The sting of last year didn’t feel very good for the Oshkosh West Wildcats.
That’s what happened last after early playoff hopes came crashing down after four straight losses — two of which were by just four points — to end the season after a 2-1 start to the conference season.
That doesn’t sit well with those who are returning.
“Last year we had a lot of close games that just at the end we lost it,” junior lineman Jacob Heath said. “We could’ve had it easily.”
So the Wildcats are making it a point of not allowing that to happen again and making it to the postseason this year.
Anything less would leave another stinging feeling.
“I think it was a lot of really good experience for kids last year,” Oshkosh West coach Ken Levine said. “But it also left them a little angry. That experience and motivation should pay off big dividends this year.”
An advantage of having plenty back on offense and defense from last year is that things normally get up to speed quicker during the first parts of the season.
Levine has definitely seen that the first two weeks of practice.
“Practices have been going much smoother this year already,” he said. “Pretty much everything is in already.”
The players have also got that feeling, too. They are more use to the timing and speed of the plays and each other.
“Another year really helps us out,” Heath said. “We are getting stuff down better already. It’s easier because we have the same backs, same quarterbacks, so we get more time to work together.”
Knowing how hard they need to work to be successful also helps a bit as well.
The Wildcats hope that they can take that quick start from the practice field on to the real field on Friday night.
“What the final product is going to be, we don’t know yet,” Levine said. “But it seems like they are picking things up way quicker this year and they are more comfortable with each other.”
The Wildcats used two quarterbacks last year, Isaac Xiong and Sam Olejnik, switching them from series to series unless one of them had a hot hand or things seemed to be rolling with one or the other.
Well, both of them are back again this season. Will the Wildcats do the same thing as last year?
“We’re hoping that one of them beats out the other one,” Levine said.
But choosing between which quarterback to go with will be difficult.
Both have experience and both have different skill sets that the Wildcats can use to their advantage on the field.
It also doesn’t hurt that both are a year more mature and another year into the system. It’s allowed both quarterbacks to standout to Levine.
“They are both way better than what they were last year,” he said. “They both understand the offense so much better. I really couldn’t tell you which one it’s going to be right now.”
That battle could take into the start of the season for the Wildcats and will be something to keep an eye on.
One of the more unique things about the Wildcats is the variety and frequency of blitzes that their defense employs to stop opposing teams.
For the players, they couldn’t ask for a more exciting defensive system to play in.
“Knowing that you are out there and you can blitz every play, it gets your blood pumping,” senior lineman Ricky Bluhm said.
Although not extremely big by VFA-South standards, the Wildcats make up for that with speed on defense, which is ideal for Oshkosh West’s blitzing scheme.
The unit, which is led by last year’s Defensive Back of the Year in the VFA South, Cole Yoder, had success with that last year, allowing over 22 points just twice in conference play, while holding four conference teams under 20 points.
The key for it to work is stopping the run on first down. If they can do that, it’s time to tee off on second and third down.
Despite being a bounce or two in the right way from being in the playoffs last season, prognosticators aren’t too high on Oshkosh West’s chances in the VFA-South this season.
And the Wildcats are none too happy about it.
“We’re ranked as eighth (in conference),” Bluhm said. “We’re kind of the bottom. We just want to prove everybody wrong.
“Everybody out here worked their butts off this summer, so I think we can do a lot better than they think we can.”
But it’s a position that they don’t mind being in.
“It really takes a lot of the pressure off, especially early in the season,” Levine said. “We can go in and people might not be expecting a lot from us and at the same time we are expecting a lot from ourselves.”
Playoffs are the goal of every team that straps on their helmets and pads at the beginning of August.
Some have better shots than others.
Some will themselves to the playoffs.
For Oshkosh West, they don’t see any reason why they can’t be one of those teams playing at the end of October.
“Our main goal as a team is to make the playoffs,” Heath said. “I think that we have a great shot to do that.”
Levine know it’s going to be a tough battle to get there in a difficult conference.
But he knows he’s got a team of fighters and he has plenty of faith that they are going to get the job done.
“I think this conference is going to be really balanced this year,” Levine said. “I don’t think anybody is going to be way better or way worse than anybody.
“I really don’t think we’re going to be last. I think the kids are upset about that and they are going to use that as fuel.”