Three straight years the Orioles have made the playoffs.
Three straight years they lost in the first round.
After last year’s surprising debacle against Mulvane — the Orioles didn’t put their best foot forward by any means — coach Jason Filbeck actually met with the players returning for the 2017 season the next day, which they usually don’t do.
“We met the next day with everyone coming back and just talked for over an hour, didn’t even watch the film,” Filbeck said. “Just talked about not being in the same situation of high hopes getting crushed in Week 1 of the playoffs.”
The returners in that conversation include several special players to Filbeck. They are the first group of athletes who started out as freshmen under Filbeck and now are seniors, who enters his fourth season with Augusta. He said it’s been fun watching these guys grow together, and it helps having a close-knit group understand that this is their year, and it could be a very big year.
“I thoroughly believe we can get over that hump,” senior Clay Wesbrooks said. “We have a group of seniors that are completely bought in. We want to be here. And we want to bring something home for the school.”
But in their final year with the Orioles, they’ll have to deal with some changes along the way. Gone is defensive coach Brad Gober, who now has his first head-coaching job at Beloit. Longtime Oriole coach Steve Pazzie also departed this year.
“I”m so happy for Gober….,” Filbeck said. “He’s a very capable coach, and just did a lot of stuff besides coaching that is so helpful, and he’s a friend of mine. We don’t have him, we don’t have Pazzie, so losing some good assistants that are close friends will make it a different year.”
Filbeck said, though, that injecting some new blood in the coaching ranks, such as Robert Hall on defense, has helped reinvigorate the players and team as a whole. While Filbeck has had a collection of good players each year he’s been in Augusta, this group feels different.
“This will be more of a team piece as opposed to having teams that just have good players on it,” Filbeck said. “This will be more of a ‘team’ team and, having said that, still have some kids who can really play as individuals, too.”
Another big change, though, will be adjusting to depth. It’s not that there isn’t a great turnout for the program necessarily, but the Orioles have too many good players to not utilize more than just on one side of the ball this year. Filbeck, who always believed in a two-platoon system, told the seniors coming into the season that their conditioning would be a primary focus.
“I’m just going to go out there and try my hardest every single play, even though we’re going on offense and defense this year,” said senior Kendall Davis, who plays on both lines. “….We worked really hard this summer. We didn’t really miss any of the stuff this summer, we’re working really hard in practice, so I think the conditioning will take care of itself this season.”
Wesbrooks also will be adjusting. He’ll maintain his normal cornerback position, but he’ll also see more time on offense as a wide receiver. He caught a few passes last year in some spot situations, but he’s learning a lot more of the offense now.
“At first it was difficult. It was a lot more to learn that just the coverages,” Wesbrooks said. “…My main goal is just add value wherever I can, do anything we need to win.”
The seniors quickly have learned to be good leaders for the younger guys. A lot of underclassmen are getting thrown into the mix pretty quickly.
“We’re definitely going to try as much as we can, especially to help with the next few classes,” Jonny Clausing said about the seniors becoming leaders. “The junior class doesn’t have very many.”
Perhaps no player is becoming more of a leader than Chance Whitehead. Though he’s been the quarterback for a couple of years now, he won’t have to deal with any question marks about who is starting from week to week as he did at times in the past.
“I always practice like there’s always somebody trying to get my job, but it just makes me feel more like a leader,” Whitehead said of being the unquestioned starter.
And with the personnel around him, he is ready to make a huge splash. He said he feels much more comfortable about his decision-making processes, and he’s looking sharp within the offense. He can make the short throws and has quite the accurate touch on the deep balls. He also feels comfortable taking off and running whenever he needs to scramble.
“I feel way more comfortable this year than in the past because our line is much better this year,” Whitehead said.
As a leader, he’s also learned how better to move on from mistakes and keep focused.
“My mentality [has improved], not getting too down on myself. I’ve gotten better about that and just getting on to the next play,” Whitehead said. “I just expect a lot, and when it doesn’t happen, I get pretty mad.”
That aforementioned offensive line in front of Whitehead? It’s huge. Davis checks in at 305 pounds. He’ll play at right guard. Easton Brown, who normally would look big on a normal offensive line at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, is actually considered one of the “smaller” guys. He’ll lead the line at the center position. Ben Volkman is a 6-foot-4, 290 junior who will play at left tackle. Ryan Rogers returns as a right tackle at 5-foot-11 and 215.
“We can be phenomenal. I don’t think anybody should be able to get through us or push us around,” Davis said.
Clausing, who already is a menace as a defensive end, may play on the offensive line a bit, as well. Clausing is 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds. He’s feeling good about where the team is entering Friday night’s season-opener at home against Winfield.
“I think we can go farther than before for sure,” Clausing said. “We’ve got a stout defense, and our offense definitely has improved the first couple of weeks.”
Wesbrooks leads a secondary that includes Coban Honey, who is 6-foot-4, moves quickly and had a great wingspan. He’ll be a menace in the secondary, which won’t have to relearn the whole scheme now that Gober, who’s specialty was the secondary, is gone, as is defensive captain Dallin Marlnee, who earned All-League defensive MVP honors as a linebacker.
“It’s been difficult, but we’ve simplified a few things, but we still have mainly the same coverages. Coach Hall is a great guy who knows what he’s doing,” Wesbrooks said about adjusting.
The Orioles are replacing a lot of pieces at the skill position. Ceetyn Anderson may be a big boost in the running back department. Senior Jake Swink could be a big surprise in the passing game. He caught a long touchdown bomb from Whitehead during the Orioles’ scrimmage last week.
The team has confidence and high hopes again. They’ve talked about Thanksgiving football, which means making an incredibly deep playoff run. This time, though, they think they have what it takes to get past that first playoff game and over the hump.
“[It’ll take] people working like they’ve never worked, dedication, choosing to stay out of trouble or not go to that party,” Wesbrooks said.
“I feel like we’re closer as a team,” Whitehead said. “None of us really get in fights. We’re just really good friends, and I think that will push us over that little hump.”