Mustangs look for voices of experience in rebuilding season

The scene is played out at the end of high school every year. The strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" play, students in caps and gowns walk across the stage, grab their diplomas and move to the next level.

Almost brings a tear to the eye, doesn't it? It does if you're Ola football coach John Kovzel. Because there went his whole team, leaving one returning starter on defense and two on offense.

"You can tell what kind of year it's going to be, can't you?" Kovzel said Wednesday.

The Mustangs are rebuilding. Or maybe they're just trying to build. This day has been coming ever since Locust Grove opened up the road two years ago. Now, it's here.

"It is what it is," Kovzel said.

There are 121 kids in the Ola program. One hundred of them are sophomores or freshmen. That's 82.6 percent. No matter how you do the math, the Mustangs are going to have to count on a good number of them if they hope to be competitive this season.

Here's the good thing about that: The younger kids have outworked their older ones. In a couple of years, if the Mustangs are contenders, this will be the season they look back as their foundation.

"We're going to compete," Kovzel said. "Our kids believe the time is right now."

The players have bought into what Kovzel and his program's 15-man coaching staff are preaching about the weight room and conditioning. And they're proving it in sweat.

"As a football coach, you want kids who'll do exactly what you tell them to do, and these kids are one of the better groups," Kovzel said.

Realism, however, demands equal time. The Mustangs are looking for their first winning season in six tries, and whatever the potential of this bunch is down the road, it's hard to see it happening now. As every high school coach will tell you, there's no substitute for experience.

If last year's experienced players started 1-5 against a schedule that included Henry County, Whitewater and Dutchtown — who will be three of the Mustangs' first four opponents this season — how will this year's inexperienced squad fare? There's not a soft touch in that bunch.

"Dutchtown was in the elite eight," Kovzel said. "Whitewater might be the best team we've seen. Their offensive line averages 6-5, 300 across. If they don't go all the way I'll be surprised because they're massive. They're stacked. And Henry County's loaded. We got lucky to sneak up on them last season."

The Mustangs are going to count on senior linebacker Dylan Parker to anchor their defense while fullback Victor Griffin and lineman Nathan Mitchell provide the voices of experience on offense.

Jeremy Hill, who spent a good portion of last season battling injuries, may get a chance to start at linebacker. The Mustangs will count on younger contributors to stop the other team — guys like defensive backs Logan Woodward and Connor Schlottman, linebacker Cole Bailey and lineman Tyler Wesson.

"It's going to speak volumes if we can hold our own," Kovzel said. "We're going in the right direction. It may not show in football field competitiveness."

And if it doesn't, Kovzel will be honest enough with his players to let them know.

"I haven't had that speech yet," he said, "but I've got it prepared in my back pocket."