The Van Wert County Courthouse

Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022

Reloaded Cougars ready for 2021 season

SCOTT TRUXELL/independent sports editor

It’s been exactly 269 days since the Van Wert Cougars (11-1) won the 2020 Division IV state football championship in dramatic fashion, 31-28 over Mentor Lake Catholic.

Now, the Cougars are ready to begin a brand new season as defending champions and as a team with high expectations.

Junior quarterback Aidan Pratt (15) will direct Van Wert’s spread offense this fall. He’ll step in for Owen Treece, who’s now at Wittenberg University. Bob Barnes/Van Wert independent sports

“The state title game is still very clear in our memory but does feel like a long time ago,” head coach Keith Recker said. “The fun thing is having great memories of last season but also accepting the challenge of building the next year’s team and starting our journey together to be the best team we can be in 2021.”

The first order of business for Recker and his coaching staff was to prepare someone to take over for quarterback Owen Treece, who ran and passed Van Wert to the state title. In 12 games last season, Treece completed 235-of-348 passes for 3,099 yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while rushing 198 times for 1,036 yards and 20 more scores.

With Treece taking his considerable talent to Wittenberg, Recker has turned to junior Aidan Pratt (6-4, 190) to direct the offense.

“Aidan does a good job of being able to stand in the pocket and see the open throws because of his height,” Recker stated. “He has really nice touch on the deep ball and will continue to get better on his short and intermediate throws. Owen could keep a play alive as long as he needed to in order to make a play.”

“If the throw isn’t there for Aidan he does a nice job of tucking the ball and getting yards,” the coach added. “Aidan is very capable, as Owen was, of running designed quarterback run plays.”

Last season, Pratt completed 5-of-9 passes for 114 yards. He’ll be backed up by junior Carson Smith (6-1, 170).

Wide receiver Dru Johnson (55 receptions, 1,236 yards, 16 touchdowns) has graduated to Ashland University, but Pratt will have plenty of returning targets to throw to, including Connor Pratt (6-3, 180 senior), who finished last season with 49 receptions for 798 yards and four touchdowns.

“Maddix Crutchfield (6-1, 210 junior) is back at an inside receiver and is doing a good job,” Recker said. “Trey Laudick (5-10, 160 senior) and Ethan Brown (6-0, 170 senior) are playing the outside receiver spot opposite of Connor and both guys are very good athletes. Garett Gunter (6-0, 180 junior) is playing the other inside receiver and has had a good preseason.”

Nate Jackson returns as the starting running back in the spread set. The 5-10, 180 senior emerged as a dual threat last year, finishing with 520 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, while catching 53 passes for 375 yards and eight scores.

Brylen Parker (5-11, 175 sophomore), Jacob Fuerst (6-2, 220 junior), and Kaiden Bates (5-8, 165 senior) could see time in the backfield as well.

The backfield will have the luxury of an offensive line that returns five players with starting experience: Turner Witten (6-1, 230 senior), Cullen Dunn 6-2, 205 senior), Kody Kline (5-9, 230 senior), Logan Dotson (6-5, 220 junior) and Cooper Adams (6-0, 275 senior).

Nate Jackson (20) is a threat to go the distance on any carry and the senior running back is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Bob Barnes photo

“For us to be a good team we must have great line play,” Recker said. “There is a lot of trust in the guys up front and they have a great understanding of our schemes and techniques. The thing they must continue to do, as they have done during the preseason, is continue to improve and work to be the best line they can be.”

“We are undersized as a line but those guys do a great job using their hands, leverage, and athleticism to make plays. Turner Witten has started since late in his freshman season and Cullen Dunn has started since he was a sophomore and both guys will play a lot of football for us.”

Defensively, Aidan Pratt (66 tackles, four sacks) and Ty Jackson (6-2, 190 senior, 44 tackles, three sacks) are slated to man the ends, while Witten (64 tackles, four sacks) and Dunn (61 tackles, three sacks) will see time at the tackles in Van Wert’s 4-2-5 alignment.

Jacob Fuerst (66 tackles), who burst onto the scene against Wapakoneta last year will return at linebacker and Bates will see time at there as well, along with Xavier Okuly (5-9, 160 senior) and Damon McCracken (5-11, 200 junior) once he returns from injury.

Nate Jackson (team high 89 tackles), Connor Pratt and Laudick (54 tackles) will be leaders in the secondary, and Crutchfield is slated to see action there as well, along with Carter Miller (6-0, 160 senior).

“The seniors are very committed to this team and helping make it the best season they possibly can,” Recker said. “We will also count on plenty of juniors and sophomores to contribute on Friday nights.”

Gunter is expected to be the punter and McCracken (52-of-64 PATs plus game winning field goal in the title game) will again handle the kicking duties once he returns. In his absence, Connor Pratt will handle extra points.

Recker’s coaching staff includes Cole Harting, Steve Sealscott, Josiah Poletta, Bryce Crea, Jordan Danylchuk and Nick Pauff.

The Cougars will open the season Friday night at Bryan, then will open Western Buckeye League the following Friday at home against Celina.

“The WBL will be very good again this year with competitive games every Friday,” Recker said.

POSTED: 08/17/21 at 8:45 pm. FILED UNDER: Sports