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COC football: Spring is first step

Cougars try to move on from rough 2009

Posted: May 3, 2010 11:00 p.m.
Updated: May 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.

College of the Canyons linebacker Khalil Bass gets ready to make a tackle during practice Thursday at Cougar Stadium.

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In 2008, the College of the Canyons football team compiled a 12-1 record and battled to within 10 seconds of a trip to the state title game.

Head coach Garett Tujague, measuring the team’s success in an interview months later, characterized the season as a failure, explaining that the program’s goal is always to get to state, and anything short of that just doesn’t cut it.

Fast-forward to the 2009 campaign, when the Cougars failed to make the state playoffs and lost in the Western State Bowl to finish the season at 6-5, the second-worst record since football was reinstated at the college in 1998.

So, in view of Tujague’s seemingly paradoxical assessment of 2008, how does he reconcile the program’s less-than-stellar results the very next season?

“You can pat yourself on the back at 12-1 — I won’t, but you can, and sometimes people will get complacent with that,” said Tujague, now in his fourth season at the helm. “At 6-5, it’s, ‘Dude, there’s work to be done,’ and it’s a constant reminder.

“I think it was a humbling experience, a needed experience, not happy, not acceptable, but it happens. So what do you do? You pick up the pieces, and you get the people who are still around you to believe and buy into what it is.”

That’s the backdrop for spring drills as the players, appearing loose and relaxed as they worked out under clear skies last week at Cougar Stadium, shake off the winter cobwebs and begin the formidable task of preparing for the Sept. 4 season opener against Antelope Valley College.

It is a task made that much more difficult by a complete realignment of the football conferences in Southern California and the departure of five-year assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Don Fellows.

In the offseason, state officials divided Southern California’s 37 community college football teams into three tiers based on past success and strength of schedule. To no one’s surprise, COC was placed in the top tier, and the Cougars will now face what Tujague calls the toughest schedule in the program’s history.

“You can call it what you will, but it’s varsity, junior varsity and freshman,” Tujague said. “You’ve got the 12 best teams in Southern California pounding the crap out of each other every week.”

As for Fellows, he left COC to accept the head coaching position at Grand Rapids Christian High School in Michigan. Fellows and his wife grew up in Michigan, so it was a chance to return home.

Fellows’ successful game plan no doubt caused many a sleepless night for opposing coaches. Despite his departure, it is expected to be business as usual.

“We’re still running the Cougar offense — that hasn’t changed,” Tujague said. “It’s the same concepts, routes and running game that we’ve done here for 13 years.”

Terry Gourley, formerly the head coach at Grace Brethren of Simi Valley, will serve as passing game coordinator, while offensive line coach Marc Dumlao will handle running game coordinator chores.

“Between the three of us, we’ll figure it out,” Tujague said. “Terry will be up in the box, and I’ll call the plays on Saturday.”

Wide receiver Cameron Bailey felt there were times last season when the Cougars were tentative on offense.

“I think we got caught up in worrying about making mistakes, and it led to problems for us,” said the sophomore Social Science major from Fort Wayne, Ind.

Regaining sufficient offensive swagger requires a confident quarterback. The Cougars have three in contention for the starting position, including returning sophomore Justin Morales.

Morales, who split playing time in 2009 with Eric Brown, completed 62.5 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns against eight interceptions. Tujague said Morales has “grown immensely in his ability to make good decisions with the football.”

Grayshirt freshmen Justin Arias of Agoura High and Cameron Coon from Foothill High of Pleasanton are also in the mix.

Tujague said Arias has transformed himself in the weightroom since February, while Coon “throws lasers” and has one of the best arms to ever come though the program.

“If I had to make a decision right now, I couldn’t,” Tujague said. “In camp they’ll get equal reps with the best receivers, and whoever grades out the best on decision-making and completions will get the football.”

Left tackle Caylin Hauptmann, a freshman out of Beverly Hills High, is the linchpin of a relatively young offensive line that will provide the protection.

Returning sophomore Ryan Zirbel is in contention for the starting running back position. The 2008 Foothill League Offensive Player of the Year from Saugus High posted COC’s third-best numbers last season behind Valencia High’s Nick Hale and quarterback Brown.

“I’ve just got to work my butt off, get better each day and show the coaches I’m ready to start,” said the 5-foot-9-inch, 202-pound Zirbel.

Leadership on defense is expected to come from safety Antwan Smith, outside linebacker Khalil Bass and strong safety/linebacker Justin Cudworth.

Cudworth said the Cougars will work on increasing their speed, strength and size through the end of May. Then after a brief break, the summer program will run from mid-June to early August. Fall camp will begin Aug. 11 in preparation for what is shaping up to be a challenging season.

“Nobody goes to bed at night who has ever been involved in Cougar football and dreams of 6-5,” Tujague said. “Every single time we step on the field this season, we’re going to represent this college, this community, and we’re going to do what we can to let everybody know before the opening kickoff that they don’t have a chance.”


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