Yes, it’s true that the Cougars lay claim to the breadth of linemen and depth of backs that coach Jim Aylward, now in his second season, favored while winning four state championships at Mountain Valley.

You don’t look the proverbial gifted horse in the mouth, however, and Aylward knows he has a prized pony in wide receiver Nate Pratt-Holt, a triple jump state champion in track, and a quarterback in Ryan Pratt who can get him the ball in space or in traffic.

“We’ve been working hard at (running), but we also understand we have Nate Pratt-Holt and Ryan Pratt who can pitch and catch the ball, and Alex (Gilbert) who can catch the ball,” Aylward said. “Yes, we want to be able to control the clock and control how much defense we play by running, but we also know we can throw the ball, and we like to throw the ball.”

Pratt, Pratt-Holt and Gilbert are seniors. So are tackle Will Gunter, tight end Isaac Collins, all-purpose back Christian Whitney, fullback Zach Meader and guard Cody Gould.

So if you’re starting to think the Cougars are loaded, you’re on the right track. Twenty seniors dominate the roster, and a few were even along for the ride as freshmen when the Cougars won their most recent Class B Gold Ball in 2012.

“We kind of got thrown into the mix of that when we were freshmen, anyway. It was kind of our wakeup call,” Gilbert said. “That was kind of eye-opening. It definitely helped to get a lot of us more mature that way as football players.”

Mt. Blue made the playoffs in Aylward’s initial season, rolling up 239 points along the way. The Cougars’ 4-5 record, capped with a loss to Messalonskee in the regional semifinals, was a story of what-might-have-been, however.

Then-featured back J.T. Williams was hampered by a knee injury for much of the season. Three starting offensive linemen went down, as well.

Looking ahead to the here-and-now, the enhanced playing time for sophomores and juniors might have been a blessing.

“We all know each other super well,” Gunter said. “We’ve gone through the years of (Area Youth Football), and you can look at our seventh and eighth grade years where we successful. So we have very high expectations for this year, and hopefully everything goes as planned.”

What’s planned are more wins than the Cougars have had in the past two middle-of-the-pack campaigns, although the schedule in the ages-old Pine Tree Conference is a bear.

The slate begins with 2013 Class B champion at Cony and continues with Brewer at home. The Cougars topped the Witches a year ago with a Hail Mary from Pratt to Pratt-Holt on the final play of the game. That’s followed by a trip to old nemesis Lawrence.

“Three of the five playoff teams from last year, besides us,” Aylward said.

So that postseason is the destination, obviously. What’s up for debate is how the Cougars get there.

“I think we’re going to be able to run and throw well,” Pratt predicted.

“I think we’re going to be a lot of ground-and-pound,” Collins chimed in. “Give it to the (backs), run it down throats.”

“Pratt likes to throw,” Gunter half-joked with his quarterback in earshot, “but I feel like our running game is going to sweep people away.”

It is nice to have choices. Throw in fullbacks Meader and junior Caleb Hall and the Cougars have abundant alternatives, all over the field.

“Just the sheer number of kids, kids who can step in at any position, will definitely help. Last year was more of a one-trick kind of thing,” Gilbert said. “The coaches have really worked hard to simplify things so we can just get out and play. They want to make it so we can go out and do what we can do and be the best athletes possible and not have to worry about so much mental stuff.”

The physical challenge of Class B North is enough, after all. After dealing with Mt. Blue and its surplus of talent this fall, league rivals are bound to feel the same way.

“We’ve got to play better defense, but if we play better defense, we’re going to be pretty good,” Aylward said. “I really think we can be.”


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