It would be a stretch to say Shawnee Mission Northwest has a rich football tradition. The Cougars have had their moments — finishing in a three-way tie for the Sunflower League title in 1979 under Tony Severino and sharing the title again four years later under Bill Leonard.
Severino, who now coaches at private-school powerhouse Rockhurst in Kansas City, Mo., even guided the Cougars to the Kansas 6A state title in 1981
Five years ago, SM Northwest, which opened in 1969, won the first and only outright Sunflower League crown in its history led by Aaron Barnett.
Still, much of the Cougars’ previous 43 years have been marked by mediocrity, including a 4-6 record last season — Barnett’s final year as coach before moving into an administrative role.
For the players and new coach Linn Hibbs, changing the perception of SM Northwest is an important goal and one that gained traction during last Friday’s season-opening win over Olathe North.
True, the Eagles aren’t the same team that dominated the 6A ranks for much of, roughly the last two decades, but the Cougars, who claimed a 25-14 victory in Hibbs’ debut as coach, had to start somewhere.
“I was proud of our kids dealing with the elements, especially with how the game started,” Hibbs said. “We go three-and-out, then they score, but our kids didn’t flinch.”
Last season, the Cougars opened with a 28-3 loss to SM East, while the year before Olathe East put a season-opening 42-7 pasting on SM Northwest.
But the Cougars didn’t let this one get away.
“We were absolutely not intimidated,” senior wide receiver/cornerback Luke Fields said. “Every single person in that locker room knew that we were going to win that game. Outside, we weren’t rated very high, but we never had a doubt. We were 100 percent confident going into that game.”
Of course, it’s one thing to have confidence and another to back up that belief.
Since 1999, SM Northwest had topped the Eagles only once in 11 meetings, so history wasn’t on the Cougars’ side. And, after falling behind early in monsoon-like conditions, it would have been easy – perhaps even understandable – for the Cougars to hang their heads.
Instead, SM Northwest buckled down and showed that it was buying what Hibbs and his staff are preaching.
“Our entire focus since we got up here in May and started lifting weights in June was on our kids,” Hibbs said. “Not that we didn’t mention and study Olathe North prior to our game, but our whole deal was getting our kids to buy into what we’re selling.
“The bottom line is we’re trying to sell a toughness and an attitude, what I call a grinder’s mentality. We want our kids to keep playing, keep grinding and trust that good things will happen.”
Plenty of good things happened last Friday, giving rise to the hope that even more are in store as the season chugs along.
“We talk about staying on the railroad tracks,” said Hibbs, who coached Wellington to Kansas 4A titles in 2001 and 2002. “There are going to be ups and downs, but as long as you stay on the tracks, there’s a chance to come back up again. If you jump off the tracks, it’s over — and we could have very easily jumped off the tracks very early in that game last Friday.”
It’s too early to say what last Friday’s achievement will mean for SM Northwest, but at the very least it’s an encouraging sign for a program trying to elevate itself.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster for the whole team, and everybody is excited for the win,” defensive end/guard Josh Zdeb said. “It’s the first time we’ve won our first game in a few years, so I think the whole school is pumped and behind us this year.
“Our goals seem more attainable since we won that first game. We’re feeling better about playing together as a team and coming together as a unit.”
Of course, it won’t get any easier for the Cougars, who spoiled Gene Wier’s return to Olathe North after a nine-year absence, but now they face an even-tougher Lawrence squad led by senior quarterback Brad Strauss.
“We’ll get a lot more respect if we beat Lawrence now, too, because Brad Strauss is a great quarterback,” Zdeb said. “He basically single-handedly beat us his sophomore year, so that would be a great win if we get beat Lawrence this week.”
Beating Olathe North won’t mean much if the Lions manhandle the Cougars this week, so Hibbs and his players are intent on trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“This game is even more important, because some people probably think it was a fluke we beat Olathe North,” Fields said. “But if we come out and beat Lawrence with one of the best quarterbacks in the league, people are going to know we’re dead serious, and we’re here to play some ball.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.