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Published: Friday, 10/23/2009

Teams build character while struggling to win

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

As the top high school football teams prepare for the final two weeks of the regular season, the more high-profile programs are busy trying to secure league championships or playoff berths.

There is a palpable buzz of anticipation at places like Whitmer, Central Catholic, St. Francis de Sales, Rogers, Maumee, Perrysburg, Southview, Genoa, Eastwood, Patrick Henry, Northwood and Toledo Christian.

And then there are some not-so-fortunate schools, who approach these final weeks from the other end of the spectrum.

Places where the goal is to stop long losing streaks, and where coaches and players collectively take deep breaths while seeking the fortitude to fight long odds a couple more times.

At Woodward, second-year head coach Bob Costigan knew full well his staff and his kids would be running headlong into a buzzsaw the past two seasons, with a small roster stocked with young, inexperienced and smallish players.

"We knew going into this that, with our experience level, we weren't going to compete in a whole lot of games," Costigan said. "I have 30 percent of last year's team back this year. When you're trying to build a program that really doesn't go well.

"For over half of our kids in the program, this is their first year of playing high school football. For the remainder, this is their second year. Experience-wise, we're somewhere near a freshman or a JV level out there trying to play a varsity schedule."

The Polar Bears have lost 21 straight games since Week 6 of the 2007 season. Their season-opening 30-player roster had just seven seniors, and the average Bear goes 5-foot-9 and 167 pounds. With a couple players having quit, and a few more out injured, Woodward (0-7), which has been outscored 330-8, will likely dress 23 players tonight at Start (1-7).

"If you start understanding what's going on in their home lives," Costigan said, "football is not a priority for these kids. They miss practice because they have to watch their little cousins, or they have to go to work because they have to help pay the bills. So, I have the utmost respect for the kids who are hanging on."

At Rossford, sixth-year coach Chris Werbylo had his Bulldogs in the Division III playoffs just two years ago. But young and inexperienced teams the last two years have extended the team's losing streak to 19 games.

The Bulldogs (0-8), who average 5-10 and 181 pounds, have lost just one of the 34 players they began the season with, but have been outscored 367-56.

Unlike Woodward, which seems to have a deeper hole to dig out of, Werbylo sees promising sophomore, freshman and eighth-grade classes coming up. Also, Rossford will join the newly-formed Northern Buckeye Conference in 2011, which is more suitable to its enrollment level.

"What it comes down to is that we have a combination of a lot of young kids playing and some seniors that either hadn't played before, or hadn't played since their freshman year," Werbylo said. "It's just growing pains. We'll get through it. The kids are getting better as the season goes on.

"Morale has not been a problem at all. Last year we struggled with the attitudes of some kids, and they either quit or we asked them to leave. This year, they've been a great bunch of guys to work with. They do everything we ask, and that's tough to do without experiencing success."

Rossford closes with Northern Lakes League games versus Anthony Wayne and Bowling Green.

Optimism is also evident for first-year coach Erik Johnson at Otsego (0-8), which has lost 17 straight games since starting 2008 by beating Woodward.

The Knights have 17 freshmen on their 48-player roster, and average 5-10 and 176 pounds per player. They have been outscored 378-69 through eight weeks.

"The hardest part is trying to keep the morale up," Johnson said, "and keeping the kids believing in themselves and in what they're doing. We just try to work hard and keep getting better.

"It's tough because we're a very young team. At this point we're really trying to build and coaching the kids to do the things we're going to need to do in the future. I think the kids see some light at the end of the tunnel."

But it won't get any easier tonight, as Otsego hosts Suburban Lakes League powerhouse Genoa (8-0), which is ranked No. 4 in the Division IV state poll and has outscored foes 426-24 on the year.

"We'll take this week like any other week," Johnson said. "It's an opportunity for us to go out and prove to other people that we're going to go out and fight no matter who we're playing. Play four quarters and try to get better."

The Knights close next week at Woodmore (2-6).

Montpelier (0-8), with a roster of 34 that averages 5-9 and 170 pounds, has been outscored 347-73 and is riding a 19-game losing streak.

The Locomotives of first-year head coach Adam Baumgartner have Northwest Ohio Athletic League games left with Evergreen and Delta.

"Our goal is to be competitive and, when we're competitive long enough, the wins will come," Baumgartner said.

"We just worry about what we can control, and that's how hard we work and how smart we work. We just have to continue to build off that, because we've got quality kids. They don't give up and they come in ready to work."

Contact Steve Junga at:

sjunga@theblade.com

or 419-724-6461.



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