After starting last season 5-0, the Douglas Bearcats lost three of their last four regular season games. In the first round of the 3A playoffs, they were outmatched by the Green River Wolves in a 28-7 defeat. But that late October loss on the road is ancient history.
With a week and a half of practices under their belt, the Bearcats are busy sharpening their claws for the upcoming season. Head coach Jay Rhoades says he has brought a new focus to this year’s football team.
“We’re slowing things down a little bit and we’re teaching a bit more,” he said last week at a Bearcats media event. “Sometimes you have a tendency to get into the season and you become so worried about schemes and what other teams are doing that you kind’ve lose focus on some of the fundamentals that need to be there.”
“That’s one thing that I’m probably doing a little better than I have done in the past.”
The Bearcats won four of their first five games last season by at least two touchdowns, including back-to-back shutout victories over Hot Springs, South Dakota (34-0) and Wheatland (36-0).
A 6-3 season and a trip to the postseason - a yearly ritual for Rhoades and the Bearcats - isn’t something to be downplayed. If the change in focus means anything for this year’s football team it’s that no matter how the past is perceived, there’s always something to be gleaned from it.
“I think a lot of (it) has to do with experience,” Rhoades noted. “You get to a place where the kids know it because you’ve taught it for so many years and you think that it’s ingrained in them. You only have each player for four years and every year is a new opportunity to lay knowledge and skill on them, so we’re trying to bring that back.”
It’s no secret that during Rhoades’ tenure as head of the football program, something special has been built here in Douglas.
In his 13th year at the helm, Rhoades hopes to continue a tradition that many schools in 3A and around the state should be envious of. He’s led the Bearcats to the playoffs 11 times in 12 years and won three consecutive state championships from 2008 to 2010.
“I believe that to be held to a higher standard, you have to have high expectations,” Rhoades made clear. “I think we’re a well respected team around the state. Teams know that when they play us, no matter our size, they’re going to be competing against a hard-nosed football team.”
The winning ways that have become a trademark of Douglas football began with a mentality that not only relates to the game, but also relates to life.
For Rhoades, the foundation of the mentality is simple: winning is the goal but never the focus. He believes that as players, once you become focused on the fundamentals, skills and playing for each other, the rest falls into place. It’s what he’s always taught. And it’s what has helped drive the winning mentality for the Bearcats program.
“We’ve always tried to instill the mentality of ‘win every play,’” Rhoades mentioned when asked about the Bearcat program. “If we’re striving to win every play, then we’re always looking forward and never looking back.”
“I’ve tried to instill that not only for the football team, but for these guys to understand that it’s a strategy for life. Whatever has happened in the past, you always have a chance to change it in the future.”
Focusing on the Now
Much like any new season, holes are left by graduating players and new opportunities are presented to those who are willing to rise to the occasion.
Last year’s offense was led by quarterback Harley Rhoades and running back Michael Yeaman, who accounted for over 2,500 purpose yards and 23 touchdowns. Junior AJ Yeaman will look to replace Rhoades as the signal caller this season and a committee of players will look to lead the charge out of the backfield.
“One of the things I’ve been most impressed with AJ is how hard he worked this summer,” Rhoades said about his likely starting quarterback. “You can see the progress he’s made from camp to the 7-on-7 competition in July and even to now. He’s really put in the work and I think that’s shown already.”
Seniors Dylon Case and Heath Hayes will look to step up as the lead ball carriers this season while seniors Dax Read and Dylan Hime will fill in at the fullback position. The situation will play itself out as the season progresses and if any of the four makes a case for leading ball carries, the plan may change. At wide receiver, recent grads Dawson Bratton and Collin Barker accounted for five touchdowns in 2017 but will be replaced this season by the likes of seniors Colby Davidson, Brady Brooks, Christian Coffman and Kanyon Cecil, all guys who played significant time last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, a number of impact players return for Rhoades and last season’s third-best rush defense in 3A. Read led the team at the middle linebacker position with 88 tackles and will look to be a ballhawk once again.
“He could’ve easily been an All-State player last year,” Rhoades added about Read’s defensive prowess. “I think that gives him a little bit of hunger to have a good year and we’re expecting him to be the QB of our defense.”
But as any good football coach knows, your team is only as good as your offensive line. For Rhoades, a good portion of his early season optimism lies in the trenches.
“The thing I’m most happy about for this year is we return a number of kids on the line,” he said. “I think that’s the strongest point for us right now. Our line is going to give us the opportunity to do some good things.”
The pre-season coaches and media poll - according to WyoPreps - has the Bearcats ranked as the number five team in the 3A Conference. The returning state champs, Cody, Star Valley, Torrington and Green River are ranked in the top four, respectively. Pre-season rankings are hardly an indication of how a team’s season is going to play out, but it’s a tool nonetheless.
The Bearcats will open the 2018 season on the road in back-to-back weeks, traveling to Buffalo and Hot Springs. The match with Buffalo Aug. 31 will be a tough one out of the gate after Rhoades and his team fell to the Bison last season in the final game of the regular season, 17-0.
A Sept. 21 match at home with Rawlins will predict as another classic after the two teams battled to a 17-14 finish last year and will be a crucial week four conference clash.
Douglas will also look to seek revenge on Torrington when they travel to face the Tigers for their homecoming game, Sept. 28. The Bearcats’ regular season schedule will be highlighted by home games against Powell, Rawlins, Worland and Lander Valley.
Rhoades and the Bearcats will travel to Lander Aug. 24 for scrimmages with Big Piney and Pinedale before they open the regular season at Buffalo Aug. 31.