By RUSSELL JONES
Otter Valley’s football team began practices last week and held their first inter-squad scrimmage on Saturday. They are working out the kinks and dusting off the rust after the summer, but head coach Kipp Denis is hopeful that the move back to Division III will be a fortuitous one for the Otters.
“We’ll make some noise,” Denis said on Monday before the second week of practice began. “We’re young. We’ve got five seniors and four juniors, but we’re excited to be back in D-III.”
The Otters battled the last three years in D-II and struggled against larger squads. “We did not belong in D-II,” Denis said. “We’ll have some good competition this year.”
Denis does not want folks to think that just because they are back in D-III this year that it will mean they are headed to the state championships again.
“The last three years we were in this division, we went to the state championships,” he said. “We’ll have to work really hard to get there this year.”
The Otters up-tempo spread offense may be the key to earning wins this season against the more traditional offenses in the division.
“If you look at it, it’s basically Springfield that runs a spread, all the rest are Wing T,” Denis said. “That could be an advantage because those teams are not used to covering it. You practice against the Wing T everyday and sometimes you just can’t adjust to the spread.”
That spread offense will be led by senior Alex Polli, who started as the JV quarterback for two seasons before spending most of his playing time as receiver last season.
“Alex is a smart kid,” offensive coordinator Jordan Tolar said. “He’s also a good general on the field, which is important.”
Polli will try to keep the offense running as quickly as possible in a hope to keep the defense tired and on its heels. Behind him at halfback, Nate Blake will lead the rushing attack.
“Nate has talent, he’s quick and makes good decisions,” Tolar said. “If we can make holes for him and stay assignment sound, he’ll do well.”
The Otters have a couple of their seniors on that line that Blake will run behind. A few of the linemen are in new positions this year, but Tolar expects them to pick up their duties quickly.
Rounding out the offense will be the receiving squad. Tolar said they have a really athletic group of receivers and some good freshman athletes as well.
“We just need to get them to slow down mentally,” he said. “They are going a million miles an hour right now, we just need them to get familiar with what we’re trying to do.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the fact that they are young may turn out to be an asset, according to defensive coordinator Keith Alexander.
“Last year we had a lot of seniors and we stuck with them,” he said. “This year I have the flexibility to put a kid in for four or five plays and then pull them to correct what they’re doing, give them a rest and send them back in.”
That flexibility, he hopes, will offset the youth on the squad. Alexander said they have many promising freshmen and some very strong sophomores who will see the field.
“They’ll get playing time,” Alexander said. “They may have come out thinking they would be playing JV, but they’ll see the field this year.”
Alexander coached at Fair Haven from 2004 through 2014. This is his second year at OV. He runs a 4-3 defense that should be able to stop the running game against the many Wing T offenses they will face this season.
“We’re going to start basic and make the playbook more complicated as we go along,” the defensive coach said. “I’ve tried to install complicated defenses at the beginning of the season before and it just doesn’t work. It works best when you free them up to just get after it and play ball.”
His defensive line looks strong, Alexander said, but his linebackers, while athletic, don’t yet have the experience at the position he would prefer. The defensive backfield is fairly young, like much of the team, with two brand new safeties and a sophomore cornerback.
While everyone is a playoff contender at the start of any season, Denis is keeping his team focused on setting realistic goals and then accomplishing them.
“We want to be competitive,” the head coach said. “If we keep the games close, we’ll have a chance to win them and we’ll get stronger as the season goes on. We want to be a team that no one wants to face in the playoffs.”
Denis said an achievable goal for this Otters team would be to host a playoff game. “These kids have come out here ready to work and they all have a great attitude,” he said. “As a football coach, you can’t ask for much more.”