BROOKINGS — Shaun Bavaro described the process of turning Brookings-Harbor’s football program around in terms of looking at every single aspect from equipment to attitude to system to community involvement.
“We gutted everything we do,” he said.
Bavaro expects his second year as head coach to be a successful one for a team that made the Class 3A playoffs last fall and returns nearly every key player.
“I’m excited for this year,” he said. “We’re a lot further ahead as a program in all phases. The kids have made huge strides. We’re pretty pumped about that.”
The players share his excitement and optimism.
“We know we can do more,” Ethan Hooper said. “We know we can grow as a team.”
The Bruins got off to a fast start last year, winning five of their first six games, and finished fourth in the District 2 South Division, earning the one at-large playoff berth available for Class 3A before losing to Amity in the first round.
Getting to the playoffs was a big deal for a team that had struggled its final few years in the old Class 4A Far West League.
“It gave us a boost of morale for football in general,” Averi Winn said.
“It set a standard,” added Manny Zamora. “We made the playoffs. We want to get there again, but we don’t want to scrape in.”
Zamora added that the success of football carried on to nearly every program throughout the school year, with the Bruins finding success in just about every season.
Plus, it changed how other teams will view and approach their games with the Bruins this fall, said Josh Smith.
“It created a bullseye on our backs,” he said. “A lot of teams circled us as a win (on the schedule in the past).”
The Bruins also were a big hit in the Brookings community, where the players took pride in their accomplishments and the residents celebrated the program.
“Homecoming was the most people I’ve seen at a game,” Smith said.
The Bruins are working hard to make sure last year was just a start to a run of success.
Hooper said the team is focusing on mental toughness and discipline and taking advantage of the chance to be in the same system on both offense and defense two years in a row after a stretch of frequent coaching changes.
The team actually has a little smaller roster, but more players who want to work hard and put the team first, the senior leaders said.
Brookings-Harbor coach Shaun Bavaro addresses his team at the end of one of its preseason workouts.
“This year, I’ve got guys to go to battle with,” Smith said. “It’s more working for the people beside me.”
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And the Bruins have bunches of experience returning, which should naturally make the team better as those players are more experienced and bigger and stronger.
On offense, Winn and Smith return as starters on the line, along with fellow seniors Jesse Lutge and Jason Vanginderen and junior tight end Jacub McCollum.
“We have a pretty grown-up line — a lot of athletic pieces,” Hooper said.
Zamora was a starting receiver last year, but has been moved to the backfield this fall. That still leaves the Bruins with a talented and experienced receiving corps that Bavaro described as deep and tall. Juniors Derek Bonde, Oggie Badger and Jemoria Beasley also started some last year at receiver.
Just who is distributing the ball to them hasn’t been determined, and that’s because Bavaro has a talented trio of quarterbacks to pick from, including last year’s starter junior Andrew Burger, Hooper and junior Logan Holler.
“Each of them brings something to the table that is better than the other two,” Bavaro said, adding that all might see playing time at the position — they will fill in other roles if they are not under center.
“We have all the pieces,” Zamora said. “It’s just a matter of putting everything in place.”
Most of the same players who started on offense last year also started on defense, including McCollum, Winn and Vanginderen on the line, with Holler, Zamora, Lutge, Badger and Burger behind them at linebacker and junior Peyton Armentrout at safety. Junior Kayson Christensen also will be a key contributor in the defensive backfield.
“Our front six is really tough,” Zamora said.
The Bruins also have enough depth to give all those players a break on offense or defense so players with fresh legs can be in the game, which should make the team better.
“I look at our defense and I think I don’t want to play against them,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of good guys.”
The Bruins only had a few freshmen last year, but Bavaro said four of the sophomores will be key contributors — lineman Brad Russell and athletes Gavin Mills, Bradly Condracki and Jason DeShon as running backs or receivers and defensive backs.
Bavaro said as much as the experience, the leadership of the seniors will help the Bruins improve.
Since the season ended last year, the group met at least monthly to talk about how to make the program better.
“Ethan, Manny, Averi and Josh Smith, those guys have really changed the program,” he said. “Manny is the vocal leader. Hooper is the cerebral guy. Josh and Averi lead by example.”
Bavaro sees a difference in the whole team.
“Our biggest thing is growth — can we get better each day?” he said, adding that he is trying to preach the message in a way that students in today’s instant gratification society can relate to.
“Our slogan is win now,” Bavaro said. “What that means is making the right choice.
“Did we do that as a player, as a student, as a coaching staff, as a whole program?”
Those things, the coach hopes, will help the Bruins take another step this year.