. We didn’t physically get beat up last year, it was just a lot of mental mistakes,” he said. “They’ve been in this stint of losing and we’re going to try to get out of that stint this year. Whatever drill you do in practice you have to go 110 percent, because if you won’t do it Monday or Tuesday it won’t happen on Fridays.”
Cook knows it won’t be easy, but he thinks with the teams’’ much-improved conditioning and a core leadership unit of four to five guys who have stepped up vocally, the playoffs aren’t so much a mirage, but a goal that will take plenty of work.
“Making the playoffs, that is their number one goal and should be for any high school program,” he said. “On a nine-game schedule, get six wins — that gets kids to come out, that builds a successful program.”
Cook said the coaches will do all they can to provide the kids with the necessary tools to win and the rest is up to them.
“The team concept is huge this year. For instance, if someone has an unexcused practice they miss, everybody runs extra,” he said. “That’s the whole deal of taking ownership. You have to take responsibility for what you’re going to do. It’s all up to them, we can’t play for them.”