MORRISON – Morrison head football coach Cory Bielema is looking for his 2017 team to be the opposite of the weather on Thursday night. After a near-perfect morning and middle of the day, torrential downpours around 5 p.m. forced the Mustangs inside.
Inconsistency made Morrison change course, just as the program’s own struggles on the field have led to several down years.
“[Inconsistency] has hurt us in the past couple years. We haven’t had the record we’ve wanted,” Bielema said. “But we haven’t been a poor team. We’ve played very well at stretches, and absolutely awful in stretches. We’ve lost games I personally think we should’ve won, and pulled out wins in games I thought we didn’t have much of a chance.”
The Mustangs’ last playoff appearance came back in 2012. Since then, their 9-27 record hasn’t allowed them to get back to a proud tradition of postseason excellence, highlighted by a 45-6 mark between 2008-11 and 2A state titles in 2009 and 2011.
“I was a little kid who got to follow those teams around because my dad was a coach,” senior quarterback Reilly Dolan said. “It would mean the world to me to make it to Week 10. I always saw people do it, and I want to do it myself.”
“Everybody in Morrison would realize that football in this town isn’t dead,” senior end Grant Slater said when asked what it would mean to snap the recent playoff drought.
A significant drop in enrollment hasn’t helped Morrison, either. With just 17 varsity upperclassmen on this year’s roster, it isn’t even the Mustangs’ thinnest roster in Bielema’s 10 years at the helm.
But what the program lacks in depth they hope to make up for with talent and grit.
“We have low numbers, but everybody wants to be here,” Slater said. “I don’t think I could point somebody out who just showed up to be with friends. We want to be here to win.”
“Our enrollment is at a point where it is what it is,” Bielema said. “I think we still have some athletes walking the halls, and their friends are trying to get them out here. We’re used to it at this point.
“The ones that are out here are doing a really nice job. We have some talent. It’s just going to be about keeping them healthy. They’ve been hard workers. It was a really good offseason in the weight room and conditioning.”
A positive sign in the offseason came with ample bodies able to compete in 7-on-7 tournaments. With a full roster in the summer, Morrison has been able to open up the playbook sooner; the team has already installed more plays on offense this season than all of 2016, and a few wrinkles to confuse defenses.
Once the Mustangs suit up in full pads Saturday, the coaches will decide what stays offensively and what they scrap. Blocking against bags instead of hitting each other in full-contact drills will give the staff and players a good indication of what the regular season playbook will contain.
“We learned the plays a lot faster there,” Slater said. “It’s already Day 4 [of camp], and we’re running stuff we didn’t run until Week 6 last year. It’s pretty great.”
“We’ve also been able to put in new formations this year that will hopefully mess with people,” Dolan added.
The 2017 team has already accomplished one thing those state title teams never did: On the first day of practice, Bielema has made it customary for every player to run a 300-yard shuttle under a designated time. This year, every player finished the run under their time limit; typically, Bielema has to plan for a couple days for every player to complete the shuttle under their assigned time.
An early pleasant surprise is exactly the type of consistency across the roster Morrison will need to get back to their days of playing in Week 10.