Spanish Springs started playing varsity football in 2002. The Cougars qualified for the regional playoffs in that inaugural gridiron campaign but in each of the subsequent six seasons have failed to do so.
The top four High Desert League teams advance into the postseason, but the Cougars have been stuck on a skid of finishing in fifth in four of the last five seasons. Cougars coach Scott Hare is entering his fourth season as head coach. His staff and SSHS gridders hope a few key changes and some mental toughness will propel Spanish Springs into postseason play this fall.
Hare believes Spanish Springs was a team specifically affected by the realignment of northern Nevada's two large school leagues just over a year ago.
“Ultimately it’s been really difficult,” Hare said. “They changed our league up after my second year and we were really making some strides there in our league.
“We have a really good record against the Sierra league. If we were in that league we would probably be in the playoffs. Unfortunately, we’re not.”
In the High Desert League, Spanish Springs faces perennial powers like McQueen, Reed, Hug and Reno — teams that have all won regional crowns in the last six years.
“That means we’ve got to beat teams that 100 percent expect to be there,” Hare said. “I don’t know if our expectation has been to expect to be there. If you’re playing against a team that expects to be there and you hope to be there, they’re usually going to win out.”
A key ingredient that has hindered his squad from overcoming those traditional powerhouses is mental toughness, he said.
“I think we’ve been pushing this ball up a hill for the last couple of years to the point where I don’t believe it’s a physical game with us,” Hare said. “I think we have the ability to play with anybody. I don’t think that that’s a cocky statement. I think that is just fact.
“I think we have the talent. What we need to do is we need to mentally understand that the game is going to be very physical and very tough in the fourth quarter.”
Hare said that throughout the last few seasons his squad got halftime leads over some of the tougher teams but has been unable to maintain them in the second half to pull out a win.
“It comes down to, mentally, who expects to and who executes at the end. Some of these teams that expect to go to the playoffs have been shutting the door on us late in the game. And I think it’s something we’ve really addressed in the offseason.”
Hare said his team has talked about it, and looked at other successful programs for inspiration. Hare asked all his players to watch the movie “Miracle” — about the gold-medal winning and underdog 1980 U.S. hockey team — before starting their two-a-days earlier this month.
While working on his team's mentality and expectation level, Hare is trying to set a tone of winning and having a successful season, which means more than a postseason appearance.
“I don’t want to get into the playoffs and get so excited that, ‘Oh we’re in the playoffs,’ that we lose,” Hare said. “I want the expectation level to be that we’re going to go hard every day, whether we’re playing ourselves, whether we’re playing a good team or whether we’re playing a not-so-good team, that we’re as good as we can possibly be. Then the chips will fall where they’ll fall.”
Balance is another key ingredient to Spanish Springs’ hopes for changes. Hare said while having talent on the team, it has usually been stacked at a few positions instead of spread throughout the squad. But this season Hare says the team has a core group of talented football players.
“This will be the first year in my years here that we’re going to be a little more balanced,” Hare said. “I think we have talent kind of spread throughout. We have a good offensive line to run the ball, and some running backs. I think we’re going to be able to throw the ball a little more than we have here at this school. I think our defense, both in the secondary and up front, should be solid.
“We didn’t have to move a lot of guys around. We have a lot of guys in their natural positions this year, which I think makes a difference.”
The squad has also stopped playing as many players on both sides of the pigskin and has changed practices to be more offensively and defensively minded.
“I think we have enough players to have 22 different guys start,” Hare said. “There will still be some guys playing both ways. More than anything else, it has really utilized our coaching staff. We’ve got a really good coaching staff, but I think sometimes when you only focus on one side of the ball at one time you’re kind of limiting yourself.”
While players and coaches are both doing their jobs in their natural positions, Hare said he understands players will play on both sides of the ball and their practice schedule has been beneficial.
“I really like our practice schedule and what we’ve done with our practice schedule,” Hare said. “There’s been a lot of productivity in our practices so far.”
Spanish Springs also made a few scheduling changes for this season. One big change is that Spanish Springs will not see a struggling Wooster team this season. Both programs agreed to drop their master schedule game in Week 2 in hopes of finding a more competitive foe.
“I think it works out well for both us and Wooster,” Hare said. “Number one, I wanted to leave town and get the guys out of town. I think that’s always fun. They put a lot of time into their season and so I wanted to get them out of town.”
Instead of playing Wooster, Spanish Springs will travel to Salinas, Calif. to play Palma High on Sept. 5. Palma has a tradition of winning; Hare said Palma has won three titles in the last eight years in the San Jose Open Division.
“There are more teams in San Jose area than there are in the entire state of Nevada,” Hare said. “So to win the open division three years out of the last eight is like winning three state titles in Nevada.
“The reason we’re playing them, number one is I know their coach and I’m from the area so it was a good fit. But it’s kind of like giving the kids the final before they have the final. We don’t need to be perfect in the preseason this year, we need to win in league. It’s been nice to win early in the year but at the same time it hasn’t translated. Palma are going to be really, really good. We’re going to be playing a McQueen or Reed-type team early in the season.”
When November rolls around, Hare will be able to evaluate just how much positive change he got from his changes in approach to the '09 season.