Sunday, October 31, 2010

On a roll....

A coach rarely will say his team has achieved its full potential. At least not publicly.

Ask Mike Spradlin if his Cooper Cougars, who thrashed Abilene High 45-28 Friday to advance to 9-0 this season, are there yet and he’ll tell you work still is to be done.

But as the Cougars have addressed their to-do list drawn up in the preseason, items each week have been crossed off.

With the playoffs starting in two weeks, we can say: They are legit.

Not a team squeaking into the playoffs off a fourth-place finish in district, but a team on the verge of a championship in the state’s most famous football district.

Coming into the season and returning to 5A football, Cooper had its share of questions to answer. Far more unknowns, it seemed, than Abilene High, which was poised to make another run at a state championship. Return two young men named Sims in the backfield, and your chances of playoff glory improve dramatically.

But while it may be Abilene High that now has questions, the Cougars are putting theirs behind them.

Cooper was putting a new quarterback on the field, for one thing. And how would its defense play, one that gave up 331 points in 13 games last year?

There also was this matter of bumping back up to 5A. Cooper lost to the 5A teams it played while in 4A; how would the team fare playing 5A teams every week?

Spradlin early on addressed the latter question, saying his team would be ready for upgrade to first class.

From Game 1, Clayton Nicholas looked more like a veteran at quarterback than a junior taking over for a record-setting graduate. He throws a nice ball, is accurate and looks entirely comfortable directing the show.

What helped Nicholas settle in was having two experienced and talented running backs returning — Davon Riddick and Alfred Cooper — and taking snaps behind a strong offensive line that gives him time to find his open receiver. And, boy, have they been open.

When Cooper has needed to pass, Nicholas has been on target. When the running game is given to the Coogs, he is good with throwing fewer balls and making more handoffs.

This run-pass threat has overwhelmed opponents, the Eagles now included.

What else Cooper has shown is a new resiliency. Last year, Cooper found a way to lose games. The three losses to 5A opponents by a total of 19 points before district play were winnable games at some point in the second half. But a mistake, a missed opportunity or defensive letdown would prove fatal.

But the Coogs rolled out The Drive to beat Austin Westlake in Game 2. Perhaps Westlake is down this season but sometimes, you have to beat a team and its reputation. Cooper did both that night, and it was game on.

Against Midland Lee, the game seemed to have gotten away from CHS in the second half, then won back, then lost, then won again.

The new popular opinion became that if Cooper had the ball last, watch out. Abilene High certainly did not want to be in that situation.

And they weren’t Friday. AHS missed a chance to drive to a two-score lead in the first half and Cooper converted at the end of the half and the start of the second half to take control. That forced the Eagles to play catchup, and they weren’t catching the Cougars this night.

Out of nowhere rose the Cooper defense, which stuffed the Eagles running game. Meanwhile, the offense kept scoring, and what looked to be a game of First One to Fifty became a Cougars’ blowout.

Now comes the biggest test for Spradlin’s crew. It’s back to Midland where an outright district title awaits. Few Cooper fans with an honest face would admit to believing this would be a 10-0 season, but it can be.

Cooper now must move forward from its emotional win and hit Midland High with its 1-2 newfound punch of offense and defense. Midland’s win over crosstown rival Lee was not nearly the big deal Cooper’s 50th birthday victory over Abilene High was, so the Bulldogs will ready for the Coogs.

Cooper should be of the mind that the playoffs already have started. It would be hard to find two better back-to-back opponents than AHS and Midland. This is life in the postseason. You cruise, you lose, you get out the basketball shoes.

As Abilene High’s state championship was a great thing for the city last year, the success of both teams this year is something to be proud of. Abilene High fans applauded Cooper’s accomplishment after Friday’s game, a nice gesture to cap a high-energy game in a stadium that could hold no more fans. Their Eagles will be in the playoffs — possibly seeing the southside crew again — and remain a formidable foe.

But good for Cooper. What a way to continue the milestone year celebration, and what a way to shed the funk of two years in 4A.

The Cougars each week have made believers out of those who poo-pooed their nondistrict schedule — excluding Westlake, and those who believed defense would be the death of the Coogs.

Cooper can be a better football team, sure. But if Friday night’s impressive win over Abilene High is an indication, Spradlin’s looking at a much shorter list of coachey-dos than he did in August.

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