EVERETT — When Joe Cronin accepted the job as Cascade’s new football coach prior to the 2012 season, his first order of business was simply to win a game.
Cronin, a longtime assistant coach at Lake Stevens High School, took over a Bruins program that hadn’t won a game in two-plus seasons. It was a far cry from what he experienced with the Vikings, perennial contenders in the Wesco 4A North and a team coming off an appearance in the state semifinals.
It was a difficult transition, but one Cronin embraced — and it didn’t take long for his players to follow suit. The Bruins defeated Shorewood 20-12 in their 2012 season opener. The thrill of victory immediately got the players’ attention.
“I just came in expecting to win one game,” returning senior and first-team All-Wesco offensive and defensive lineman Randin Crecelius said. “After the (past two seasons) I was just so used to losing. It was like, ‘OK, we are just going to go play another Friday night game and it’s going to be a waste of three hours.’ I didn’t doubt what we did last year, but the first game I was a little scared how things were going to turn out. But then once we won it, was like, ‘OK, this feels good.’”
The Bruins continued to improve throughout the season, finishing with a 5-5 record. That was enough to start a change in culture.
“I considered not even playing last year after just getting beat up for the past two years and then coming in with a young squad,” senior linebacker and fullback Nate Elliot said. “Right now, there is nowhere I would rather be then right here on this football team with these coaches and the team that we have now.”
The team the Bruins have now is considered a contender in the Wesco South. Sure, it’s a lofty goal considering where this program was just two years ago, but it would be difficult to find a player in the Bruins locker room who doesn’t believe it’s possible.
It’s a position many of the seniors concede they never thought they would be in.
“I think that will be new for our players,” Cronin said of the expectations. “They are used to, ‘Well, we’ve got Cascade (on the schedule).’ We are light years better, but we have a ways to go to where we really need to be, but it’s a testament to how hard these kids have worked.”
Before the Bruins started to turn things around last season, Cronin said many players didn’t want to wear their jerseys to school — something they now do with pride — because of ridicule from classmates.
It’s true, the Bruins aren’t used to playing with high expectations, something that requires the team to show up mentally and physically every day. But Cronin enjoys that challenge far more than the one he faced when he first arrived at Cascade.
“Let’s be honest, last year we didn’t have kids show up (to practice) every day,” he said. “So first of all, let’s show up every day, like literally show up.”
From a lack of confidence to players going AWOL at practice, Cronin faced considerable challenges in his first year, but the players responded. So much so that 5-5 isn’t good enough anymore.
Last season, the Bruins gave Jackson, which ultimately won the Wesco South and Wesco 4A championships, a run for its money. The Bruins put themselves in position to hand the Timberwolves their only league loss in the fourth quarter, before losing 39-20.
The Timberwolves are once again the league favorites and will be standing in the way of a championship for Cascade, though the Bruins are living by their slogan for the season: “Respect all, fear none.”
“We prepare like any team is our biggest challenge,” Elliot said. “Every day in practice we are going our hardest. No matter how good the team we are playing is, we are preparing like we are going to the championship.”
There is no question the Bruins should be better, they return 10 of 11 starters on defense. On offense, they have experienced talent in Crecelius, a highly regarded tackle, and wide receivers Kaleb Dobson and KJ Brady.
The offense’s biggest weapon however, might be a newcomer. Josh Smith, a senior transfer from Chiefland, Fla., will be the Bruins’ starting quarterback. His ability to throw and run should give Cascade one of the most dynamic offenses in the area.
“He’s incredibly talented,” Cronin said. “I don’t think he knows how talented he is.”
The expectations for Smith are high, but he already sounds like a player who’s been in Cronin’s system for years.
“We want a league championship, but we aren’t just settling for a league championship,” Smith said. “Our main goal is to make it all the way, and that’s what we are going to try to do.”
With expectations comes excitement. On the first day of practice the players were more than ready to get to work.
“It’s nice to finally get the season going again,” Brady said. “We ended good last year and we’re just trying to keep everything going from last year and keep the mojo going.”
Crecelius was so excited on day one he couldn’t contain it — literally.
“Today I was so excited,” he said. “I puked today because I was so nervous.”
One of the biggest challenges in turning a losing program into a winner is getting the players to believe that such a change is possible.
Cronin has done that. Now he wants to convince the Bruins they can be champions.
“To be honest, this should be the expectation from now on,” he said. “It shouldn’t be let’s win four games or five games, let’s compete for league titles. I mean, why not?”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.