EVERETT — Not all that long ago, Cascade High School’s football program was in shambles.
Former head coach Nick Clovsky resigned following the 2011 season having not won a game in his two years. Some of the players who entered the program in Clovsky’s first season were considering not returning as juniors.
Less than two years later, second-year head coach Joe Cronin has the Bruins where virtually no one thought they would be — one win from the state tournament.
“Never in a million years would I have thought we would have been as far as we are now,” senior fullback-linebacker Nate Elliot said. “It’s actually crazy thinking about where we are now and thinking about where we were back then.”
The 8-1 Bruins travel to Auburn Riverside tonight to face the Ravens in the Class 4A quad-district playoffs. The winner moves on to play either No. 1-ranked Camas or Monroe in the first round of the state playoffs.
It’s quite an accomplishment for members of a senior class who didn’t win a game until they were juniors.
Many of the players said there was talent on the team all along. The biggest difference is how the Bruins prepare.
Under Cronin, the team gets scouting reports on upcoming opponents. The players have mandatory film sessions each week during which they learn the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of the next team on their schedule.
The lack of preparation showed on the field and as the losses piled up in 2010 and 2011, the Bruins’ confidence plummeted.
“We were not prepared at all, but we had a lot of talent,” Elliot said. “Looking back, and knowing what I know now and what a prepared team looks like, I see how unprepared we were. We really had no chance of winning.”
Things got so bad that the players’ pride in wearing their jerseys to school on game day turned to shame.
“Going to school and wearing the jersey, you are almost a little more embarrassed by it than you are showing it off,” senior wide receiver-defensive back K.J. Brady said. “We were getting whooped every single week. It wasn’t something to be proud of.”
Cronin took over the program with the intention of changing that mindset. After getting the job he met with the players and their parents and began building relationships with them. He provided structure by promoting team camps and implementing a weight-lifting program.
Cronin’s enthusiasm was met with guarded optimism.
“I’m sure we all had a little bit of a thought (that) the same thing might happen,” senior wide receiver-defensive back Kaleb Dobson said. “The motto was just to believe in each other and believe in what the coaches were bringing.”
The more Cronin and his players got to know each other, the more the players believed change was possible.
“You could tell right away when they (the coaching staff) came in that they were kind of the real deal,” Brady said.
For Cronin, it all started with building trust with his players.
“Someone told me a long time ago that, ‘Kids won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” Cronin said. “That’s something I take with me in everything I do, with teaching, coaching and relationships with people.”
The players definitely took notice of the efforts of their new head coach.
“He creates a really good bond with the players,” Brady said. “He listens to us as much as we listen to him. That almost makes us want to play for him even more.”
Nothing helped the players buy into what the coaches were selling more than winning their 2012 season opener, 20-12 over Shorewood. It was the first varsity victory for the Bruins’ junior class.
“You can credit a lot to Cronin,” Elliot said. “He brought a new standard to Cascade. And credit to our players as well, we’ve really bought into it.
“He gave us what we needed to reach that standard.”
The Bruins won two of their first three games a season ago and closed the season with victories over Mount Vernon and Snohomish to salvage a 5-5 season. For most teams, losing as many games as its wins is a sign of mediocrity. For the Bruins, it was a major step forward.
“We came a long ways from not believing to ‘We can actually do it,’” Dobson said. “We knew that we could do something special this year. Last year, we weren’t so sure. That kind of showed in our record a little bit.”
The Bruins came into this season with a new mindset — and a new quarterback: Josh Smith, a multi-talented transfer from Florida.
With its new confidence and new quarterback, Cascade set its sights on a league championship. Ultimately, the Bruins’ one loss — to Edmonds-Woodway — cost them a shot at that goal.
Still, the program’s turnaround has been more rapid than just about anyone envisioned, but the coaching staff and the players aren’t satisfied.
“There is the same hunger for more,” Elliot said. “We aren’t going to be satisfied with that. We’re still in it and we’re still going for 9-1.”
For Cronin, the biggest reward is seeing a group of athletes who were at their low point less than two years ago once again enthusiastic about football.
“The cool part for me is to see how excited the kids are to be in the situation that they’re in,” Cronin said. “There is nothing better for me and the coaching staff then kids working hard and being rewarded for it. That’s the really cool part of coaching.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.
Cascade vs. Auburn Riverside
When: Today, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Auburn Memorial Stadium
Winner receives: State berth and the winner of Monroe/Camas
Scoreczar pick: Two perennial under performers have both put together terrific seasons. Cascade 5-5 last year, 8-1 this year. Auburn Riverside 1-9 last year, 7-2 this year. Computer loves a good story, and this game has two of them. Bruins wear the slipper on Friday 28-24.
Swaney pick: Cascade, 22-13
Lommers pick: Cascade, 42-35
Krueger pick: Cascade, 35-28