Cougars Prepare for Season Opener Saturday

by Cougar News Staff 328 views0

It’s a story of familiar places and different faces. The College of the Canyons football team opens their season on Saturday with a visit to Antelope Valley College, a team the Cougars beat 27-17 to start the 2009 season. But both teams will be unveiling new looks in 2010.

For the Cougars, it’s a complete overhaul of the coaching staff, with 4th year head coach Garett Tujague taking over as offensive coordinator for the departed Don Fellows, and Dan Corbet taking over as defensive coordinator for the fired Bart Hanson. That’s where the story takes a turn, because Hanson will be on the sideline Saturday night. After being relieved of his duties at College of the Canyons, Hanson was heavily recruited, and hired by Antelope Valley head coach/defensive coordinator Perry Jehlicka.

The Cougars think they found the answer to their biggest question mark of training camp; Who will lead the charge at quarterback for COC? The answer came Thursday when Tujague named grey shirt freshman Justin Arias the starter. Now the biggest question on Tujague’s mind is what team shows up at AVC on Saturday. Is it the Cougar team that struggled on offense in scrimmages the last two weeks? Or is it the team that has looked solid and cohesive as a until in practice this week?

“Your always nervous heading into a first game, when you haven’t hit anybody but yourself. But we’re excited. (Antelope Valley) have some players, and I’m excited for the opportunity to play them,” said Tujague, the 2008 Western State Conference Coach of the Year.

Head coach Garett Tujague talks about the game this Saturday at Antelope Valley College

Both teams are trying to put poor performances in 2009 behind them. Canyons finished the year with a 6-5 record, while AVC lost three straight out of the gate in route to a 6-4 record. But Antelope Valley finished far stronger than COC, winning five straight and six of their last seven, while scoring at least 32 points in each of those games. While the Marauder’s were busy building momentum, the Cougars were losing to a dismal Santa Barbara team, coming up short in an overtime game with Allen Hancock, and getting dominated by Ventura and Bakersfield. The Cougars tried to rally in the Western State Bowl, but Saddleback seemed like they had more to play for in a 31-20 Cougar loss.

Sophomore’s Justin Cudworth (safety) and Gary Johnson (linebacker) help anchor a Cougar defense that many expect to challenge as the top defensive unit in the state this season. The two of them will be relied on heavily to help contain AVC burner Brandon Mimms, a converted quarterback now playing wide receiver. Cudworth changed positions himself over the summer, and is ready to step up and lead the Cougars defense into battle on Saturday.

“Their team hasn’t changed much over the years, they have the same offensive coordinator, and its a pretty vanilla offense,” Cudworth said. “I’m really excited. I spent the whole summer at safety and this week I’ll be able to show what I can do.”

Sophomore safety Justin Cudworth talks about what it is going to take to slow down the Antelope Valley offense.

The Cougars offense seems poised to breakout this year, with a starting quarterback set and several playmakers back from last season. Sophomore running back Ryan Zirbel has finally found the fountain of health, and he’s ready to get the season underway. “I’m excited for the new season. We finally get to play against someone else…I like the way things are going right now,” said the former Foothill League Offensive Player of the Year.

The drama surrounding Hanson’s departure doesn’t seem to be affecting Zirbel or the offense much. “They might know what we’re doing, but they have to stop us first. It should be exciting.”

Sophomore Running back Ryan Zirbel talks about what the offense has to do to beat Antelope Valley on Saturday.

The Cougars are starting five freshman on the offensive line for the first time since the school brought football back in 1998, but veteran offensive line coach Marc Dumlao used it to his advantage when he was also named the running game coordinator. While youth may lead to mental mistakes, the lineman have all worked in the system, and the Cougars are as confident as ever in their running game, which says a lot coming from a team that has featured ball carries like Denver Bronco J.J. Arrington and former All-American and Cougar all-time leading rusher Fred Winborn.

The Cougars focus as kick-off 2010 now lyes on keeping their emotions in check. For the freshman, it will be the first taste of college football, and the speed that comes along with the game. It’s also the first chance to don the prestigious Cougar uniform, and Tujague knows that this game is Antelope Valley’s Super Bowl.

“The only thing I can control, and maybe not even that, is how we respond…I know that no matter who we play, or where we play them, it’s their bowl game. Everyone wants a piece of College of the Canyons…that’s the tape that when four-year schools come in (recruiting players), they want to know if you played College of the Canyons. So everybody tries to have their best game against us, and theres a lot of emotion in that. So we just have to continue doing what we do.”

Notes: The Cougars used the passing game to beat Antelope Valley last season. Justin Morales and Eric Brown combined to throw for 250 yards, including a 65-yard strike from Brown to DJ Stephens for the Cougars second touchdown. Neither QB threw an interception…The Cougars rushed early and often in last season game, carrying the ball 35 times. But the team acquired only 116 yards on those attempts, yielding a dismal 3.3 yard average. They did find the end zone three times on the ground though…AVC allowed just two plays of 20 yards of more, Stephens’ catch, and CJ Atkins 22 yard reception…COC punted the ball seven times, but five of them landed inside the 20, where AVC landed only one of their nine punts inside the 20…The Cougars defense smothered AVC’s run game last year. Antelope Valley rushers were held to a one-yard average on 27 carries. This year marks the third straight season in which College of the Canyons and Antelope Valley will face each other to start the year. COC is 2-0, and has outscored AVC 81-31 in those games.