LEANDER - Regardless of how teams prepared for Rouse or perceived them as disadvantaged on the football field last season, the Raiders, led by a cast of battle-hardened seniors, are determined to "do the impossible" and become a formidable force in one of the most successful districts in the state.
Head coach Josh Mann explained how the team is looking forward to fall season.
"Do the impossible. That was one of their big goals, to do the impossible," he said. "I believe they feel that they can do that. I believe they feel they can be successful this year, on the field. They do believe they can win these games and put themselves in position to pass the torch to the next class with something really to build upon and build a tradition here."
As for the something-to-prove identity for which teams in Rouse's position often strive, Mann said the Raiders have set realistic goals.
"We kind of have adopted that, ‘It's us versus the world,' mentality right now. It's not about anybody but those in the locker room. We had amazing turnouts with our strength camp. Our 7-on-7 numbers have been good. They're getting excited."
The Raiders didn't have much to be excited about last year, suffering some difficult losses in their 0-10 season. After two great years of at the freshman and JV level, Mann said Rouse entered one of the toughest districts in the state and didn't see a lot of success on the scoreboard.
"It was tough in December. December and January were really tough on us," Mann said. "Our kids were down still. Now that time has passed and they see themselves grow, they see themselves mature, that, I like to call swagger, is coming back. They're starting to get confident. They're starting to believe in each other again."
Despite returning almost every starter, Mann said success isn't automatic.
"Everybody thinks, ‘Well you've got seniors now. That fixes everything.' It doesn't just fix everything that was broken before. It helps, but there's still a lot of work to be done. We're still in one of the, I believe, toughest districts in the state of Texas."
Mann detailed how the addition of the seniors already changed the way the Raiders operate.
"The level of intensity in the off-season rises," he said. "Your focus over the summer rises. Going into preparation for that game rises. That's been the biggest adjustment and change for this year."
Having seniors also has the capacity to shift the paradigm within the locker room.
"It does change us because of the responsibility of a senior," Mann said. "If you've never experienced it, opening a new school, you don't grasp that -- what and how important a senior is to a football team. It means a lot to them when it's your last season. Some of these kids won't have another opportunity outside this year to play.
On the field, some of the effects of playing without seniors became obvious.
"Some of them were 14 years old out there playing with 19-year-old, grown men and that match-up was tough," Mann said. "Last year, being so young, so overmatched in a lot of ways, physically, not only mentally, we had to keep a lot of things simple. We had to go into the game with a base offense, a base defense with a couple of risks and if those risks paid off, we had a chance. If they made some adjustment stuff, that's where it was hard for us."
Putting seniors, with several games of stockpiled, on-field experience, in the mix gives Mann and his staff options that weren't previously available.
"It opens up our playbook. We can actually get into more stuff now," he said. "We're at a process where we can start building on these players' IQ's. Really as a coach, it's really fun now because we've seen our kids under pressure for a season and we know how they're going to handle the pressures of Friday night or what they can't handle, and change that now. We're able to break down some barriers now and start coaching."
Seniors-and-all, Mann said the team is young and still growing.
"We can see the level of our football IQ going up right now. We can see the depth coming," he said. "But we're still an extremely young team. We're going to still have more juniors to seniors starting, so the growth of our program is still happening and that's an exciting thing to see right now."
A major benchmark of that growth will be the Raiders' first win. After 10 games of losing, it's still unclear how the team will react to a victory and what change, if any, will be apparent on the field.
"I think that's what we're waiting to see," Mann said. "Football is such a hard sport. You work so hard Monday, off-season, through the summer, you practice all week to get ready for that one game and play 30 snaps if you're lucky as an individual player. That's a lot of work for a little bit of time. If you don't result in a win after so many weeks, it becomes very hard to stay motivated, stay focused, to take those beatings and go through those hot practices. You get that first win, you get that taste of victory and it makes Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday a whole lot easier to go out and work, when you know the satisfaction that comes from a victory. So that's what we've got to get to."
As for any game specifically on the schedule Mann would like to win, he quickly pinpointed Liberty Hill.
"Week 1, Liberty Hill. It all starts there," he said. "That, so much, will impact our season. We played each other since we opened the school. Our kids know their kids. I respect the heck out of coach (Jerry) Vance and his staff and those kids. They are a tough group to play. For us to go out there and compete with them, I don't care what classification they are, they're going to put a great product on the field and it's going to take everything. If we can be fortunate enough to come out on the other end of that stick with a win, I think it'll carry a lot of momentum into our season."