After combining for five total wins over 2019 and 2020, Cottonwood appears to have turned a corner last year, improving to 5-5.
Now, the Bears seek their first winning season and first playoff berth since 2014 as they enter the 2022 season.
Dustin Harrison, now in his third year as Cottonwood head coach, sees a lot of positives in the Bears camp that could help make that a reality.
“Things are coming along well,” Harrison said. “I have been pleased with the leadership this year. Our commitment has been a lot better this year. The big thing that we have been emphasizing that we are seeing a lot of is taking ownership.
“We have been stressing player ownership and ownership of the team. When something (bad) comes up, not passing blame, but taking ownership of the problem and fixing it. That has come a long way.”
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Eight starters return on defense and four on offense from last year’s team, but Harrison feels that doesn’t tell the whole story for the Class 2A Bears program.
“Our depth this year is much better and that will be a strength for us in 2A,” Harrison said. “We are pleased with the depth we have. There are a lot of capable athletes that it is really hard to talk about one kid. We have so many kids that there is not much drop off (after the No. 1 guy).
“We have a battle for who is starting at multiple positions right now and there are three good options in some places. We haven’t had that luxury in my first two years. This year, we do.”
Harrison feels defense should be the spark this year.
“The strength is our defense,” Harrison said. “We should be strong up front. We return eight starters on defense and there are a lot of other guys who have rotated in that have a lot of experience, so we have a lot of experience on defense.”
Four of the returning defensive starters are up front in Eli Herring (Sr., 6-4, 260), Ethan McCardle (Sr., 5-10, 198), Colin Strickland (Sr., 5-5, 250) and Elithus McGriff (Jr., 5-9, 230).
“We have some athletic guys up front,” Harrison said.
Also returning as starters are linebackers CJ Carroll (Sr., 6-0, 180), who Harrison calls “one of the bigger playmakers on the team”, and Landon Thompson (Jr., 5-11, 165) plus safeties Dylan McCardle (Sr., 5-8, 125) and Klete Meadows (So., 5-10, 155).
“The biggest thing we are emphasizing on defense is turnovers, trying to take the ball away (from the opposing team),” Harrison said. “We want takeaways. Every two takeaways is a touchdown is the way we look at it, so we want to emphasize taking the football and going after the football.
“We also are emphasizing swarming to the football and getting 11 to the ball. Our pursuit was very good in the spring game. We still have a lot of things to clean up in getting the guys to understand where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing, but they are playing aggressive and fast and we are proud of that.”
Braylon Morris, a sophomore, is expected to join the starting linebacker rotation, while Eli Jones, a junior, is expected to split time as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Kylin Hudson, a junior, is projected as another defensive back starter.
On offense, Cottonwood improved dramatically in 2021 from 2000, bumping its season scoring average from 21.6 points a game in 2020 to 28.9 last year.
Only four starters, though, are back for 2022. One is Herring, who returns to start his third year as an offensive lineman. The other returning starters are quarterback Kaden Simmons (Jr., 5-11, 185), and cousins Ethan McCardle at tight end and Dylan McCardle at wide receiver.
Though small at 5-8, 125, Dylan McCardle draws praise from Harrison.
“Dylan is an outstanding receiver,” Harrison said. “He has great ball skills. He adjusts to the ball as good as anybody and runs routes as good as anybody. He understands the game so he knows how to get open and the release he needs to take.”
Despite no returning starting experience, the running back area is one Harrison feels will be stronger than people realize.
“We were proud of our running backs in the spring game,” Harrison said. “We ran four different running backs in the spring game and three of them got touchdowns. That is another position where there isn’t any drop off. We don’t know who will start there, but the great thing about it is we have depth. It is a long season and people get banged up and need breaks and having four guys that are all capable running backs is a blessing.”
Marcos Alvarez, a senior, appears to be a front runner to start at running back, said Harrison, while speaking in a mid-July interview.
“Marcos Alvarez paid his dues as he was our scout team running back the last two years,” Harrison said. “He gave us a heck of a look every day for the defense as the running back or wildcat running back.
“He has really developed and is probably in the driver’s seat to be the No. 1 running back. He is a downhill running back that picks up a head of steam and will go. He has a good first step.
“Then we have Anthony Presley who is very elusive. He returned a couple of kicks for touchdowns last year. He is good in open space. Then Kylin Hudson is a good all-round back and then Klete Meadows, who was our starting running back for JV last year, is a good young running back coming up.”
The offensive line is a work in progress with Denny Hardrick and Luke Kent among the probable starters.
“We are young up front (on offensive line), but we have been proud of the development from our younger guys. They have come along and they are hungry,” Harrison said. “They have a long way to go, but they have gotten better.”
Ethan McCardle is the team’s punter. Morris is the kicking specialist and Ethan McNeil is the snapper for punts, field goal and extra-points.
BEARS AT A GLANCE
Head coach: Dustin Harrison (3rd year at Cottonwood, 7-12; 6th as a head coach, 21-30)
2021 record: 5-5 overall, 3-4 in Class 2A, Region 2
2021 results: at New Brockton (L, 14-33); Samson (W, 28-14); at Geneva County # (L, 12-28); Abbeville # (W, 57-24); at Elba # (L, 24-54); at Northside Methodist (W, 28-26, 2 OTs); Houston County # (W, 36-22); at G.W. Long # (L, 12-38); Zion Chapel # (W, 54-28); at Ariton # (L, 24-59)
Points scored/per game: 289/28.9
Points allowed/per game: 326/32.6
Returning offensive starters (4): QB Kaden Simmons (Jr., 5-11, 185); WR Dylan McCardle (Sr., 5-8, 125); TE Ethan McCardle (Sr., 5-10, 198); OL Eli Herring (Sr., 6-4, 260).
Returning defensive starters (7): DL Eli Herring (Sr., 6-4, 260); DL Ethan McCardle (Sr., 5-9, 230); DE Elihus McGriff (Jr., 5-9, 230); DL Colin Strickland (Sr., 5-5, 250); LB Landon Thompson (Jr., 5-11, 165); LB CJ Carroll (Sr., 6-0, 180); FS Dylan McCardle (Sr., 5-8, 125); S Klete Meadows (So., 5-10, 155)
Aug. 19 off
Aug. 25 (Thur) Northside Methodist
Sept. 2 at Abbeville #
Sept. 9 Wicksburg #
Sept. 16 at Samson #
Sept. 23 at Graceville (Fla.)
Sept. 30 at Ariton #
Oct. 7 G.W. Long #
Oct. 14 Zion Chapel #
Oct. 21 Geneva County #
Oct. 28 at Headland
# Denotes region contests