Ascension Athletics: The Griffins Reloaded

Saia prepping new players to fill veterans’ roles

Last season a propensity for late-game heroics powered Dutchtown High’s Griffins on a run that earned a share of the District 5-5A title and an eventual berth in the state quarterfinals.

The Griffins return most of last season’s major contributors for the 2014 season. District 5-5A is once again setting up to be a grueling slate for any team, but with a large crop of returners headlined by a trio of senior standouts — quarterback Brandt Fritsche, running back Kajan Coleman and safety Justin Reid — the foundation remains in place for another run this fall.

That doesn’t mean Dutchtown coach Benny Saia and company don’t have work to do as practices opened up across Ascension Parish this week. Sure, some of the large pieces remain in place, but there are plenty missing from the puzzle that need replacing.

The Griffins will have to break in three relatively inexperienced starters along the offensive line. All-District playmakers Torrance Mosley and Corey McBride took their talents to TCU. All-District defensive back Tyler Hughes and his team-high four interceptions have moved on to UL-Lafayette on a track scholarship. Perhaps the hardest shoes to fill will be those of Brady Bergeron, who earned All-District honors for effectively handling both place-kicking and punting duties last season.

For a coach who has established a record of success at the high school level for as long as Saia, losing contributing players to graduation is simply part of the circle of life. It’s no reason to panic or reinvent the wheel.

If the Griffins want to replicate last season’s success — or possibly surpass it — the process must be more reload than rebuild. Saia said the way to do that is to lean on experienced players to shoulder the load until the new guys can get up to speed.

With seven veteran starting defenders returning across all three levels of the defense, Dutchtown should be stingy from day one. The offense could begin the season as a work in progress, depending on how quickly the new starters integrate themselves into the offense.

Football games are won and lost in the trenches, so anytime a coach must break in three new starters on the offensive line, its going to be a focal point throughout training camp. It’s a tall task, but Saia said he’s sticking to the plan and breaking them in the only way he knows how.

“You just have to work them,” Saia said. “We just spent an entire summer in the weight room getting them bigger and stronger, now they’ve got to develop the chemistry. Those five guys have to play as one, and that will only happen by them taking rep after rep until its instilled as a habit.”

Until that happens, the Dutchtown offense’s biggest advantage is its senior signal caller. And to Saia, having Fritsche back under center is a big advantage indeed.

“You can ask any coach in America how valuable it is to have your starting quarterback back, and the answer will always be the same, it’s extremely important,” Saia said. “Brandt is a special guy because of the respect he has from his teammates. He’s a true leader, and we’re blessed to have him back.”

Fritsche’s play steadily improved over the course of last season and finished the campaign with 1,360 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air. His challenge this season will be to continue developing while playing behind a still-gelling offensive line and adjusting to a new crop of receivers.

Coleman, who surpassed the 1,000-yard-rushing mark and scored 20 touchdowns last season, will help take some of the pressure off Frische, but, ultimately, the quarterback must be the conductor who keeps the offense on schedule.

If Frische and company are able to tread water until the newcomers get their feet under them, Dutchtown would be primed to come on strong and make another late-season push for the Division 5-5A crown.

If not, Griffin fans may have to hear that dirty “r-word” (rebuild) thrown around this season after all.

James Moran covers sports for The Ascension Advocate. He can be reached at ascension@theadvocate.com.