O's bring raised expectations, improved mindset

It started as a simple Oklahoma drill.

Augusta did more than enjoy its first practice in full pads. It became a better football team.

Coach Roger Robben lined up pads along the field to create a small, five-yard-wide running lane. An offensive and defensive lineman lined up on either side of the ball. A runner behind the line would read the block and get through to the next level, where another tackler awaited him.

Then, the two players would collide. With a lot of force.

The intensity, the physicality and the pure competitiveness that came out of the Orioles were at levels the team simply didn't have before.

"We had some guys calling each other out, guys wanting each other and guys raising up and hitting each other hard. We didn't have a lot of that in the four years I've been here," Robben said. "…We've got some guys who are just being more aggressive."

Augusta may have had just one win last year and has struggled in Robben's first three years with the team. But this year, the Orioles—led by a senior class that has been with Robben from the beginning, as well as a strong junior class—are chomping at the bit and ready to turn around their fortunes.

"We'll have better unity as a team. We have more want to win than in the past," senior Greg Slaton said.

Even before practices started, the Orioles showed they were making strides during the summer. They had a big turnout that led to a strong showing at the Hutchinson camp. Their weights program has led to noticeable improvements. They've progressed at the receiver and defensive back positions after taking part in weekly 7-on-7s.

Now, with the season opener at Circle approaching, the Orioles want all of that to translate to success on Friday nights.

A big mantra of the Orioles is finishing strong. Last season, they were competitive in several games, including a couple losses when they led at halftime, but they simply couldn't finish, largely due to the fatigue of starting players on the field too long because of a lack of depth.

But Robben believes his players, who bring a solid amount of experience to the table, are pushing each other to facilitate a stronger, deeper team.

"They're competitive. Guys realize, 'I want that spot. I want to be out on the field on Friday night,'" Robben said.

On offense, it starts with Tristan Finch, the Orioles' returning All-League Honorable Mention senior quarterback. Robben knows he can count on Finch to make the big plays when necessary, but this year, he wants Finch to bring out more of the best from his teammates.

"What I've seen in him is he's taken on a little more vocal leadership," Robben said. "He knows what's expected. He puts himself in position to do the things he needs to do, but also the things to help the team and to help other guys pick their game up and hold other guys accountable."

Having what Robben described as a better multi-faceted offense around Finch will help. Trae Goken will lead a strong stable of running backs. Goken can be the physical runner between the tackles, but the Orioles have added more speed in the backfield, as well.

On the outside, Second Team All-League receiver Connor Hurst has shown he can be more than just a deep threat with his great speed. He can make the tough catches through traffic in the middle of the field.

"We have a lot more wide receivers this year, so that might loosen him up a bit more," Finch said of Hurst. "...That will help open it up instead of them just eyeing one guy the whole time."

Hurst also has improved his play in the secondary. In fact, the whole defense has improved. Robben said having another year of experience in his and defensive coordinator Aaron Craig's system has given the Orioles more confidence in knowing where they need to be every play.

"The encouraging thing is the defense has done some positive things to make it more challenging for the offense," Robben said. "We're a little more skilled in the secondary than we have been since I've been here. Our guys know our system so much better now than they have in the past."

Junior Dillon Thompson, who anchors the Orioles' linebacker group, will be a big key. Slaton, who is back to 100 percent after missing last season with a torn meniscus, will bring a big boost the defensive end position. He'll help senior Caleb Laubhan, who was a Second Team All-Leaguer last year, on both sides of the line, an area the Orioles have had their struggles.

"We're not big, but our guys have gotten stronger," Robben said of the Orioles' linemen. "I think they're going to fight, and I think they're going to put us in position that we can do some great things both ways."

That toughness of the linemen will be crucial, especially because some of them will play nearly the whole game on both sides of the ball.

"We're used to it. All the conditioning and stuff we've done all summer is coming into play," Laubhan said.

The pieces are in place for the Orioles to begin turning around a struggling program. But success correlates with victories, and those need to be gained this year on Friday nights.