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Countryside faces a hard road back to glory

Mike Johnson: “I’m trying to do everything to make sure we have a chance to return to the playoffs.”

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Mike Johnson: “I’m trying to do everything to make sure we have a chance to return to the playoffs.”

The past four years, Countryside terrified opponents, infuriated them and outclassed them.

The Cougars were a model of consistency with a 38-2 record on the field in the regular season. (Five of those wins were forfeited last year because of an ineligible player that cost the team a chance at its fourth straight postseason appearance.)

So Countryside spent the offseason trying to regain what it had lost, determined to prove that its absence from the playoffs was merely temporary.

But the Cougars' climb back was slowed after jamboree losses to Largo and Palm Harbor University in the spring and a preseason loss last week to Clearwater Central Catholic.

Now a brutal regular-season schedule awaits with seven games against teams that made the playoffs last season, starting with tonight's home game against Lakewood, ranked No. 2 in the Class 5A.

"We're a team in transition, but we're confident that we're still capable of winning," Cougars coach Jared Davis said.

The foundation of the Cougars' success was a big, sturdy offensive line that produced several college prospects. Countryside was so dominant up front that defenders fell like dominoes as running backs ran smooth and untouched through gaping holes. And no matter who graduated, the Cougars always seemed to have other behemoths ready to take their place.

The problem is Countryside had to fill a lot of holes at once. Twenty-four seniors graduated, most of whom were significant contributors, including four starters on the offensive line.

The lone holdover is Giovanni Negron, a two-year starter at left tackle who has offers from several schools.

But he cannot do it alone.

Robby Hicks, who started the final four games at quarterback last season, is a precise passer. Because of leaky pass protection, though, he has been on the run. The Cougars are trying to offset that by operating out of the shotgun and relying on motion to create angles in a quick-hitting passing game.

"We have a lot of newcomers, especially on the offensive line," running back/defensive back Michael Johnson said. "Most of these guys have not played a down of varsity before. But I think now that they've played a game they'll gain a ton of confidence."

The defense still is stout, but there are plenty of new faces there, too. The Cougars had to replace every starting linebacker and a good portion on the defensive line, especially after Ricky Thomas moved to Nevada after the spring game.

"We have talent," Davis said. "It's just a matter of developing it and molding it into a team."

There are playmakers, such as Johnson and defensive lineman Steven Czop. Last week, Johnson returned a blocked kick for a touchdown, had a short run for another score and picked off a pass.

"I'm trying to do everything to make sure we have a chance to return to the playoffs," Johnson said. "It starts against Lakewood. We've had a great week of practice, and I think we can do well."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@tampabay.com or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.

Countryside faces a hard road back to glory 08/29/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 29, 2013 11:48pm]
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