Foothill head coach Joey Brown wants to get to the top of the mountain; he’s tired of enjoying the scenery. The Cougars have reached the Northern Section Division II semifinals each of the past two years. Brown, who took over the Palo Cedro program, said it’s time for Red Thunder to turn the corner and not just make the title game, but bring home the hardware to Foothill.
“We’ve plateaued in the semis,” he said, “and I’ve verbalized this to our administration, staff and players ‘Are we OK with that or do we want to go beyond that?’
“Now that we’ve been there, it’s time to take the next step.”
He pointed to last year’s postseason in which the Cougars practiced during Thanksgiving week prior to their semifinal showdown against Chico. Normally, a turkey-week practice means a title-shot preparation, but with last year’s deadly Camp Fire pushing the postseason back, the Cougars got a taste Brown said he and his players want again.
“Playoff practices are special,” the coach said. “We haven’t talked about it ad naseum, but I told them that now we’ve practiced during Thanksgiving week, let’s do it for real.”
In order for that goal to become reality, Brown said, the program needed to change its offseason strength and condition approach. He took advantage of staff coaches with master’s degrees in kinesiology to revamp how they helped gain strength and overall conditioning.
“We turned the weight room on its head,” Brown said, “and we’ve embraced the weight room.”
He said the Redding Three — Enterprise, Shasta and Foothill — are typically comparable when stacking up skill players, but the separation comes in the trenches.
“The difference is the front four and O-line,” he said. “And getting better there helps battle teams like PV (Pleasant Valley), which always seems to have gigantic lines.”
Through summer camp and workouts, Brown said he’s seen gains and players close gaps among their peers but said an off-week prior to the start of fall camp will be telling.
“We’ve seen kids with 40 pounds or more on their lifts,” he said, “but with the off-week, we’ll see who continued and who sat on the beach for the week.”
The Cougars head into 2019 with a big change, offensively, with the graduation of Idaho State-bound quarterback Jayden Gordon.
The dual threat threw for 1,488 yards and 14 scores, but his legs were the things that gave defensive coordinators fits as he ran for 1,477 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Stepping into the quarterback role will be Brandon Merryman, a wide receiver who was the target of four TD strikes from the guy he’s charged with replacing.
A void to fill, no doubt, but Brown said the Cougars face a similar dilemma three years ago, when Gordon was poised to take over for school passing leader, Trent Banner.
“It’s the same question,” Brown said, adding the answer is also the same. “You don’t replace a kid like that or a kid like Trent, but work to build your offense around Brandon and his skill set.”
The 2019 Cougars, the coach said, will be better at the vertical passing game, where Gordon was a run-first option who could also hit the intermediate routes.
“(Brandon) proved in spring and summer that he can be efficient and we have to work to get him in a rhythm,” Brown said.
The load won’t fall squarely on Merryman’s shoulders as senior Bryce Henderson will feature more prominently in the Cougars’ ground attack and wideout Chris Ostergren is a home-run threat.
“Bryce knows he’ll carry a little more of the load this season.” Brown said of the back he called a quiet leader. “He knew his job (last season) was carry out fakes and get hit. He knew Jayden was a home-run threat. He sacrificed for the team and was still almost a 1,000-yard runner.
“He’s not a speedster, but he’s a good zone runner.”
In addition to Ostergren, Dustin Niles and Tyler Carey will be targets of Merryman.
The line charged with protecting Merryman and opening holes for Henderson, lost Ronnie Carter and Tyler Doe to graduation, but have pieces Brown, also the O-line coach, is excited to work with.
Sophomore Daniel Gama looks solid at right tackle, the coach said, with three-year varsity player Cody Sisco set up next to Gama at right guard.
“Kody might be our best technical lineman,” Brown said.
Juniors Matt Granger and Jack Maready are locked in a battle for the left guard slot and would be stationed next to left tackle anchor Emanuel Miranda, who Brown called the most physical lineman they have.
The center spot looks to belong to 6-foot, 175-pound Brad Reagan, a “middle-of-the-night” idea Brown had as the senior was a spot-on long-snapper last season.
“He’s quick and agile and in our system you don’t have to be gigantic,” the coach said.
On defense, the Cougars have more questions than answers as only linebacker Dylan Wiegand has locked up a starting spot, according to Brown.
As a junior, the inside backer was tied for second — with Ostergren — with 74 tackles. Wiegand had 45 solos tackles and added two tackles for a loss.
“He’s the only one to have something solidified,” Brown said, adding “he doesn’t necessarily pass the look test, but he gets it done. He’s prepared to play Fridays.”
J.D. Wilson, who spent time as a strong-side linebacker last year, could move to rush end, the coach said, while guys like Ethan Barringer, and Travis Lee, who didn’t play last season, are in the mix as fall practices start.
In the secondary, Cooper Laloli saw time last season as a sophomore and impressed through the summer, along with rising senior Jeremiah Gulstrom, Carlos Sanchez and Aidan Hathaway.
On the line, Andy Hughes is a wide-load at 6-3, 270 and will be called upon to plug up the middle at nose. He’ll be joined by a handful of guys, including Miranda, Reagan, Caleb Tuggle and Jack Butler.
“We’ll have to see how it plays out when the pads are on,” Brown said.
In order for the Cougars to get to the title game they seek, they must first navigate a preseason schedule that includes three state bowl qualifiers — West Valley, Fortuna and Eureka. In addition to playing the Huskies in Fortuna, the Cougars also have pre-league road trips to Lassen and Carson City, Nev.
“Those road trips also prepare you mentally,” Brown said. “In addition to the physicality, traveling four-plus hours to beat a good team is a mental edge.”
And while the schedule is daunting, Brown said Pleasant Valley and Shasta showed in years past that a good preseason, even with a hiccup, can prepare you for the Eastern Athletic League, the rigors of playoffs and perhaps a shot at a CIF bowl invite.
“No longer are the years where you have to go undefeated,” he said, referring to Foothill teams of the past who were not chosen in the old state playoff format. “You look for preseason games that can help you win later in the year.”
And for Foothill, that’s the goal — winning late.
“Some of the kids have felt it and I hope we’re all ready to do what it takes to make that next step,” Brown said.
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