Locker Room: 2018 was good, 2019 could be better for Cougars

The 2018 Pulaski County football season has been over for a month now. I always like to wait until this time of the year to make a final assessment of the latest Cougar campaign. Sometimes when all the emotion has subsided, and things settle down, the picture often has a sharper focus, for both what just ended and what might lay ahead.

The thought that is most apparent to me is that Pulaski County had a better football team than maybe Pulaski County thought it did. Sometimes you are the last to credit yourself. That’s not a bad thing, and that may have been the case. A simple review makes the above opinion obvious.

The Cougars did not lose a game to a bad football team. And you had to be a good football team or you were not good enough to beat Pulaski County. Its 8-4 record is more impressive than some might think. The four losses came to Blacksburg twice by a single score and the Cougars could have won both games, were in the hunt to the final play. Blacksburg finished 12-1, advanced the state semi-final and lost to eventual Class 4 state champion Woodgrove in overtime. The toughest challenges Blacksburg received other than that final game was Pulaski Co.

There was a one-point loss to Northside. The Vikings finished the season 12-2, losing only to Lord Botetourt, but were fortunate they didn’t lose to the Cougars. The other defeat was at Salem where the game was far closer than the final 21-10 score as an unfortunate officiating decision was crucial in the game. That’s it. The Cougars didn’t lose to any power puffs, and they played everybody tough. The four losses average out to be by less than a single score in each game.

The eight wins was an obvious improvement, but there was that dramatic, 17-14 come from behind victory in the playoffs on the road over a good GW-Danville team. There was a rousing 56-19 win over Class 5 Patrick Henry, and the big victory at home over 9-3 Abingdon turned out to be bigger that it seemed at the moment.

2018 was a good season for Cougar football. There will be considerable conversation about how many proven players return to the 2019 team, and expectations will be high. They should be. Fans waste too much time talking about schemes. Football is still far more basic than that regardless of how many people want to instill more finesse in the game. Four things are almost always indications of a good football team. 1- Is your team aggressive? The Cougars will be. 2- Do you have linemen? The Cougars will have linemen. 3- Do you have tailbacks? The Cougars will have tailbacks. 4- Do you have linebackers? The Cougars will have linebackers. So yes, Pulaski County should have at least one of the better teams in the region at any classification in 2018.

However, do not schedule any parades just yet. Pulaski County did not lose very many seniors last season, but in some cases, it’s not how many you lost, but who, and how difficult will it be to replace them. The primary losses in this opinion come in two places. The defensive front, and the locker room.

The loss of quickness on the defensive side of the football could be a factor. The Cougars were the quickest defense in the region last season. Three players up front will not be returning, and all three also relate to locker room leadership. They led by example. Two of finest little high school defensive tackles I have ever enjoyed watching play will be gone, Ben Arnett and Camden Mariotti. Quicksilver defensive linemen who were far stronger than they appeared, tough, relentless, and they would make plays in the other teams’ backfield or run you down all the way to the sideline.

And they had a buddy out on the edge in Noah O’Dell, lean, 6-3, 210 and quick off the corner, a quarterback’s nightmare. Of all that will not return from the 2018 football squad, those three will be the most difficult to replace. And in the leadership department, the leader of the offensive line, center Jaxson Callahan was just like those other three. Replacing place kicker Ryan Castle will be a big factor as well. So when somebody tells you the Cougars have everything coming back, no they do not.

If you get to enjoy a visit with PCHS head coach Stephen James, he’ll pretty much tell you the same. He is a confident coach, feels good about the direction of his program, and was both pleased and disappointed with the past season, but likes having the burden of expectations.

“We were very close. We just barely missed some great victories. We had opportunities we’d like to have back, but had some good wins too. We got into the playoffs the right way, and just didn’t go for show, we beat a good team on the road. We just need to be more consistent, not up and down with our level of execution, and play tough. We’re losing some kids that I really enjoyed having on the team, and you’re right, they will not be easy to replace. I wish we had ’em all back. It’s hard to replace quick at any position.”

But James, after having a bit of elbow surgery, will gather his program back up after the New Year, and start putting together things for 2019. Teams do not come together in July and August. Teams develop chemistry during the off-season in the weight training and physical conditioning program. Who leads the way in the off-season? Who steps up and sets the pace? Do you maintain a high work ethic? What happens in February, March, April and so on has a great deal to do with what happens in September.

“Absolutely,” says James. “We had a good off-season program last year, we need to have a good one again. That has to become routine if you are a good football program. We have some good things returning to our team. Who leads the way, who works the hardest, who gets better, who matures, all that stuff is important and it happens inside the fieldhouse out of the public’s eye. Our team should be a bit different next season. We ran the ball more this season. I hope we are able to run it more next season. We’ll try to be more of a ball control type thing offensively. Defensively, that front will need work, but we hope we do not have to change from what we did last season, at least not too much. We thought we really improved defensively, and we’d like to keep it that way, maybe even get a little better. But right now we’re pretty much in a down time. I want the kids to rest, enjoy Christmas time and the holidays. In January, it’s back to work,” said James.

It’s not the time for a bunch of statistics, and individual stuff, but the Cougars do indeed have considerable playing experience, and proven players returning for the 2019 season. On offense Gage Mannon, Jacari Finley, and Luke Russell are returning tailbacks, Austin Gallimore is back at H-Back. The four players just mentioned were All-River Ridge District.  Logan Burchett and Xavier Cobbs saw lots of time at wideout, Dillon Porter is back at tight end, and Logan Fox, Clayton Phillips, and Cooper Dunnigan return to the offensive line, and there are some good young linemen waiting for a chance to play, and they got plenty of playing time on an eight-win junior varsity team. The biggest question on offense? Quarterback. AJ McCloud is the only experience.

Defensively, Austin Gallimore and Russell return to the inside linebacker positions and they led the team in tackles last season. Ethan Gallimore contributed well off the edge as did Finley. Look for Caleb Perfater to be in the running for playing time next season at linebacker. Zeke Surber is the lone returning interior player on the defensive front. Who will be the other two tackles? It will likely be a rotation of a number of players; Phillips, Dunnigan, Fox, Tyler Brookman, and maybe a couple coming up off the JV squad. The Cougars should have enough linemen.

The secondary returns Mannon, Chris Shay, McCloud, and look for Cobbs, Burchett, and Will Bishop to be in the mix. Jacob Turman, Noah Massie, Marcus Wright, and Levi Young are linemen that will get a good look. There will be maybe two or three players to really mature, improve, and become solid aspects of the team. It always seems to happen, somebody steps up. Who will it be will be determined over the next few months. It’s always enjoyable to watch a team come together.

So there is indeed much to look forward to, but it hasn’t been easy the past few years for Pulaski County and it will not be easy in 2019 either. The program is showing obvious improvement, the talent level is up a bit, and the competitive spirit has improved. There’s a lot to feel good about. But there will be other good teams. Salem will be strong and a major contender once again next season, a trip to Abingdon will be a challenge, PH will be much better, Northside returns as much or more proven talent as the Cougars, and Blacksburg has been on a roll. When somebody gets used to winning, they’re hard to beat. Nothing is ever easy, and if you think you can just wait for that season when you’re good and everybody else is bad, you’re just going to grow old. That never happens.

The schedule will undergo a couple of changes in 2019. Gone is Carroll County and William Fleming. New games will be Bassett and William Byrd. The home schedule will have Northside, Bassett, Cave Spring, Christiansburg, and Salem coming to Dobson Stadium. That’s a good home schedule. The five away games will be at Abingdon, Byrd, Hidden Valley, Patrick Henry, and Blacksburg.

By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot