At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 1)

It's back. No, not the Reform Party under Ross Perot (further advancing proof of a benevolent God). It's pigskin bliss at 800 Maryville Center Drive, where behind the hallowed gate leading into Westminster Stadium, we have the proverbial changing of the guard. With all the anticipation and even more confidence than the dawning of the Jose Mourinho regime at Old Trafford for Manchester United (#IHaveNothingToSay), the Chris Pederson era dawns on the Wildcat horizon.

After the historic playoff run by last year Blue Surge (#PawsUpClawsOut), one asks questions about the coming campaign. Specifically, who will carry us through the fields of conquest as Joshua led the Israelites through the milk and honey of ancient Canaan (maybe with less bloodshed)? And while graduation hit the Wildcat ranks with a stiff blow, there are more soldiers rushing to fill the phalanx. Are we rebuilding or reloading? Are we as well stocked as Diana Ross' luggage for a road trip with the Supremes? On exploring the team's outlook, I have to say it has me like the Nordic posse in Reykjavik celebrating Iceland's epic EURO2016 run (#VikingClap)

On offense, over eighty percent of our rushing yards and touchdowns scored return for the 2016 season. Steve Webb and his 1874 yards and 23 TDs are in everyone's cerebral cortex right now, but Coach Pederson rightly points out that the offensive line earned those yards. An offensive line that is entirely graduated and gone like Barbara Hershey in Beaches (#SappyChickFlick) means putting new personnel storming the Dardanelles of defensive fronts. It means our line will not average 300 pounds per man this year (unless Luke Vasel survives consumption of five gallons of pulled pork before Saturday's game), but it can be a more mobile unit that thrives on increased misdirection. The key, as always, will be getting feet into the neutral zone like Wile E. Coyote invading the comfort zone of the Road Runner (#ChildhoodMemories). For the running backs, the key questions is: Will they have great vision, shiftiness, and the ability to run over people like last year? The illustrious Steve Webb has those qualities in spades, as do backups like Altin Hall and LB Battle. What will matter is how they respond to getting hit at the line of scrimmage. Misdirection, counter, zone reads...all these are known parts of our game. The question will be how we maximize them to shatter defenses like the late Madeline Kahn's voice could do to wine glasses. (#DaddyWants)

The passing game brings a new, yet seasoned, face to the Wildcats' pivot. Chad Briden can turn his attention from the Missouri gubernatorial primary elections (#OnToNovember) and bring his leadership skills to bear as he succeeds the record-snapping Evan Johnson. According to Pederson, Briden exhibits the football intelligence needed for the position and works incredibly hard. He picks up the offensive system with the speed of Secretariat, has the vision of Seattle Slew, and displays the epic tenacity of American Pharaoh (#TripleCrownWinners). The way of improvement comes with thousands of reps and dedicated practice, and Briden is showing synergy with the receiving corps, both with returning veterans (#OfferDyllanConway) and rising members from last year's junior varsity. Conway and Logan Sells will mentor upcoming snag-men like Jeremiah Thompson, Grant Lavalle, and Caleb Layton, among others. And of course, the dangerous Conway can hit you from any direction, running, catching, or throwing (#FirstScoreAgainstBurroughs).

The defensive side of the ball contends with its own losses, although we come off looking better than the Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae (#300). Despite the losses of three defensive backs and practically the whole defensive front, the cupboard is hardly bare. Three returning players logged more than 100 points each in the team's defensive point system. Cooper Moore and Jimmy Thomas give the Cats a seasoned look at linebacker, and hard-hitting Josh Pottebaum returns in his role as High Priest of the Church of the Painful Beatdown (#JackTatumFlashback). As Coach Pederson states over and over, it's all about finding the right combinations of personnel, for the sets that are most effective to stuff the run and force opposing offenses into the discomfort of a lifetime.

Moving to special teams, it's interesting to note that out of all the plays of the past year in which Westminster had the ball at the start of said play (scrimmage, kickoffs, punts, field goal attempts, conversion attempts), an astounding 23% of those were some variety of special teams. (#NotEvenFiguringInPuntReturnsOrKickoffReturns) Knowing full well the high-chance possibility of this area to shift a game and field position, Coach Pederson gave huge props to assistant coach Greg Schoenberg and his preparation of the Wildcat special teams. Andrew Kempen returns as placekicker, and Grant Lavalle and Kempen's older brother Alex have taken reps at punter. Setting the bar high, Pederson declared they're shooting for a net punt average of 35 yards. Additionally, fans can look forward to Dylan Conway's shifty speed on kick returns, although Pederson mentioned it is imperative to have someone shoulder the load there to protect Conway's focus on plays from scrimmage, for one can't let in exhaustion the way Hope Solo lets in Swedish penalty kicks. (#TooSoon?)

Nothing is a given, and the work ahead for the Wildcats is still daunting, even as they are bedecked with the #4 ranking in the state in Class 4 (#PreseasonHonors). But the journey begins this Saturday at 1 p.m. on the verdant turf of Westminster Stadium, as the Cats claw with the St. Mary's Dragons (#YogiBerraAlmaMater). Look for the upcoming preview of that game in another post tomorrow. For now, we in the Wildcat Lair bid you a temporary Tchuss! for now as we #PrepareToRoar.

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