Four years of frustration can be set aside on Friday or they can be added onto in agonizing fashion.
It’s all up to the North Adams-Jerome Rams.
From 1996-2004 the Rams qualified for the playoffs six times, but the last four seasons have seen a combined 11 wins from the program.
Now the 5-3 SCAA Division II champions are fighting to survive another week and get back to good old North Adams-Jerome football, against an eerily similar 5-3 Battle Creek St. Phil team that needs the win every bit as badly.
For Rams head coach Bryan Cook, an N A-J alum, this is a chance to finally get this group of seniors where he thought they could be two or three years ago with ample work. It is also a chance to silence some of the doubters.
“It’s been pretty stressful for me, being from here, playing here and having always been used to at least having a chance to win a division or league and a chance to get in the playoffs. It’s been four years, a stressful four years, trying to get kids to commit to what needs to be done and our other sports have really been lacking too,” he said.
Cook said it is “very exciting” to have something to look forward to heading into the final week of the season, but he hopes his team is far from content with what they’ve accomplished so far.
“If they are content with a division title, that would be a tragedy,” he said. “Because then you tell them that down the road, you get out of high school and someone asks you what you did in 2009 your senior year, and it’s ‘Well, we won a division title,’ and the next thing they’re going to ask is ‘Well, what did you do in the playoffs?’….’Oh, we didn’t make it.’”
If they are going to have any semblance of a rewarding story to tell friends down the road, the Rams are going to have to come out much stronger than they did in a 36-0 home loss to Climax-Scott two weeks ago.
Cook knows that’s the truth and he said he will know in the first quarter Friday if his team is up to the challenge or not, based on the look in their eyes.
“Like in the Climax game, they’ve got this stint against them that we can’t win. And we did not play anything like we have in previous games. If we had played as hard against them as we did against Pittsford….after we screwed up and gave up two big punt returns and a kickoff return…it might have been a different ball game,” he said. “I’ve been telling them all year long that they have the ability to play with every team that they play. You just have to have the want inside of you — the heart, the dedication, the commitment — you’ve got to have it in you.”
And given the tale of the tape so far in 2009 an intangible like heart will play a big role in a contest between teams that are almost mirror images of each other in some aspects.
St. Phil lost to Climax-Scotts by 37, one more than the Rams; the Tigers beat Tekonsha by 34, the Rams won by 42; and Pittsford beat St. Phil 20-0 last week, while the Rams lost to the Wildcats 42-28.
The Tigers have played a slightly tougher schedule though, facing teams with a combined record of 34-28, compared to the Rams schedule against teams with a record of 29-33.
Offensively the Tigers are not lacking in speed or size. St. Phil has three reliable backs in Conor Reilly, Charles Roberson and Brendan Barlow.
Reilly can get outside at a moment’s notice, Roberson has the ability to break multiple tackles and Barlow is a power back who is good at going right at the line.
Cook said he keeps telling his team they just have to stick to their assignments and push everything to the middle.
“If we can control them from getting outside of us — keeping them inside the tackle box and staying in our spots and not getting stuck in concrete — it’s going to be an exciting ball game,” he said.
St. Phil’s starting quarterback Thomas Bauman has thrown for over 100 yards on several occasions this year and he can also pick up first downs with his feet when needed. Cook said from the game film he’s watched Bauman is a capable quarterback, but nothing out of the ordinary for the SCAA.
“He throws the medium passes pretty well. There aren’t too many quarterbacks in our league or in this area that can throw the ball down the field with accuracy,” he said.
As far as his own offense, Cook likes the guys he has in place, as long as they come out hungry and focused.
Senior QB Dakota George has thrown for 754 yards and 10 touchdowns to six interceptions, while David Wick and Justin Carr have put in a couple of 100 yard ground games, and Dekota Borton is the big play-maker in the receiving corps.
Cook said he has been stressing to George that he just needs to make smart decisions and have confidence in his abilities.
“I’ve told him all week that if we have to get into a passing situation and no one is open right away and you see an open spot up through the gap somewhere, take off, use your feet,” he said. “The boy can run.”
Defensively, Cook said the Tigers can tackle well and they are big up front. He also said on both sides of the ball they seem to have their bread-and-butter that they stick with all night, whether it’s working or not.
In his opinion his team simply needs to come out of the gate strong, set the tone and be ready to play physical, fundamentally sound football. If that happens, the Rams will have a much more enjoyable bus ride home and Cook will finally have the kind of results he’s been looking for all along, coaching precisely the same way he did when they went 2-7 in 2008.
“It’s crazy, because our fan base, our parents…of course the old adage is, when you win there’s less yelling. When you’re not winning you hear all the chirping and all this other stuff,” he said. “I haven’t done anything different in my 10 years as a head coach,I’ve just been plugging into them, plugging into them and I show them what they had to do. I wish these kids would’ve bought in three years ago. I reminded them recently, just think of what you could’ve been.”