Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review - Bainbridge High School varsity football team Head Coach Jeff Rouser talks with the squad after practice earlier this week.

Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review - Bainbridge High School varsity football team Head Coach Jeff Rouser talks with the squad after practice earlier this week.

2018 Fall Sports Preview | Slick Spartans get set to conquer the gridiron

Certain animals just seem to symbolize strength and dominance. Eagles, lions, wolves — these are the premiere avatars of athletic prowess.

But for the Bainbridge High School varsity football team, the 2018-19 season is all about the GOAT.

As in: Greatest Of All Time.

Practices are capped with brief nomination sessions, wherein coaches and players can put forth a name for recognition as that day’s GOAT. Applause, kudos, and eventually, for one player per session, a small stuffed goat is awarded.

“Last year I started that,” BHS Head Coach Jeff Rouser said, taking his inspiration (on and off the field) from a United States Naval Academy tradition. “My daughter goes to the Naval Academy; both my brothers went to the Naval Academy. We run the Navy offense, to some extent, although we do a lot more passing and I think it’s even more interesting.”

The Spartans’ running game borrows heavily from Naval Academy style, Rouser said.

“The goat just made sense,” he laughed.

Rouser returns this year for his third time at the helm, having replaced longtime island football figure Andy Grimm in 2016. The coach said this season he feels things to be coming together more so than ever.

“The first year was really difficult for everybody because there was so much change, and then last year was our second year [running this] offense and defense and I think it showed,” Rouser said. “We’ll see what happens this year.

“I think the thing that we wanted to do this year, and kind of my emphasis in the offseason, was getting off the ball on the offensive line,” he added. “We spent a lot of time doing that, watched a lot of films and they worked hard and we still watch films every day and we get on them … now hopefully that’ll translate in the game because if we can do that and do the other things we did last year, we’re going to be a pretty good offense, a pretty good football team.”

The team’s first game is 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1 on the road against North Kitsap — but Rouser said the Spartans have been ready to hit the field.

“I would have liked to play last week,” Rouser said. “We’re ready to go.”

The Spartans have been averaging about 30 players on the field for each practice, with more than that technically registered.

“We don’t have tons of numbers, but so what? You only need 11 on the field at a time,” Rouser said.

And the 11 these Spartans have are shaping up to be an especially skilled lot this time around. Unusual for the island program, Rouser said this year’s squad boasts an especially hearty defense.

“Usually we have more backs and receivers, those kinds of guys,” the coach said. “This year we have more linemen, and we have some good ones. They’re a very cohesive group, a great group of guys; they’re smart and they’ve worked real hard in the offseason.”

Though the island squad lost about a dozen skilled seniors to graduation last year (Gannon Winker is returning as starting QB, however) Rouser said the junior class is stepping up nicely and interest in the sport among underclassmen is growing.

“Guys graduate but guys get more mature, too,” Rouser said. “We had a pretty good junior class last year, so I think we’ll have a pretty solid senior class.”

That’s good news for a program that not so long ago struggled to attract players. Also, a recent league reconfiguration has seemingly set the Spartans up like never before.

The newly created third division within the 3A Metro League, announced early last year, has effectively evened the odds for the Spartans, who have historically struggled to compete against the selective programs at Seattle private schools.

The creation of the Valley Division guarantees Bainbridge will no longer be forced to compete against such powerhouse private programs as Eastside Catholic, O’Dea or Bishop Blanchet early on, school officials explained.

When the announcement was made, many heralded it as a chance to play on a more level field.

The Valley Division consists of Bainbridge, Chief Sealth, Franklin, Ingraham, Lakeside and Sammamish high schools.

That being said, Rouser insists he doesn’t keep too close a watch on the competition. When asked, he didn’t have any opinion on who might emerge as the Spartans’ toughest competition.

“We just focus on what we got to do,” he said. “We’re looking forward to this [North Kitsap] game. That’s all we’ve been talking about, it’s all we’re focused on.”

Last year, a slew of early season injuries thinned the Bainbridge bench considerably even before the first kickoff. The coach said his top priorities right now are mostly technical — getting everybody enough practices to qualify to play Saturday while also keeping everybody healthy. No easy task, considering that potentially dangerous smoke from nearby wildfires forced a major altering of the team’s preseason practice schedule.

“First game, it’s always [about] the number of practices,” Rouser said. “Especially this year, with all this weather stuff. We’re not the only ones, everybody had to deal with it. We’re not unique. But it made it much more challenging and it wasn’t just getting the days in, but also figuring out how are you going to practice while sharing the gym with all these other teams.”

Rouser praised the coaches of the other fall sports at BHS, and BHS Athletic Director Kaycee Taylor especially, for working it out.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “It’s a lot of work for just a coach, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the AD.”

Moving indoors got the team working on the fundamentals, but some obvious alterations were called for.

“You have to change your plan,” the coach said. “There’s no way we got the contact that we would [have]. Intentionally, we don’t contact as much as we used to for safety reasons, but [Tuesday] was like only our third day we had some live contact tackling kind of stuff.”

Of course, if Bainbridge was indoors, so too were their opponents. So Rouser said he doesn’t consider the practice alterations a disadvantage. He praised his assistants, saying, “We have a fantastic coaching staff,” a mix of veteran pros and youthful enthusiasts.

“They’re just a great group of very competent guys,” Rouser said. “It’s a good mix because it’s the maturity with the guys that connect with the kids, but we all get out and run.”

Team boosters have also been hard at work to increase the previously struggling program’s visibility in the community.

The third annual community tailgate party will preface the BHS football team’s first home game of the year, from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7 in the parking lot of Masonic Lodge (across the street from BHS).

The Spartans will face off against the Olympic High School Trojans at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, their second game of the year following the season debut against North Kitsap.

Meal tickets are $10 (for adults) and $8 (kids 12 and younger). All event proceeds benefit Bainbridge Football Booster Club (for more information, visit www.facebook/bainbridgefootballboosters).

Nothing grabs attention like winning, though.

And while the Spartans have been baby-stepping their way toward legitimacy (last year’s 5-4 record — a vast improvement over 2016’s 1-7 — was actually their first winning record in at least six years) this season will undoubtedly prove an important bellwether for the program.

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