Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review - The Spartans officially returned to the field for preseason practices recently, and are set to play their first game at home on Friday, Sept. 6.

Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review - The Spartans officially returned to the field for preseason practices recently, and are set to play their first game at home on Friday, Sept. 6.

Bigger is better? Spartans retake gridiron with robust roster, flock of newbies | FALL SPORTS PREVIEW

Expectations are … high?

Yes, you read that right. And though the current fledgling fluttering of preseason excitement may seem strange to less informed Bainbridge High School football fans, those in the know realize it’s not only justified but downright appropriate.

It’s going to be a big year for Bainbridge, one way or another, as the Spartans most definitely — finally! — have something to prove.

Last season was a high-water mark all around for high school football on the island. And, in light of a stellar year that saw them in the mix come playoffs for the first time in many seasons, the Spartans were advanced to the more competitive Sound Division of the 3A Metro League. It was a major turning point for the previously long-struggling program, which at the start of last season was included among the ranks of a newly created third division within Metro, the Valley Division.

The adjustment was hailed by school officials at the time, and promised to effectively level the regional football playing field for the Spartans, who had historically struggled to compete against the selective programs at Seattle private schools.

Nuts to that, said BHS Head Coach Jeff Rouser.

Returning this year for his fourth season at the helm, the top Spartan said his squad would settle for nothing less than the most skilled competitors they could get — that they were ready to keep earning their spot in the best bracket.

“The Metro Conference is by far the best football in the state overall, and now we’re right in the middle of the pack so we’ll see how we compete,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun year; we’re looking forward to it.

“It’s definitely going to be more competitive; there are a bunch of good football teams.”

Specifically, though, Rouser said one rival’s as good as another for now, as it was too early to look too far ahead on the calendar — with one glaring exception.

The first game of the year — 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6 at BHS — will see the revival of a longtime rivalry, the latest salvo in the ongoing good-natured war between the Spartans and the North Kitsap Vikings: the Agate Cup.

“This is a special rivalry,” Rouser said. “In many ways that bridge sets up an added intensity. There is a feeling each year by the players and fans alike on both sides that you are either crossing over to conquer or readying to defend your territory.”

The winner takes the new trophy — and, more importantly, bragging rights — for a year.

“They’ve been kicking out butts for several years [but] last year we finally gave them a game and hopefully we can compete again,” Rouser said. “I really, really respect their program. I respect their coach … so it’s a friendly rivalry, but I’m sure we both want to win.

“The kids are fired up about it,” he added. “They’re playing for something. They’re going to potentially do something historic. It’s going to be known as the first Agate Cup and we think it’s going to be cool.”

Something else that’s pretty cool for football fans and team officials alike: a shockingly robust turnout of players — including about 20 freshmen — to tryouts this year.

“Last year we were wondering if we were going to have a JV, and we didn’t at the beginning of the year,” the coach said. “Now things have turned around, so whatever we’re doing is working.

“When I came here we had under 30 kids, basically, and we had upper 50s, almost 60s this time; it’s crazy.”

Thus, despite losing some great seniors in the primary backfield and offensive line that gained regional accolades last season, Rouser feels good about this year’s squad.

“Losing playmakers like Max McCloud and Gannon Winker is not trivial; you don’t replace them. But this is a different group with a different set of skills,” he said. “This is my first year to have coached all players since their freshman year, with now-seniors like Alex Ledbetter, Elliott Weaver, Sio Peato, John Devlin and Franco Abullarade.

“They are smart athletes who work hard and have been with our system their whole career,” he added. “I think that’s going to pay dividends. I’m very bullish on this next o-line group led by seniors Weaver, Peato, McCoskery, Brett Dudgeoon, and junior Connor Costello.”

Rouser is likewise notably pleased with players new to the squad.

“I’m also looking to a fresh crop of new players who I think will be impact players,” the coach said.

Cal Breen, Jack Mielke and Mathew McCann, among others, are expected to be especially important going forward.

“I have a feeling you’ll have plenty of reasons to get to know these guys as we progress,” Rouser said.

In the team’s initial days on the field, Rouser said he was pleased with what he was seeing and believed a strong spring and summer training program had put the squad physically ahead of schedule.

“The way our offense runs, we run against different fronts,” he said. “So we don’t get surprised by whatever they run, so that’s a good thing.

“We do have half our opponents who we’ve never played before, though. So we’re doing more generic stuff. A lot of teams run the read option-type of spread look today, so we’re doing a lot of that.”

As to the program’s revival, the coach credits a great many supporters.

“I don’t say it’s me, it’s the combination of a lot of people, but I feel great about it, I certainly do,” he said. “It takes a community to make it happen and it’s happening — and in a time when everybody else is going the other direction.

“Part of what we’re trying to get the word out about here is how great football is for many different reasons,” he added. “In terms of the camaraderie of the kids and the brotherhood and the learning and the opportunities for other schools, and the commitment and all those things, but also we’ve got a hell of a safety program here. I think we’re kind of beyond what most other programs are and we live and breathe it.”

Within the bounds of safety, Rouser said, the hardships of football, the arduous nature of the sport, is what many people most love about it.

“Life’s tough, right? That’s just the way it is,” he said.

“When they have bumps and bruises, they have to differentiate between bumps and bruises and injuries. That’s part of what I told the parents the other day. I also told them that academics is the most important thing, but there’s no reason why a kid can’t do academics and football and be committed to the team and be committed to being able to juggle their schedule. I think those messages are starting to resonate and we’re building the program.”

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