Clinton looks for repeat success

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John Barry
Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What will Clinton do for an encore?

The Cougars shared the Rock Valley Conference championship last season and were one win away from playing for the Division 5 state title—losing to Cedar Grove-Belgium in a state semifinal game.

Although graduation hit the program hard, head coach Jeff Spiwak said his team believes it can duplicate the magic of a year ago.

“I haven’t talked about last year at all, but I know for the kids coming back, they’ve got a chip on their shoulder,” Spiwak said. “I have our seniors set goals each year before the season, and this year’s No. 1 goal was to be the best Clinton team ever. That’s saying a lot when you consider what we did last season.

“Our upperclassmen have had a real business-like approach. They realize the work needed to be done to be successful.”

Clinton lost its season-opener last year to Evansville/Albany before rattling off 11 straight wins in reaching the state semis. The Cougars averaged 38.1 points per game and led the state in rushing at 367.2 yards per game.

Clinton will continue to run the pistol offense, and with third-year quarterback Tyler Halsted directing the show, it should flourish once again.

“I really look for Tyler to have a breakout year,” Spiwak said. “Not that he wasn’t very good last year, but his mastery of our option game and his ability to make reads is going to make him very dangerous running the ball.”

The Cougars lost their top two rushers from a year ago, but Spiwak is confident that he’s got capable replacements. Senior Zach Krause (6-2, 205) rushed for nearly 800 yards last season and averaged 10 yards per carry. Senior Connor Mullooly and junior Jackson Nelson are also in the backfield mix, and Halsted (5-11, 160) will certainly get his share of carries.

“It’s always interesting when a new season starts because coaches go back to teaching and evaluating, while players do a lot of learning,” Spiwak said. “But I’ve been very pleased with where camp is at thus far, and I think you’re going to see a very explosive offense again.”

Grayson Johansen is the top returning receiver, with Steve Espinosa (6-0, 230) and Jackson Carter (6-3) are good targets at tight end.

Despite losing two starters on the offensive line, Spiwak believes this year’s group could be even better. Kenny Ballmer (6-4, 230), Eric Paschke (6-0, 220) and center Clayton Hahn (6-0, 235) are the returning starters.

“The reason I say this line has a chance to be special is because they’re so athletic,” Spiwak said. “They worked hard in the offseason and got bigger without losing a lot mobility-wise.”

Defensively, Clinton will stay with a 3-4 base. The most experience is in the secondary, where senior Austin Beaumont and Krause return.

Mullooly is back at inside linebacker, with Nelson at outside linebacker.

Spiwak’s biggest concern defensively is replacing three all-conference linemen.

“That’s the ebb and flow of small-school sports,” Spiwak said. “We might be forced to play more kids both ways this season.”

Spiwak said that although he didn’t want to bring up last season, he did share one pivotal aspect that allowed last year’s team to flourish.

“One thing that made last year’s team special was that each and every Friday we were better than the Friday before,” Spiwak said. “And that’s the neat thing about coaching. You do your best to put kids in a position to be successful, and last season that was our reward.

“If we can stay healthy, I don’t see why we can’t have the same type of success this season.”

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