The letters THL emblazed on the back of the T-shirts probably won’t mean much to the average person. For the Evergreen Cougars’ 2020 football team, it’s a bond.
Trust. Honor. Love. It’s expressive. It’s also an attitude for a team that doesn’t want to repeat 2019 — a 4-6 campaign, the first losing season at EHS in 10 years.
“Last year was rough I think for everybody. We all took a look at ourselves. Even the coaching staff had to take a look at ourselves and what went right and what went wrong,” first-year head coach and last year’s offensive coordinator Matt Van Praag said. “Once we did that, we came together with this group of guys and said let’s get back to having fun.”
The music is back during practice. So is the tackling — when allowed — as well as the effort, the intensity and the fast-paced tempo, which led the Cougars to 33.1 points per game in 2019. The only question to that end, however, is who will be replacing quarterback Griffin Lauritano, who threw for 2,050 yards with 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions a season ago.
The senior transferred to Hillgrove High School in Power Springs, Ga., earlier this summer when the Colorado High School Activities Association initially postponed football season to the spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, only to reverse course earlier this month amidst protests and approved variance requests from the state.
Possible replacements include sophomore favorite Tommy Poholsky, fellow sophomore Kyle Solawetz and last year’s leading receiver senior Carter Cassin, who caught a team-best 42 passes for 640 yards and eight scores.
Van Praag says it’s an open competition, but no matter who starts behind center — Poholsky (an all-around passer), Solawetz (a West Coast-style QB) or Cassin (an all-around athlete) — the team is ready to embrace this new normal.
“I think we all have a lot of faith in our quarterback Tommy. I think he’s pretty good at throwing the ball. We have receivers who can make plays for him,” Cassin said.
Fellow senior receiver Danny Schneider echoed those sentiments.
“I have really high hopes for this year even without Griffin,” Schneider said. “We do have a really young new quarterback who is looking really solid, and we’re getting a lot of team chemistry with him. Even without Tommy on our offense, our defense has a lot of starters returning, and they’re all looking really good. I think this year we’ll try to be more of a physical team, run the ball on offense and be on defense as little as possible.”
To do that, the Cougars may have to rely heavily on last year’s leading rusher Noah Martens, who ran for 487 yards and was third on the team in receptions with 22 catches for 324 yards. But Evergreen’s defense just may be up to the task to carry the load early on while the quarterback situation works itself out.
After all, despite the graduation of top tackler Jake Fearrin, EHS returns its next top four tacklers in seniors Ben Crosbie, John Wagner, Martens and Marco Shields.
“We’ve got a lot of young, good players on defense. Our work ethic on defense is tremendous. Everyone is striving to do their best to make up for the losses of some of our better defensive players who graduated last year,” Shields said. “I think our defense and offense complement each other pretty well.”
As for special teams, Evergreen has to replace its top punter Jakob Montesi and kickoff returner Adam Cardillo, both of whom graduated. But it returns place-kickers Cullen Freeman and Owen Pardo. Freeman was 21-of-22 on extra points and made both of his field goal attempts. Pardo was 8-of-8 on PATs.
If there’s one element that most of the team — players and coaches alike — agree on it’s that speed will be key to the Cougars’ success.
“It’s a huge factor,” Wagner said. “We’re a pretty undersized team. We’ll figure out how to use our speed to our advantage.”
Being quick, or at least starting off quickly, will be crucial in 2020. With a shortened six-game regular season, plus at least one extra game no matter if you make the condense eight-team playoffs or not, Evergreen, like everyone else, will be thrown to the wolves right out of the gate.
The season starts Oct. 10 against conference foe Palisade in the season opener. For one season, the Cougars, like longtime rival Conifer, join fellow Jeffco squad Green Mountain in the 3A Western Slope along with Palisade, Battle Mountain and Summit.
“We will be (ready). There’s a lot of work to do in two weeks, but we’ll squeeze all that we can in in two weeks to get ourselves ready,” Van Praag said.