By Doug Gorman
Ever since the Ola Mustangs football team started playing the game four years ago, the program has taken baby steps.
As the squad heads into a new season in just a few short weeks, Mustang supporters are hoping this year's version leaps forward and has a breakout year.
That also means putting together its first winning season ever, and maybe making the playoffs, something that is yet to happen during the Mustangs' first 40 games. Ola is 13-27 during that stretch.
If Ola fans are to get their wish, it's going to mean overcoming some staggering graduation numbers and playing in a tough region.
Twenty eight seniors from last year's squad finished their high school careers during the 2009 season.
The biggest thing Ola has in its favor is stability.
Head coach John Kovzel is back for his third season at the helm of the program and despite replacing some key players, optimism is high.
"It's easier now that we have been here awhile," Kovzel said. "But you still have a new crop of younger players coming in. That's where you hope the older players step in and show some leadership."
The squad had a taste of success a year ago, starting the season 3-3 over its first six games. That gives something for Ola to build on.
The early victories included a win over Class AAAAA opponent Luella and close victories against Stockbridge and Jonesboro.
Ola then went on a three-game losing streak before knocking off Forest Park in the regular-season finale.
Two players expected to be in the spotlight for Ola this year are Ra'Chard Pippens, a defensive back committed to Stanford, and wide receiver Tre' McBride, who is considering offers from Air Force, Northwestern and Virginia after Duke pulled back its scholarship offer.
But they can't do it alone, so Kovzel will need other players to step up if the Mustangs are going to finally enjoy a winning season.
The cupboard isn't totally bare at Ola despite the loss of nine starters on both sides of the ball.
In addition to McBride, the offense is paced by some talented skilled players including quarterback Neal Gandee and returning running back Ryan Arnold.
"I am excited about our skill positions. Gandee is a great leader and understands the offense McBride will lead the offense and Arnold will get a lot of looks as well," Kovzel said. "The offense will go if the o-line gets a solid group and gels, we start five juniors up front."
C.J. Carr is also expected to take some snaps at quarterback this season and could play elsewhere.
Led by Pippens and Cody Adkins, the team's defensive backfield looks to be on solid footing. Defensive end Justin Gant and linebackers Luke Williford and Dylan Parker bring experience back to that side of the ball.
"Defense will be a challenge, we need to replace nine starters from last year's defense, only two return on defense. Pippens and Beard will be solid at defensive back," Kovzel said.
Ola also faces a tough new Region 3-AAAA including Griffn, a traditional powerhouse.
"We are hoping we get some key plays made," Kovzel said. "We need to get some things going our way on defense."
Union Grove, Woodland and Alcovy, which all made the playoffs last year, and Dutchtown, which is trying to get into the playoffs for the first time are also in the region and will challenge Ola.
As Ola moves closer to the season, Kovzel is starting to feel better about how his offensive line is shaping up. Guys like Kurt Gibson, Nathan Mitchell, Kody Palmer and Ty Bull are starting to shine.
"We are seeing some improvement out there," an upbeat Kovzel said after Tuesday's practice.
The Mustangs will see just how far they have come this year when they scrimmage at Locust Grove Friday night.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.