There’s a phrase that Douglas head coach Jay Rhoades said to his team before they stormed through the Bearcats helmet and onto the field Friday: Be real tonight.
The phrase was simply a message to not focus on team records or individual stats or even the fact that it was the final homecoming game for seniors, but to begin realizing their full potential as a team.
“Start realizing what you are and what you can be,” Rhoades yelled to his players before they took the field and were greeted by an uproarious home crowd.
On a night where temperatures crept close to 40 degrees just before kickoff, control of second place in 3A East was at stake. More importantly, a bounce back win was needed for Douglas.
As Kanyon Cecil reeled in a wide open 29-yard pass for a touchdown early in the third quarter, it was clear the Cats were headed for their fourth win of the season. After a 40-14 loss on the road to conference-leading Torrington, the Cats responded with a dominant 42-15 win over Worland on homecoming night.
“I think we’re starting to get it,” sophomore linebacker Gabe Borman said. “We’re playing together as a team and we’re now realizing our full potential when we do.”
Bearcats on O
When Douglas is clicking on all cylinders - moving the ball on offense with relative ease and battering opposing teams on defense - they’re a tough team to compete with. On Friday, they showed several reasons why that’s the case.
On a first-and-10 after a 14-yard run by Dylon Case in the third quarter, quarterback AJ Yeaman stood tall as the pocket closed around him. With two Worland defenders about to sandwich him for their first sack of the game, Yeaman got the pass off in time and found Cecil wide open for a touchdown.
The horns went off and red and blue lights flashed from the fire trucks on site as Yeaman was pulled from the ground and celebrated his fourth touchdown of the game with teammates. The Cats could do no wrong on offense.
“After the game I told them they rose to the challenge,” Rhoades said. “They finished plays, made downfield blocks . . . all of the things that have made us successful in the past offensively.”
Case burst out of the backfield with ease for much of the night as the offensive line created ample running room for their leading rusher. He finished with 184 yards on 20 carries, well above his 97.6 yards per game average. His longest run of the night came in the second quarter as he broke away down the right sideline for 49 yards and would have reached the end zone, if not for a defensive horse collar penalty committed by Worland.
At quarterback, Yeaman showed flashes of greatness as he finished 6 for 10 passing with two touchdowns, one to Cecil and the other to Brady Brooks. He also complemented his arm with 31 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.
“I think AJ is a real example of how much better we can be on offense,” Rhoades said. “He had a tremendous game and I still feel like there’s so much room left for him to grow.”
Much of Douglas’ success this season can be traced back to their ability to move the ball on offense and create space for their playmakers early in games. They’ve averaged 31.5 points in their four wins and just 10 in their two losses.
For Rhoades and the Cats, the final two games will be a test to see if they can continue the uphill climb on offense.
“Now it’s just a matter of sustaining that and going beyond the expectations,” he said. “We’ve had those periods where we weren’t reaching our potential and we knew it, and the kids didn’t quite understand what they could give.
“You can feel the momentum starting to build now and we have to keep carrying that on.”
Solidifying the D
The first message Douglas sent to opposing teams this season was that their defense was going to be fast and physical. It showed in week one when the Cats shutout Buffalo on the road, 7-0.
And it showed on Friday as Worland struggled immensely with moving the ball and were shutout through three quarters. Only when the game was long over were the Warriors able to salvage points.
“We’re not scared to hit, we’re very physical,” Borman said about the Cats defense. “We’re not perfect by all means. But we play fast and always go out and give full effort.”
A striking example of just how good their defense is and how much better it can be is senior linebacker Dax Read. He finished Friday’s win with a game-high 17 tackles and leads all 3A players with nearly 14 tackles per game.
If you take your eye off the game for any one moment, you may miss Read making an impact on the defensive side of the ball. It’s often what happens to Rhoades until he watches game film.
“There’s times where we’ll get done with a game and I don’t think he played all that well,” Rhoades admitted. “Then I’ll watch film and say, ‘dang he played well.’ He’s a quiet player, a lot of things don’t always show up.
“He’s another embodiment of what our team is and what it can be.”
Although Douglas entered Friday’s game with the eighth-best defense in the conference, they’re averaging just 14.6 points per game - fourth in the conference.
Several athletic plays were made in the secondary for the Cats. Brooks and Colby Davidson each recorded timely interceptions as Worland was driving down the field. Matchups with Lander and Riverton will be the final opportunities for the defense to fine tune operations before the playoffs.
“We’ve gotten a lot better at colliding and doing our own jobs,” junior defensive lineman Cody Pinkerton said. “For us to get even better, it’s about getting everything down mentality wise and just knowing what to do each play.”
The Cats will host their final home game of the regular season on Friday when Lander comes to town.
Head Coach John Scott and the Tigers are 3-3 and share a 2-1 record in 3A East with Douglas. If the Cats come away with a win, they’ll all but take control of second in the conference behind Torrington.
For Rhoades, that prospect is not all that important. It’s more about following up a win with a strong performance and doing everything within their control to continue playing to their full potential.
“Our challenge this week is to not let up,” he said. “The capabilities and potential of this team are very high.
“It’s a disrespect to that potential if we don’t go out and meet it.”