Spencer Cowherd came back to work Monday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium for the last first practice of his University of Saint Francis football career.
“It's exciting, and a kind of bittersweet moment, knowing it's the last one,” Cowherd said. “It's exciting nonetheless, especially after a great season. We just want to come back and bring some excitement to the city and compete at the highest level.”
Cowherd, a senior, took a quick breath and went to the place everyone connected with Saint Francis football ends up drifting.
“We have a championship to defend,” Cowherd said, “and we're going to work out butts off.”
This is the biggest challenge facing the defending NAIA champion Cougars: Can they work hard enough, long enough and with purpose enough to make another championship run?
It doesn't always happen that way. In fact, the last time coach Kevin Donley coached a defending champ – at Georgetown (Ky.) in 1992 – things didn't unfold as his veteran players envisioned.
“Once you climb the mountain, human nature takes over,” Donley said. “My team 25 years ago, the one that had 16 starters back, went 8-3 because they couldn't let the previous year go. You have to put the ring on the shelf. You can't have complacency, you can't do the bare minimum, and you have to do more than what's asked of you if you want to be the best.”
Saint Francis opens the 2017 season at Jamestown, N.D., on Sept. 2, with its first home game against Saint Francis (Ill.) on Sept. 9.
This year's Saint Francis team has plenty of pieces in place to avoid complacency, and to build a team capable of another championship run.
Twelve full-time starters return – six offense, six defense – as well as a slew of regular contributors. Cougars quarterback Nick Ferrer enters his third season as a starter, which should make the transition to three new starting receivers a smoother one. He has a great running back in Justin Green, inside receiver Sean Boswell, tight end Zach Gegner and three regulars on the offensive line in Alex Woods, Connor Holcomb and Jaylen Gamble.
Cowherd, a former Northrop High School standout, returns to lead an aggressive defense with linebackers Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten, nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn and defensive backs Lee Stewart III and Wilmer Cole.
Donley calls Ferrer the most underrated quarterback in college football, pointing to his lack of recognition among preseason NAIA All-America lists. Ferrer threw for 4,046 yards and 51 touchdowns last season.
“You have long-term goals, but as Coach D says a lot, if you get caught looking forward, you're going to trip on what's in front of you,” Ferrer said. “You have to take it day-by-day, practice-by-practice.”
Saint Francis' players reported in great conditioning shape, Donley said. Running back P.J. Dean remains out after suffering a knee injury, and the team learned that Nathan Braster, a defensive end transfer from Western Michigan, has decided not to play.
But a talented, deep freshman class – including several receivers – hit the field looking to make an impression.
Veterans such as Ferrer and Cowherd make sure to take the lead in showing them how it's done.
It's not just X's and O's, but the level of intensity and competition that is raised in a successful program like Saint Francis.
“There's a learning curve from high school to college,” Cowherd said. “We try to instill in the younger players that every rep matters. You can't half-go through drills, you can't dog it. You have to give everything and be focused all the way in, locked in.”
Ferrer began setting the example for his receivers during the offseason, when he organized workouts and spent the extra time needed to work on timing. In-season, in-pads timing is a different beast, but the groundwork was set during the spring and summer months.
If Ferrer believes he can get better – and he displays that in his approach to work – then the younger players should buy in.
“Keep yourself motivated,” Ferrer said. “For me, that's getting better every single progression, getting quicker every single progression, ball placement and all that stuff, seeing the field, envisioning stuff. That's the approach every position group, especially veterans, has to take. Keep things new. Keep things fresh. For young guys, it's just catching on as quick as you can.”
The first week or two is a learning or relearning process.
Donley says his older players help speed the process along, giving him one of the largest “coaching staffs” in the country.
“We have to concentrate on the things we have control of,” Donley said. “If you have character and follow the process and give maximum effort and focus, the results will take care of themselves.”
The last repeat NAIA football champion was Sioux Falls in 2009.
Saint Francis enters the 2017 camp trying not to dwell on its chance to repeat, but doing everything it possibly can to be in that ultimate position again.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.
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