New Ponder head football coach Russ Phillips is a man of high energy who will need every bit of it to handle everything on his plate this fall.
First of all, the longtime assistant, who for the last two seasons has served as the Lions’ receivers coach, is adjusting to his new position.
He’s also facing the challenge of leading the Lions to the next step — a winning season and the playoffs — in the third year of building the school’s football program.
Certainly, he’s been busy since April when he was named head coach following the departure of Rubin Covington. But it’s also been exciting, he says, settling into the role of head coach.
“It’s a whole other world,” said Phillips, who spent 13 years on the coaching staff at Lewisville before arriving at Ponder prior to the 2010 season. “But it’s what I’ve wanted to do for awhile. I like the challenge and taking on that responsibility. It’s been a great learning process for me.”
While Phillips is new as the program’s head coach, there’s also plenty of continuity with the Lions. Phillips retained all of last year’s coaching staff and added just one newcomer to the staff to fill his old spot.
He’s tried to gradually put his imprint on the program — see the team action photos and inspirational posters in the athletic complex hallways and weight room — but for the players the game remains basically the same in terms of X’s and O’s.
Other than relying a little more on a passing attack that was rarely utilized last season, the Lions want to build off last season’s 5-5 record in which they finished tied for third place in District 5-2A (DI) and narrowly missed qualifying for the playoffs.
“We’re trying to go more fast tempo with our offense,” said Phillips. “And we are going to throw the ball a little bit more than we have in the past. We feel we’ve got six receivers that we can get the ball to. And our quarterback throws the ball well.”
The return of quarterback Reid Sanders, a 6-1, 195-pound senior, is pivotal to the Lions successfully moving the ball through the air.
Sanders, who shared starting QB duties for the Lions as a sophomore in 2010, suffered a preseason knee injury last summer and was forced to sit out the entire 2011 season.
“Getting him back out there and getting him moving has been a big part of our offensive work,” said Phillips. “We’ve got to get him healthy. That’s going to be the key to our success, getting him healthy and keeping him on the field.”
Four seniors and a junior return to form the core of the Lions’ receiving group. Nick King, Austin Leveridge, Tanner Yeager and Dylan Nichelson are back for their final season at wide receiver while Christian Worthington, a 5-11 junior, is also expected to get plenty of opportunities to contribute to the passing game.
Senior Brennan Sooter, who rushed for nearly 900 yards last season, returns as the Lions’ primary weapon on the ground.
On defense, the Lions have to fill some holes on the line, but should be strong with seniors Jack Beer and John Yurttas filling key roles both at linebacker and in the secondary, respectively.
District: 5-2A (DI)
2011 record: 5-5 (2-3, 5-2A (DI)
Coach: Russ Phillips (first season as head coach)
Returning starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
Key players: QB/DB Reid Sanders, RB Brennan Sooter, WR/DB Tanner Yeager, WR/DB Nick King, WR/DB Austin Leveridge, WR/DB Dylan Nichelson, OL/LB Jack Beer, OL/DE Coleman James
School enrollment: 347
Stadium: Ponder Field
Keys to a historic season
STRIVE TO IMPROVE
One of the first things first-year head coach Russ Phillips did after being named the Lions’ new boss was to do a little decorating around the halls of Ponder’s athletic facility and in the weight room. In hopes of creating some renewed excitement and enthusiasm among the players, he placed framed, poster-sized color action photographs along the hallways and hung performance charts in the weight room. “The kids can go in there on a daily basis and see what they need to do to get better,” said Phillips. “We can get better everyday at what we do and that’s what we’re striving to do.”
KEEP QUARTERBACK HEALTHY
The importance of having a healthy, experienced quarterback can never be understated. Last year then-junior Reid Sanders was penciled in as the Lions’ signal caller before a preseason knee injury abruptly ended that plan. Now looking toward his senior season, Sanders has had a full year to recover from that injury. His healthy return, and the team’s ability to keep him healthy and on the field, figures to be a big key to any success the Lions achieve this fall.
MOVE IT THROUGH THE AIR
Sanders’ injury forced the Lions to rely heavily on its rushing attack last season. This year, however, the plan is for the Lions to attack more through the air with the return of four seniors and a junior providing solid experience and depth at the receiver position. Phillips said his group of receivers is the strength of the Lions’ offense and he hopes to be more balanced on that side of the ball.
PREPARE FOR A DOGFIGHT
The challenges of district competition become even more daunting for the Lions as they compete in a retooled District 5-2A (DI). Realignment puts the Lions in with three former 3A schools, including Pilot Point, Whitesboro and Bowie, along with Boyd, Paradise and Callisburg from a year ago. “I think week in and week out it will be one of the toughest 2A districts in the state,” said Phillips. “It’s going to be a dogfight for everybody.”