There are always a few telltale signs that fall is coming. The temperature has yet to drop, the leaves have yet to change, but fall sports are undoubtedly on their way.
On the evening of Friday, Aug. 23 it was the local community’s annual opportunity to preview Cottage Grove High School fall athletics at the Meet the Lions event put on by the school’s athletic department. All in all, seven teams - football, volleyball, girls and boys soccer, girls and boys cross-country and cheer - took to the high school’s athletic facilities for team photos and exhibition scrimmages, giving attendees eager for the sports season to begin their first look.
There was a palpable theme of new beginnings and opportunities for both coaches and players alike. While most other Cottage Grove coaches are returning for the 2019 season, for new head football coach Chad Smith, this was his first experience at a Meet the Lions event.
“It’s been crazy just because this is my first time and, for a lot of the coaches, this is their first time because we only had two guys coming back coaching-wise … so it’s just new and it’s hectic but, you know, we’re making it through and I know it’s a special event for the players and the community so we want to make sure that we continue that,” said Smith when asked about taking on this exhibition event for the first time.
“We did a little bit of a dress rehearsal this morning. We split up the teams as evenly as possible and we’re just going to play as much like a game as possible. So that’ll be good to see. We got a little bit of a practice in this morning so hopefully it’ll be smooth under the big lights,” added Smith just a few hours before the football team took center-stage under the evening stadium lights for the first time this year.
Smith may be new to the Cottage Grove sidelines, but the other fall coaches return and, in the makeup of their rosters, they almost uniformly see reason for excitement heading into the first September games.
“A whole bunch of incoming freshmen are doing [cross-country] with their choice this fall, more ninth graders than I’ve ever had so the help from them makes this a team right now of 42, which is the biggest team I’ve had by seven at the beginning of the season … and maybe before the start of the year more will join us,” said cross-country coach Jim Settelmeyer when asked about his roster.
A number of Cottage Grove teams have seen recent success - a football championship in 2017 and a 2018 second place state finish in volleyball, amongst others - often born on the shoulders of experienced upperclassmen, but such is the game in high school sports where graduating seniors remains a constant inevitability. An influx of youth athletes and the growth of former underclassmen, however, means these teams remain in good hands.
“[Last year’s freshmen] returned with some real dedication. It was mostly freshman I saw, or this year’s sophomores that I saw over the summer that would come to the events that we would do for conditioning and stuff. There’s great leadership emerging from that group but we’ve got a couple wonderful leaders on both the boys and the girls team of seniors,” Settelmeyer continued.
The head cross-country coach was certainly not alone in this observation and his sentiments were echoed by both third-year girls soccer coach, Reed Levings, and her boys team counterpart, Vern Stewart.
“Last year, I think I only had two freshmen come in, but this year I want to say there are nine or 10, so it was great. Our entire JV team is freshmen,” said Levings.
While Stewart has long been a stalwart on the boys’ sidelines, there are changes and growth in all other aspects of his team.
“We have a new junior varsity coach, a new assistant coach. The guy who was the junior varsity coach will be sitting on my bench as the assistant varsity coach,” said Stewart in regards to sideline changes, but also emphasized the growth of soccer in Cottage Grove, mirroring the growth of the sport in the U.S. as a whole.
“The program is growing. We’ve got 42 kids out this year and that’s the most we’ve ever had out for this program.”
Record numbers of athletes, an influx of female competitors and optimism from all parties involved was ubiquitous upon exploring each team present during Meet the Lions. Only the water polo team didn’t have a scrimmage last Friday as the finishing touches are put on the Warren H. Daugherty Aquatic Center, but they were nonetheless present to support their fellow athletes.
As August comes to a close, the only thing left for the teams to do is continue practicing and working towards their goals while Cottage Grove sports fans patiently await the first slate of games.