DAYTON — No more excuses.
When the season began for the Tongue River Eagles football team, the youth and inexperience were prevalent. All but one of the team’s big dogs graduated, leaving no more than a speck of the back-to-back 1A runner-up teams.
Even the head coach changed. Steve Hanson, although he’d spent several seasons as an Eagles assistant, was stepping into a new role in Dayton. Expectations may have still been high within the program, and they may have been low across the state. More accurately, though, expectations were kind of unknown.
That was seven weeks ago.
The Eagles are 75 percent done with the 2017 season. Lack of experience is no longer a viable excuse.
“That boat sailed about Week 4,” Hanson said. “Everyone now has varsity experience and knows the expectation.”
The first-year head coach knows it won’t come easy, admitting the remainder of the season will still bring “growing pains.” But the juniors will quickly become seniors. The sophomores will be upperclassmen. Hanson is ready to see those younger players take ownership of the Tongue River football team.
The Eagles have shown signs of maturity. For a large chunk of the season, the team sat right near the top of the defensive standings in the class.
It stopped the run against most of its opponents, and it punched Shoshoni in the mouth to the tune of six turnovers.
Offensively, Tongue River has shown meticulous, run-heavy drives that wear down opposing defenses. In a grind-it-out win over Wright in Week 1, the Eagles possessed the ball for nearly 30 minutes. The opening drive of the season took more than seven minutes off the clock.
But the growing pains struck as the Eagles’ schedule got tougher, and they were more agonizing than Hanson had hoped.
After the dominating win over Shoshoni — 48-0 — Tongue River went on to lose three straight. The Eagles were outscored 142-35 over that stretch, including a 45-0 loss against Southeast last week.
The defensive prowess slipped a bit. They gave up 346 rushing yards against Southeast and fell two spots in the rush-defense rankings — from second to fourth. The offense produced just 100 yards and sits 11th in 1A.
“We have to stay the course,” Hanson said about getting back on track. “Consistency is the key to building a program and a system.”
For Hanson and his staff, the emphasis remains on the little things — better angles on tackles, avoiding negative yardage plays on offense, adjusting to the speed of the opponents. Even the less experienced Eagles showed their potential, winning two of three games to open the season. Now, Hanson needs his players to combine what worked during those early games with the experience the team has gained, even in big losses.
The course isn’t getting easier, either. Tongue River hosts Upton-Sundance Friday. The Patriots are 5-1 and coming off their only loss, a home blowout at the hands of the Big Horn Rams. The Eagles travel to Big Horn (5-1) in the final game of the season next week.
Big Horn and Upton-Sundance have the top-two offenses in the league, respectively. Throw in last week’s opponent, Southeast, and the Eagles will close the season with three games against the state’s three best offenses.
Upton-Sundance, while fourth in passing at 120.3 yards per game, runs the ball for 273.5 yards per contest. Its 7.5 yards per carry top 1A.
Upton-Sundance’s defense has a little more give. It’s eighth in the class, while Tongue River sits fourth. But the Patriots have only allowed 15 touchdowns, and its 16.7 points-per-game allowed is actually 6 points better than TR.
The key for Tongue River will be sticking to the plan — grinding on offense, eating the clock and keeping the ball away from the Patriots’ explosive run game. And when Upton-Sundance eventually does get the ball, the Eagles have to tackle like bats out of hell.
“Friday night will tell the tale of preparation,” Hanson said. “Right now, the boys are working hard and practicing with a focus, but competition is the only true indication of preparation.
“It’s one thing to do it on a Tuesday, but Friday is when it matters.”
The Eagles and Patriots kick off at 6 p.m. Friday in Dayton as part of homecoming week for Tongue River High School.