Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan.
Such was the case for Greenfield’s first-year head football coach and Athletic Director Steve Cole. After serving as a student assistant at the University of Arkansas and an assistant coach at Southwest Baptist University in the past five years, Cole coached defensive tackles at Glendale last season. He came to Greenfield this season with a chance to install his own system, instill his own coaching philosophy, and run his own program.
“My expectations were that we could come in and compete right away,” said Cole. “I never imagined that we would only have 13 student-athletes for football, but regardless, we learned how to improve and never gave up.”
Greenfield’s season ended without much fanfare on Oct. 24 with a 68-22 loss to Tarkio in the district opener. The Wildcats posted a 1-8 record this season, but the mere fact that Greenfield had a season says a lot about Cole, his assistant coaches, and the players who snapped a chin strap for the Wildcats this fall.
This tale of perseverance and teamwork begins last June. The numbers were low over the summer, but Cole and his assistants assumed that more kids would come out for football as August got closer. That wasn’t the case.
“We first noticed that our numbers were low in June, but we kept thinking more students would get involved as we neared fall camp,” said Cole. “On the third day of fall camp, we decided to play 8-man.”
By “8-man,” Cole is referring to 8-man football, in which teams play with eight players per side rather than the customary 11 per team. There are some other differences, too, such as the field being 20 yards shorter in 8-man. Yes, it’s football, but schematically and fundamentally, it is an entirely new sport.
“There are only five men on the line,” said Cole of some of the biggest differences between the two sports. “Blocking is harder because you have to keep an extra man in to block, so we lose a wide receiver. Defensively, it is very different. It is very hard to be fundamentally sound and still get pressure on the quarterback. Most of the time, you have to play man coverage and send an extra guy so they do not have all day to throw. The game definitely depends on which team has the best athletes.”
Greenfield definitely has athletes, some of whom were a part of the Wildcats’ Class 1 state track and field championship last spring. What the Wildcats did not have was experience playing 8-man football. Add to the lack of experience the fact that Greenfield was limited in numbers to begin with, and the Wildcats had to basically learn a new sport on the fly in just a handful of practices.
“We had to put in our offense and defense in one week before our first game,” said senior Carl Mason, who played tight end for the Wildcats. “We had one week to prepare for a whole new game, whereas other teams had been practicing all summer. It’s a faster game speed and there are higher scores. There are several different rules. It’s just a different game.”
“Numbers were definitely the biggest problem,” said Cole. “We never had a scout team to compete against. We could not do a lot of tackling drills for the risk of getting someone hurt. If we lost one person, we might not be able to play the game that week. About half of the team played every snap this season. I think that speaks to their character and work ethic more than anything. There was never any complaining. Some of the players got hurt, but they just kept swinging and fighting.”
“The quick fire pass plays and the smaller field were the biggest differences,” said senior Coleman Whitaker, an offensive and defensive lineman for the Wildcats. “Our biggest challenges were our low numbers and overcoming the late game tiredness.”
In addition, once the decision was made in early August to play 8-man, Greenfield also did not have a schedule. Greenfield’s originally scheduled opponents, including the rest of the Spring River Valley Conference, were given an option: play 8-man against Greenfield or find a different opponent.
Cole was left to work the phones trying to put together a schedule for the Wildcats. There are 20 other 8-man football teams in Missouri, but most of them are scattered up north along the Iowa border. Most of them already had their schedules filled, too. The schedule gradually came together, but it was often a week-to-week proposition.
“Developing a schedule was difficult,” said Cole, who had to adopt an “anywhere, anytime” mentality, as most teams were not willing to make the trek to Dade County. That resulted in a schedule that included just two home games, plus an unintentional “bye” week on Oct. 10.
“We had to travel a lot, but we had a very supportive administration behind us,” said Cole. “The fans traveled up to four hours to watch us play every week, and they were amazing. The main issue with scheduling was the travel distance. We were fortunate that some schools consolidated, so that freed up some games and we picked those up.”
Greenfield hosted Albany on Aug. 22 in the season opener on a hot, late summer night. There were plenty of fans on hand, most wearing blue, black and white, and many curious as to what they were about to witness. The Wildcats, who lost the game 66-0 to the far more experienced Warriors, received a baptism by fire.
One thing that quickly stood out about 8-man football was the scoring…and lots of it. The style of the game is suited to wide open, high scoring games. In fact, Albany would go on to average almost 62 points per game in its nine wins this season, including games of 84 and 88 points.
The entire offensive and defensive philosophy is different between 8-man and 11-man football. Cole, who had been waiting for his opportunity to be a head coach, had to scrap his entire playbook and start from scratch.
“In 8-man, you get four- to five-man pressure with only three offensive linemen blocking,” said Cole. “We kept a tight end or back in to block, but it did throw off our playbook. A lot of teams we faced ran the veer option, and it can be hard to defend because it is basically all man-to-man. If one guy missed his assignment or did not make the play, it turned into six points very quickly.”
With the situation presented to Cole and the Wildcats, just playing football this fall was an accomplishment. Facing teams that were far more experienced with the 8-man game, or teams with far more players, a win for the Wildcats was out of the question...or was it?
On Sept. 12, after three-straight losses by a combined score of 169-28, Greenfield took a nearly four-hour bus ride north of Kansas City to DeKalb. The Tigers have been playing 8-man football since MSHSAA first sanctioned the sport for the 1988 season, and have a couple of state runner-up finishes and the 2002 state championship on their 8-man resume.
Greenfield 14 DeKalb 12. Final.
“Beating DeKalb was huge for us,” said Cole. “I believe it gave the players some faith that things would get better if we kept working hard and doing the little things right. It was a four hour bus ride home, and I don’t think anyone slept because they were too excited.”
Although there were no more wins on the schedule, the Wildcats continued to improve throughout the season. In fact, Greenfield was playing its best football when the season ended. Despite the district-opening loss to Tarkio, the Wildcats rewrote the record book with their explosive, quick-hitting passing game.
Quarterback Mason Jones, who started the year at wide receiver, threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-34 accuracy in the loss to Tarkio, all of which were school records. Tight end Carl Mason caught 15 of those passes for 221 yards and a touchdown.
Jones is a shining example of Cole’s motto for the team: “Adapt and Adjust.” Jones lined up at receiver in the season opener, but injuries forced him to change positions…and forced him to learn an entirely new position in a week.
“He has a great attitude and work ethic,” said Cole of Jones. “He stepped up and learned the offense faster than I expected. He had played receiver all his life and had to come in and learn the quarterback position in the second week of the season. He took over and we never looked back.”
The Wildcats were forced to play “iron-man” football, with everybody contributing on both sides of the ball, and on special teams. Mason, the team’s standout tight end, also handled the punting duties for Greenfield. Sophomore Jerrett Esposito was a ball hawk on defense, and led the team in tackles while forcing 12 fumbles and recovering two. Freshman Charles Servoss rushed for over 700 yards in eight games and averaged over 10 yards per carry, while Roy Beeson was the Wildcats’ most improved offensive and defensive lineman.
“These players deserve so much respect for fighting through a difficult situation, and they have laid the groundwork for the future,” said Cole. “They easily could have quit because it was tough or we did not have enough players. However, these young men dug in their heels and worked hard every day we asked. Over half of them played every snap of a football season, and I am not sure how many players around the country can say that.”
Cole was not alone in having to adapt as a coach. The Wildcats’ three assistant coaches (Lee Coleman, Brandon Thompson, and Josh Dobson) also had to take on new roles and learn the 8-man game from scratch.
“Lee Coleman is a true players coach,” said Cole. “All the players love him, and he has a very high football IQ. He helped in so many ways. I never had to ask him to stay late and do something. He just gets the job done.
“Brandon Thompson was very beneficial this year,” added Cole of Thompson, who previously coached at Cassville and who brought the veer option offense to Greenfield. “We turned to the veer midway through the season as a counter off the spread offense. He improved the offensive line drastically from game one through the last game.”
Dobson’s first year of coaching will always be memorable. “He did very well, and I think he learned a lot throughout the season,” said Cole. “We look forward to working with him in the future. He is the motivator on our staff. He always had a speech to get the guys fired up when we needed it.”
The Greenfield administration was also supportive, providing whatever support was needed. Speaking of support, the town of Greenfield was unwavering in its loyalty. With a schedule that included just two home games, the Wildcat faithful made weekly road trips to whatever faraway destination was playing host to their boys in blue.
“The administration was great to work with,” said Cole. “They were very supportive, and we could not have done it without them this year. (Principal) John Hinsley has helped in so many ways I cannot describe them all. (Superintendent) Jeff Davis has had our back since the first day. Anything we needed, he got it done for us. The school, fans and town have all been very supportive, and we cannot wait until we can return the favor by providing a great Friday night atmosphere again at Greenfield.”
All of the Wildcat players are appreciative of Cole, too, and how that he turned what could have been a disaster into a memorable season. One common lesson learned from Cole was to never give up, regardless of the task or odds.
“Coach Cole is a great guy and he cares a lot and it really shows,” said Jones. “He has showed us that we all go through rough patches and to just keep playing hard. I will always remember how that none of us quit on each other. No matter the size of our team or the record, we all played every game as hard as we could.”
“Coach Cole has done a lot of good and really cares about his players and the game of football,” said Esposito. “I have learned a lot from this season, from playing with low numbers and from Coach Cole, but the most important lesson I’ve learned is to never give up. We had to overcome tremendous odds, but we kept football alive in Greenfield.”
Things did not go as planned this season for Greenfield, the 1977 Class 1A state champion that has a proud tradition and football history. The Wildcats could have skipped this season altogether, but it’s a whole lot easier to not start the program back up than it is to persevere and go with Plan B.
“I want to say thank you to all the players, coaches and fans at Greenfield High School,” said Cole. “The season did not go the way we wanted or even anticipated. It will be a process to build this program into one that this community deserves, but that is what we are working toward every day of the year. Better days are ahead. The future is bright. This team did not let football die in Greenfield, and that speaks volumes for the kind of community that Greenfield is. They have raised quality young men.
“We have eight incoming freshman that are very talented, and we are counting on them to play next year,” added Cole. “They have to hit the weight room hard this offseason, but I know they will be back at the top of Class 1 football. I am proud and humbled to be the football coach at Greenfield High School.”