DAYTON — As the weather got worse and the rain-snow mix began to fall, Tongue River Head football coach John Scott proposed changing up the practice schedule a bit this week.
“Maybe we will go in the morning and give them the evening off,” he thought to himself.
But the team brought the old ball coach back to his senses. There’s no way they were changing their routine.
“They reminded me, ‘This has been working,’” Scott said. “We just have to take it for what it is. We’ve got something going, let’s keep it going.”
The Tongue River Eagles are playing their best football in recent memory. It’s the first time they have been in the state semifinals since 2006, five years before Scott was wearing the headset in Dayton.
They went a year without football, another two with two combined wins and finally a 5-4 record last year and a playoff appearance.
This year, though, things have been different. There has been a hunger amongst the Tongue River Eagles, an urge to keep fighting.
After back-to-back losses to Upton-Sundance and Lusk, everything sort of clicked. It became do-or-die time for the Eagles, and they chose to do.
They’ve won five straight since then, each of which seemed to have more importance than the previous. There were the upsets over Southeast and then-No. 1 Lingle-Ft. Laramie, the win at Pine Bluffs to secure a playoff spot and, of course, last week’s quarterfinal win to knock off reigning champs and football-powerhouse Cokeville.
While Scott considered each of those wins a turning point in the season, he said the team stopped considering them adversities a long time ago.
“I think we quit being the ‘woe me,’” Scott said. “They’ve accepted them as challenges.
“Our goal was not a state championship or even to get to the state championship,” he continued. “We just needed to get better every week. We had to learn to control our emotions and work on our strengths.”
The thing is, whether it was written on the locker room wall at the beginning of the season or not, a state championship is within reach for the Eagles.
The only thing standing in their way is a rematch with the same Lingle-Ft. Laramie team they defeated on Homecoming night three weeks ago.
And Scott is expecting them to be pretty much the same Lingle team.
“We’ve probably sat on that question since we started preparing for them after we won last week,” Scott said, speaking on what kind of changes he thinks Lingle might make. “We tried to delve into it. There are a lot of intricacies that come into it. Lingle sees more defenses than anybody because everybody tries to come up with something different against them. So they’ve got to be prepared for whatever is thrown at them.”
But Scott said his Tongue River team is going to stick to the plan. They beat them on Oct. 16. Like his boys said about changing the practice schedule, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“We’re looking at it now as taking advantage of playing them again,” Scott said. “We wanted to have the kids see this from the same perspective. We moved some kids around after the first Lingle game but put them right back there, so the more they see it, the better we can defend it.”
The “it” Scott is referencing is a play-action, run-heavy offense that Lingle runs. They try and use misdirection to create multiple options and to confuse defenses.
The Doggers didn’t pass once against Tongue River in the regular season, rushing for 362 yards and scoring 39 points.
“Can we come up with 40 points again?” Scott asked, referencing the 48 points the Eagles used to beat Lingle the first time. “We’re going to need to score to be there in the fourth quarter with them. It sounds crazy to try and hold them to low scores.”
Tongue River plans on scoring by spreading the ball around the field. The Eagles have a top-five back in Dillon Lyons — although, he is nursing an injury he suffered last week. They have a top-three passer in Will Kerns and top-10 receivers in Cody Buller and Brennan Kutterer.
The dynamic Tongue River offense worked the first time, but Scott said Friday has to be approached as a new game.
“We’re using references from what we did well and what we didn’t do well, whether it was a win or a loss doesn’t matter,” Scott said. “It’s about doing things better this time around even though we won.”
The Tongue River Eagles have been improving all season long. Actually, they’ve been improving for the past several years.
If they continue that trend Friday, a trip to the state championship could be in their immediate future.