MIHS football hits the turf with new energy

There’s a different feeling on the football field as Mercer Island prepares to practice. It’s palpable — the energy streaming from player to player as they prepare for opening night. While part of it might simply be a hometown football team getting revved up for a new season, it seems to be more than that.

This is the first week of a look at MIHS fall sports. Each week a new team will be featured. Next week: boy’s water polo.

There’s a different feeling on the football field as Mercer Island prepares to practice. It’s palpable — the energy streaming from player to player as they prepare for opening night. While part of it might simply be a hometown football team getting revved up for a new season, it seems to be more than that.

Head coach Brett Ogata, now in his second year with the Islanders, said he felt last year that the team was so close to finding its stride, but a crucial piece seemed to be missing.

“Last year, they got to the point where they felt like they were getting closer; they just were missing that one ingredient,” said Ogata. “I know these guys. Once they get that one, kind of big win, you’re going to see a big difference in this program. I really think kids are going to start believing, start getting after it, and I think that’s a big key to our success this season.”

Ogata said to get that rolling, an early big win will be crucial for setting the stage for the rest of the fall.

“If we can really come out and beat Newport, then I just see a lot of things going well for us confidence-wise, and the season going well.”

Senior linebacker TJ Blackburn said Newport was the game that he was looking forward to the most.

“We’ve had so many close games against them — I want to come out and have a big win,” said Blackburn.

One of the biggest differences, which is the first thing that players and Ogata talk about, between last year and this year is simply the energy.

“There’s a lot of high energy,” said Ogata of the 2010 squad. “I’m really excited about how the kids have performed. It’s exciting to see these kids buying in and working hard together as a team. My assistant coaches are awesome — they’ve really done a great job of adding a lot of excitement and energy to this program. I’m really blessed to have those guys with me.” Personally, for Ogata, he said he’s learning from last year, building on the foundation created during his first season as head coach.

“It’s my second year — you know you never do anything right the first year; you try your best,” he said. “I did the best to my ability, and one thing I did that was the most helpful was a survey at the end of the year, and lots of kids gave me awesome feedback of things they would like to see for the program.”

Little things, like adding music to practice, Ogata said, has already helped and it may very well turn out that those little changes may have huge impacts this season.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” said the coach. “These kids are very motivated and very much together and working hard, just buying into being a good team and believing that. For a head coach, it’s a really cool thing to see.”

The players have felt it moving in a new way, becoming a true team on and off the field.

“Kids are more excited to play,” said Conor Bernal, a junior receiver and one of the captains this year. “Everyone’s having a lot more fun with it.” Blackburn agreed, saying camps helped bring the team together, giving them a chance to really get to know one another.

Offensively, the team will be looking to starting quarterback Jeff Lindquist, a junior this year, but Ogata said the entire front five are a strong group.

“They are really a good, cohesive group,” he said. “They have really been buying in and are really understanding how they can work together as a unit. Obviously, Jeff is a big part of that. The receivers and Jeff worked hard in the offseason with Steve Garvis, and he’s been a big help to me in the offseason, making these kids believe and grow.”

On defense, Ogata credited new defensive coordinator Sean Keck with instilling an energetic pace.

“Energy on the defensive side is going to be the strongest part,” said Ogata. “I feel pretty confident in what we have out there. It’s just them coming together and growing and getting to know the system better.”

Ogata did concede that should injuries crop up, it could be an issue for the team, as they aren’t as deep in certain positions as he would like.

“If we don’t have any injuries, we can compete with anyone — I really believe that. But we are thin at some spots, and injuries and things like that can really affect this team. We’re not as deep as I’d like to be — the kids we have that are playing hard for us are good; we’re just a little short on numbers,” he said.

The roster had just 35 on the varsity squad, Ogata said. The small group is largely due to the fact that for several years, the program itself was down, and kids wouldn’t return to play. But changes in the program, and a large group of underclassmen moving up, will give the Islanders bigger numbers in the next few years.

“It’s sad that a lot of last year’s seniors and this year’s seniors just had kind of a bad experience, and went through all these different coaches and all of that — it’s tough to hang around. That’s why the numbers were low, but they are going up.”

But a smaller group of players doesn’t preclude talent. Ogata said he’s already seen big improvements in players who may not have started last year, looking to make a name for themselves.

“Reid Jackson is one,” said Ogata. “He looks like someone who went from being a back-up to someone who I think could probably go play in college next year. He’s really done a great job — he plays outside linebacker and receiver for us.”

Another, Ogata said, is Tyler Borer, a linebacker.

“He’s probably been the hardest worker in the weight room, has really paid his dues, and it looks like he’s going to start at linebacker and do some really great things for us.”

While individual playmakers will be important, programwide, Ogata said the junior class, part of last year’s only winning team in the program as sophomores, has helped to bring in confidence.

“They had a lot of success; they felt it, they tasted it, and you can kind of tell they have a little bit more of a swagger in their walk, an attitude, and they’ve brought that up to the varsity and it’s been helpful,” he said. “Definitely they’ve stepped up and I’m excited to see how these guys perform on Friday nights.”

To make the Friday night atmosphere it’s best for the team, Ogata said they hope the community will come out, for whatever reason and rediscover football on Mercer Island. He said their work with the youth program has been great, and he hopes to see those kids and their families come to games this year.

“I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from them about wanting to come out and I know I’ve talked to a lot of people in the community and they are excited,” he said. “Having Jeff Lindquist isn’t hurting that. I think there are a lot of people who want to see him play, but hopefully they’ll see that not only is Jeff good, but the Islander football team is good to watch.”

Having the community support, in a big way, will help the players, they said.

“It definitely helps when you have the community behind you,” said Blackburn. “You know they are there and they are watching you. It makes you play harder when you have their support, but also just knowing they are there for you.”

The team’s first game will be against Seattle Prep on Sept. 3 at West Seattle Stadium.

“I want to start the season off on a good note,” said Bernal. “As long as we win as a team I’m happy.”

Ogata said he is a mix of excitement and nerves for the first game.

“I’m excited to see a good competitive Islander team on the field,” he said. “I’m just excited to see how these guys will react. I just think we need to play each team tough, we can’t take a game off. If we do that, we can have a shot at the post season this year.”

In their first week of season practice the head coach said the focus has been in-house, what the Islanders can control and do themselves, without worrying about the rest of the league.

“We’re focusing on ourselves and game will take care of where we fall,” said Ogata. “All I can do as a head coach is to try and get our kids as competitive as possible. I feel like we’re going that, and that we’re going to be a very competitive team in the KingCo league. We’ll see where the cards fall, but I think we’ll be out there competing and it should be a fun year to watch us.”

2010 Schdule

Sept. 3 at Seattle Prep

Sept. 10 vs. Newport

Sept. 16 at Juanita

Sept. 24 vs. Interlake

Oct. 1 at Bellevue

Oct. 8 at Mount Si

Oct. 15 vs. Liberty

Oct. 22 at Sammamish

Oct. 29 vs. Lake Washington