Clark (click for larger version)
Guss (click for larger version)
Higgens (click for larger version)
Olson (click for larger version)
August 12, 2014 | 10:39 AMWILLIAMS BAY — As the Williams Bay Bulldogs prepare for what might be a break-out season, complete with a post-season appearance, there are four players who remember when the thought of just winning a game seemed out of reach.
In the 2011-12 season, Williams Bay did not win a single game.
In the 2013-14 season, the team went 4-5 in the South Trailways Conference, missing out on the first postseason appearance in 11 years with a loss to Cambria-Friesland.
This year, the players enter the season with an appropriate swagger with a feeling, no, rather an expectation, that they will be playing ball after the regular season ends.
Seniors John Higgins Jr., Jacob Clark, Alex Guss and Drew Olson are all four-year veterans of Bulldog football.
And all four agree that the tean they're on now is vastly different from the team they first joined as freshmen.
The team they joined as youngsters in 2011 was in disarray and could not find itself.
Jacob Clark, who will start as slot receiver and linebacker this year, said that in his first year on the team, the players would be on each others' backs after each loss.
"During my first year, the whole team was fighting each other," Clark said.
"No one was trusting each other and each was trying to do each other's jobs."
Higgins, who will start at quarterback and linebacker this year, said that in his freshman year, the team was divided into cliques and groups.
Linemen Guss and Olson agreed that the team they first joined had little resemblance to the team they're playing on now.
"During my freshman year, we had a lot of mes and few wes," Olson said, who usually starts at left tackle, but can play anywhere on the offensive line, and who also plays defensive end.
What added to the difficulties in his freshman year was the complexity of the offense, Guss said.
"In my freshman year, we had 90-some plays," said Guss, who plays guard and tackle on offense, and also tackle and nose tackle on defense. That was just too many, he said.
This year, the number of offensive plays is down to about half that, he said.
Clark and Higgins has played in the youth football league in Lake Geneva.
Olson is another who experienced winning football in junior football when he attended school in McFarland, near Madison.
"So we knew what it was like to win," Clark said.
Not winning was frustrating.
Coach Derek Diehl likes to point to his players as the reason for Bulldogs turnaround from perennial victim to serious contender.
In an earlier interview, Diehl said that from freshman to senior, he's excited about this year's team.
However, it can also be pointed out that the team didn't turnaround until Diehl, who was then still coaching the semi-pro Generals, took the reins and began his method of team building.
Diehl said that as a coach, he believes in accountability.
He wants his players to know what they're wrong, and what they're doing right.
It's an atmosphere that might put off general athletes who play multiple Sports, but it works well with those who love football, he said.
"I guess I'm not a players' coach," Diehl said with a sly smile.
For the four seniors, this change in team chemistry is working like a charm.
Clark acknowledged that the major change was "the coach," that and having players come in who had played before at the junior league level.
All four seniors said they attended camps this summer to improve their skills and prepare for their final year of high school ball. All four said they want to go on and play college ball as well.
"Coming in this year, we're pumped and hungry," Clark said.
Guss said two important elements in the Bay's turnaround has been a simplification of the offense and more devotion to strength training.
Now, he said, his teammates are more confident.
"Everyone is upbeat," Guss said. "I think it's a really good team."
And the cliques and groups are gone. Now, the older players keep an eye on the younger ones, making sure they keep to the team discipline.
On the offensive and defensive lines, the gap is a big one. The linemen are either seniors or freshmen, said Olson.
"I have to be more of a leader," Olson said. "Now me and Alex have to do what we can to keep them (the freshmen) in line."
Olson said of the freshmen, he likes the play of Zach and Eric Norton.
And we have to train them in what to do," Olson said.
Higgins is focusing on what needs to be done this year.
Now in his second year as starting quarterback, he is also the defensive play caller as middle linebacker.
It's clear he's the team leader, and he enjoys leading.
This summer, said Higgins, he honed his passing skills at some quarterback camps.
He was a running back in his sophomore year, and the Bulldogs' spread offensive calls on the quarterback to be a running back as well, he said.
Two things are different from last year, said Higgins.
The defense is switching from a 5-3 to a 4-4 defense to better deal with a conference that focuses on running the ball.
This year, Higgins said, he'll have to get used to working with another inside linebacker.
The other change, some of the play calls have been shortened, he said.
Clark said that this year, he hopes the new 4-4 defense introduced by defensive coordinator John Higgins Sr. will be better at stopping their opponents' ground game.
"This year, we hope to have a better ability to stop the run," Clark said.
While not wanting to look too far ahead in the season, all four seniors were well aware that their opening Trailways Conference game is against Cambria-Friesland, the same team that froze them out of the playoffs last year.
Olson said he forsees the game against Cambria-Friesland as a tough one.
A bit of a grudge match, maybe?
"They're not going to know what hit them," Olson said with a smile.