Houston football coach Eric Sloan thought his team looked pretty strong during its summer camp. Then the season arrived.
The Tigers started the 2017 campaign with 36-14, 42-0 and 34-7 defeats to Ash Grove, St. James and Salem.
“I’m sure a lot of people thought we were crazy talking about how good we looked at camp,” Sloan said.
Although the first three opponents were good ones, HHS wasn’t very good to start the year.
But things would change.
Sloan, the team’s offensive coordinator, made a key personnel change heading into the Week 4 game at Cabool as he moved Paydon Dixon from quarterback to running back. That meant turning the offense over to sophomore Dakota Burchett as signal caller. The team’s center was also a new one as junior Brecken Adey became the fourth player in four games to start there.
The Tigers won 31-15.
“Each week we were searching for answers,” Sloan said. “We were interchanging parts and trying to find the right kid to play the right position to make us go. “
The next key move was out of necessity.
With several key players sidelined, Sloan and first-year defensive coordinator Shane Wright decided to change schemes. They transitioned to a 3-3 front with two freshmen –– Daniel Hutcheson and Chris Cichon –– on the defensive line. They didn’t want the young players thinking, just reacting.
“We scrapped everything we were doing defensively –– simplify and try to find a new scheme that fit the healthy kids we had at the time,” Sloan said.
With a revamped offense and new-look defense, HHS hit its stride down the stretch of the season. It started with an impressive 40-29 Week 7 win at Willow Springs that was highlighted by Dixon’s 303 rushing yards.
The following week brought an even bigger victory. On Senior Night, the Tigers beat Mountain Grove 24-14 for their first win in the series since 2001.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but we found a little confidence when some of the things we were doing began to work,” Sloan said. “It was enjoyable to see everyone buy in and accept their roles.”
Houston didn’t win again. But the Tigers were no longer pushovers. They stayed within striking distance throughout a 29-18 loss at Liberty and needed just one more positive play to beat Strafford in a 35-27 defeat in districts.
Although HHS (3-7) will lose several senior starters, the team returns a core that features Dixon, Burchett and its top three tacklers.
Sloan said the offseason will determine if the team builds on its strong finish to the 2017 campaign.
“It would be great if the offseason could consist of pool parties and cupcakes,” he said. “We still have to grind. It’s going to be a tiring process. There will be days we don’t want to come in. But ultimately that’s what we have to do to try to get over the hump.”