CLEAR SPRING — Fielding a football team at a small school is always a numbers game.
Coaches have to scour the halls to find kids, then convince them to try out for the team.
Clear Spring coach Craig Bathgate has found that an increase in one number — wins — makes an increase in another number — players — much easier to come by.
“It is a lot easier to get kids since we’ve had a little success,” Bathgate said. “Most of the numbers are in the freshman and sophomore classes now, and we have record numbers in the junior league.
“They keep feeding them in and we have a bigger pool to choose from.”
After winning just three of its first 50 varsity games, Clear Spring followed up a .500 season in 2009 with its first winning campaign, a 6-4 mark last year that had the Blazers in the running for a Class 1A West playoff spot into Week 10.
The team lost two key cogs from that team to graduation: Running back Mike Etzel, who rushed for 1,734 yards last season, and lineman Brandon Mullins, who opened many of the holes Etzel ran through.
“Obviously, losing someone who ran that much and that well, you take a hit,” Bathgate said. “But losing Mullins is probably as big as losing Etzel because he was such a good blocker.”
Still, the Blazers’ cupboard is far from empty, particularly with the return of quarterback Adam Mellott and receiver Tylar Habel, both seniors.
Mellott completed 77 of 173 passes last season for 1,584 yards and 11 touchdowns, helping take some pressure off of Etzel and the running game.
“He was definitely overshadowed last season by Etzel. It was probably the quietest 1,600-yard passing season in the county in a long time,” Bathgate said. “I don’t think he’ll sneak up on anybody. He might have gone unnoticed by the general public, but the teams we played know him well.”
Bathgate said Mellott is a solid body, able to take a hit and bounce back quickly, but his biggest strength is his ability to read defenses.
“He can analyze the defense very quickly, make his read and know where to go,” Bathgate said. “He knows where his receivers are and where they’re supposed to be.”
Habel was Mellott’s favorite target last season, catching 29 passes for 451 yards and three touchdowns. Backup quarterback Ryan Aaron will also play as a receiver.
For the time being, the Blazers will fill the tailback position by committee, cycling in juniors Tyler Walling, Stephen Smith, Jared Brant and Jesse Gentry. Sam Elwood will start at fullback.
“We’ll go with the hottest hand and the healthiest body,” Bathgate said. “If somebody runs for 300 yards in two weeks and gets dinged up, we’ll put the next guy in there. It’s a good problem to have.”
Junior center Chris Resh, in his third season as a starter, will anchor the offensive line along with seniors Dalton Fawley, Adam Proctor and Nathan Tucker.
Defensively, the Blazers will continue to run a 4-4 base, spearheaded by Elwood and Smith at the inside linebacker spots.
Elwood was the Blazers’ leading tackler last season with 87, while Smith was third with 67.
“Sam is the defensive leader. He’s just so smart ... scary smart, football-wise,” Bathgate said.
Brant and Ben Cornwell will man the outside linebacker spots, while Aaron and Walling will be in the defensive backfield.
With two consecutive seasons at .500 better under the Blazers’ belts, Bathgate said he knows what the next step in the progress of the program has to be.
“Playoffs have to be the next step,” Bathgate said. “We talked to them about it. They know the opportunity is there. A lot of these seniors played varsity as sophomores, so they’ve been here for .500, they’ve been here for 6-4.
“They want to be here for the playoffs. And they have confidence that they can do it. That’s half the battle.”