For a program that through the decades has become synonymous with winning, watching the last two seasons end on a sour note has been a letdown.
Call it a symptom of the streak. Call it the pressure of tradition. At Linfield, football seasons are expected to include the postseason. Anything else is cause for concern.
But head coach Joe Smith and his Wildcats have redemption on their minds. On Sept. 13, they get a chance to start off on the right foot with a third installment of the Hardin-Simmons rivalry that has brought explosive plays and high-octane offense for the last two seasons.
The ‘Cats face off against the Cowboys in Abilene, Texas, at noon with the promise of starting the year anew and new names appearing on the depth chart, eager to push Linfield to the top of the Northwest Conference.
Adding to the anticipation of Linfield’s first contest of the season is the showcase of a quarterback battle that has been playing out since the end of last season. Junior Aaron Boehme and sophomore Cole Franklin spent training camp trying to distinquish themselves from one another, but Smith said both players have impressed him.
Although Boehme will be the official starter, Smith said Franklin will also have a chance to lead the team down the field in several drives.
“They are both very capable leaders,” Smith said of the two men. “They are poised, confident and hard-working. When things aren’t going well, these are the type of players who take it on their shoulders and see it as their responsibility to try and motivate the team.”
Several key positions will feature new starters being tested for the first time, as no official starters from last year’s roster are returning.
Junior cornerback Bubba Lemon, who last season registered three interceptions, is the anchor of a position that will otherwise be counting on relative newcomers.
Though last year the job of leading the ground game fell upon senior wide receiver-turned-tailback Travis Masters, he should spend considerably less time in the backfield this season.
Seniors Reggie Ford and Dan Lever and sophomore Simon Lamson will be the main forces of the ground game, Smith said.
Last year, Lamson and Lever combined for five touchdowns and gained nearly 300 yards of offense as secondary parts of the running game.
Ford, a transfer student from Central Washington University, has the promise of a feature tailback, Smith said.
“[Ford] had tremendous vision, patience and acceleration,” he said.
Masters said the offense’s biggest strength this year is its versatility and depth. He added that his play will be primarily as a wide receiver, though he may go in motion into the backfield on some occasions.
“I think we’re a lot more dynamic this year,” Masters said. “We can throw the ball. We can run the ball.
It’s definitely going to be a tough offense for teams to stop.”
With the speed and agility of Boehme, Masters and Ford all placed into consideration, the football for the ‘Cats will be in the hands of a player with big game-breaking ability on most plays.
Hardin-Simmons’ senior slot receiver Mychal Carillo, who last week helped the Cowboys win their season-opener with 87 yards receiving and a touchdown, will be a threat for Linfield’s defense.
Junior linebacker Alex Tkachuck said the defense will be keyed in on containing Carillo and adjusting its schemes to try and keep the ball out of his hands.
Tkachuck said the ‘Cats are hoping to learn from close losses experienced last year against Willamette University, Whitworth University and Western Oregon University.
“Those games could have gone either way based on the breaks,” he said. “This year we really need to keep our composure when we get into the crunch time. We need to not let up mentally and avoid those simple mistakes.”
For all the tests that Linfield faces in this first game, the results will likely set the tone for the remaining
They have been predicted to finish first in each of the last eight NWC preseason coaches’ polls, and as the perennial team-to-beat, the ‘Cats are set to face the best efforts from their opponents in all nine of their regular season games this year.
“That’s what we like,” Masters said. “That’s why a lot of people came here. They wanted to be a part of that winning tradition. I think everyone’s playing with a chip on their shoulder because it’s extremely disappointing to not make the playoffs two years in a row.”