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Islanders looking to toughen up this summer
If you ask Mercer Island football coach Brett Ogata how his team’s 2013 campaign went, he’ll give you two answers.
“[How it] ended? Not very good. Overall as a season? Really good,” said Ogata. “The boys really did a great job of coming together and playing as a team and making the playoffs, when we were predicted to finish in last place or second-to-last place in the league.”
Graduating 23 seniors and returning only five starters, low preseason expectations around the league were understandable. But in a game of depth where the Islanders didn’t have much, fighting their way to the postseason wasn’t an easy accomplishment.
While the Mercer Island coach was thrilled with his team exceeding expectations, he wasn’t so thrilled with how his team went out. Ogata thought the Islanders got pushed around at the end of the year, and he wanted to see improvement from his team on that front. And so in preparation for next season, hustle and toughness became dominant themes during spring football for Mercer Island.
“This is probably the toughest spring I’ve been on the boys since I’ve been here,” said Ogata. “I’ve been demanding more and asking for more from them. We’re hitting a little bit more, [getting] a little more physical. Not over-the-top physical, but a lot more contact in hitting drills.”
Some of those demands may be already getting results this summer. At a competitive 7-on-7 tournament at the University of Washington, Mercer Island triumphed over 4A powerhouse Skyline.
“It’s 7-on-7, so in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t mean much except for our boys’ confidence,” said Ogata. “It’s not something to brag about that we won, but our boys know that they beat them and can say, ‘hey, we can compete with the best talent in the state now, let’s continue doing that.’”
While a lack of depth ultimately factored against the Islanders last season, that shouldn’t be the case this year. The Islanders return 16 of its 22 starters, with seven of 11 positions already accounted for on offense and nine of 11 on defense, something Ogata acknowledges may garner notice around the league.
One less hurdle for the Islanders will be the absence of Mount Si, as the Wildcats move this year from the 3A/2A KingCo Conference into 4A competition. In five matchups against Mount Si under Ogata, the Islanders are 1-4. Still, the coach has conflicting views of the move.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “It helps us from a playoff standpoint, but it also in a way hurts us because I like playing quality teams. It makes you better, it makes you have something to achieve.
“Playing up there was good because it’s a tough place to play, it’s a little bit of a travel for us and it does get us ready for the playoffs, so we lose that. But for playoff implications, it helps.”
But the Islanders still share a conference with KingCo juggernaut Bellevue, coming off its sixth-straight 3A state title and 11th in 13 years. In a league opposite the Wolverines, Ogata believes it’s become harder to win a KingCo title than a state title for the Islanders because “at state, someone else might knock them off.”
When asked what kind of mindset his team needs going into a season opposite a team like the Wolverines, Ogata believes to have success in their conference, every player on his team must maintain the attitude of always giving 100 percent.
“Hustle and toughness are both a big part of it. We can hustle more than Bellevue and we can be tougher than Bellevue, those are things we can control. No matter how talented the other team is, we can win those wars and that’s what we have to do. We can’t beat Bellevue at their game. Ultimately, we’re not going to be faster than them. We’re not going to be more athletic than them. But we can be tougher and we can outhustle them.”
As he continues to preach hustle and toughness to his team throughout the summer, Ogata hopes to instill in his players a drive to play at a high level, work hard and understand that, come the fall, nothing is going to be given to them.
“I keep telling the boys, ‘It’s easy to be good, it’s really hard to be great,’ and that’s where the boys want to be, they want to be great.”