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Cougars held to higher standard

College of the Canyons looks to replace big names and build on last season’s playoff exit to Mt. SAC

Posted: May 3, 2009 7:52 p.m.
Updated: May 4, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Saugus High graduate Ryan Zirbel works out with the College of the Canyons during spring practice.

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Success or failure?

That's the question still lingering in the air above Cougar Stadium like a lofty, end-over-end punt as the College of the Canyons football team runs through spring drills in preparation for the 2009 campaign.

Last year, the Cougars steamrolled past their first dozen opponents before dropping a 51-44 seesaw heartbreaker to Mt. San Antonio College in the final 10 seconds of the Southern California Championship.

That disappointing loss erased the team's chance to repeat what it accomplished in 2004 - a state championship and perfect 14-0 season.

Still, by any measure, it was a successful year.

But for head coach Garett Tujague, it was mission not accomplished.

"A 12-1 record is a good year for Cougar football - not a great year, but a good year. It's what we're expected to do here," Tujague said. "But there's only one trophy, one ring, one T-shirt we're going after. If we fall short of that mark, is that failure? Yeah, I think so."

That's the mindset Tujague and his coaching staff are working to instill in athletes who began spring drills April 14 after emerging from a nine-week weight-training program.

The task of getting the team ready for the new season could be a daunting one, what with the legion of all-conference players lost to graduation.

Gone are two record-setting offensive linchpins, wide receiver Hayo Carpenter and running back Fred Winborn, as well as the potent quarterback duo of Brad McClellan and Joey Frias. Key defenders Makana Atisanoe, Jonathon Hollins and Nick Tepea have also moved on.

Despite the challenge at hand, Tujague said he has the system in place to navigate the program through the rebuilding process.

"Will we ever have another Hayo Carpenter or Fred Winborn? Maybe one out of every 10 years. If you start looking at it that way, it can be overwhelming," Tujague said. "But these kids who are out here now have had a year to spend with those guys. They've seen how we do things. It's a changing of the guard, and it happens every year. It gives guys an opportunity to show their leadership qualities."

The third-year head coach is optimistic he can fill the gaps with an unusually high influx of players from Santa Clarita Valley high schools, most notably Saugus High's Ryan Zirbel, the Foothill League Offensive Player of the Year.

Zirbel said he had discussions with Portland State University about a possible scholarship, but it never came to fruition. He is set to graduate from Saugus in June and, with no other four-year programs currently interested in his services, has been steadily working out with the Cougars after school since February.

Zirbel said his sole interest is in proving to himself that he can play at the college level.

"I'm like a whole new freshman again," Zirbel said. "Right now I'm just trying to get used to the speed and the size of the guys - they're grown men out here. I'm trying to prove to the guys and the coaches that I'm worthy of playing here, and I'm honestly going to do whatever I can to get on the field this season."

The responsibility of developing a new crop of quarterbacks rests with assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Don Fellows, the architect of last year's offensive juggernaut. In 2008, Fellows engineered the Cougars to an average of 44.6 points and nearly 500 total yards per game as COC led the state in four offensive categories.

Eric Brown, who saw limited playing time behind McClellan and Frias last season, is a contender for the starting position. Fellows called Brown "probably the best athlete we've ever had playing quarterback."

Fellows said four others are expected to compete for the top slot, including grayshirt freshman Josh Harris, Georgetown University transfer Barney O'Donnell, Agoura High's Justin Arias and an unnamed high school prospect who has yet to fully commit.

Tujague fully committed to addressing the team's perennial Achilles' heel, special teams, by hiring experienced special teams coach Sean Cheevers away from Moorpark College. It's the kind of offseason chess move that just might make the difference between success and failure - as defined by Tujague's coaching philosophy - the next time the Cougars are on the brink of achieving the loftiest of goals.

As for the untimely loss to Mt. SAC, Tujague said he has asked his players - and himself - some hard questions in the aftermath.

"I've watched that game tape probably, start to finish, at least 200 times," he said. "It was a tough pill to swallow, but one that had to go down. Sunday morning I got up and asked myself, ‘What would I have done differently? What do I need to do differently so that we are 13-0 and get a chance to play in that state game?'"

Tujague said spring drills are providing an opportunity for his returning sophomores to do some soul searching as well.

"I ask my players every day, ‘Why are you here?'" he said. "What didn't you get done? What task did you not complete? What personal battles did you not overcome?"

The answers to those questions will likely begin to unfold Sept. 5 at Cougar Stadium in the season opener versus Antelope Valley College.


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