By Gary R. Rasberry
FORT RECOVERY -- It's amazing what a debut season can do for a football team.
The Mercer County Cougars wrapped up their first year as a franchise with a trip to the Interstate Football League's Interstate Bowl. The Cougars lost to Darke County, 28-20, to wrap up a 7-4 season with just 21 players on the roster.
Now, with more players coming in after a spark in interest, the goal is simple -- win the Interstate Bowl.
With almost all the key skill players and defenders coming back for this season, along with some impact players stepping into the rotation, the Cougars are motivated to folllow up last year's successful campaign by taking it one step further.
"We're ready to go," said lineman Kevin (Pork) Wehrkamp after a Sunday afternoon practice in Fort Recovery. "We picked up a lot of new guys. This should be our year, I think. I don't know how long people will stick around with college and jobs. I think we need to do it this year, hopefully. "Jose (Faller, who handled most of the off-the-field chores) had people e-mailing every week. We had one guy from Pennsylvania that said he was an NFL player and wanted us to pay his expenses."
"You won't believe the people that called wanting to play this year," said defensive back Eric Schmitz.
The most notable loss, on and off the field, is Faller, who handled the business side of things while playing fullback and linebacker. Faller was called to active duty in the army and will be overseas as the Cougars play this season.
Wehrkamp and Schmitz, who helped out Faller last season, now have to take over the business aspect of the game.
"He did all the bookwork we didn't have to do," said Wehrkamp. "All we (Wehrkamp and Schmitz) did was line up stuff for the field. It didn't help that all of this came within a month's time, but we should be all right.
On the field the Cougars are solid. Quarterback Adam Wenning returns after a solid season. Wenning threw for 270 yards in the Interstate Bowl last season, 106 going to favorite receiver Craig Schwieterman, who also returns for the Cougars.
Tight end Kirk Link also returns as a solid receiving threat, as does Cody Overman and Colin Bechtol.
"A-Dubs (Wenning) and Sweets (Schweieterman) know each other well. They click good," said Schmitz of the Coldwater tandem. "No doubt about that."
The running game will stay solid as Chad Timmerman returns to the backfield as the workhorse.
Timmerman rushed for over 1,000 yards last season and scored twice in the title game.
Helping out in the backfield will be former Coldwater standout Eli Grieshop, who makes his debut this season.
Former Fort Recovery star Chris Guggenbiller will see time at fullback in Faller's absence.
The Cougars' front wall has plenty of size. Jon Homan (255 pounds), Wehrkamp (290), Dusty Johns (275) and Doug Everman (295) are among the guys who will see time in the trenches.
The defense returns some heavy hitters. IFL All-Star Game defensive MVP Jason Wenning and fellow all-star Ron Kahlig return at two linebacker spots, with Chris and brother Aaron Guggenbiller helping out. and the defensive line gets some big help from former St. Henry and University of Findlay standout Dale Everman, who lends his 6-4, 295-pound frame to a line that includes Al Rinderle (220), Jeremy Link (275) and Greg Schmitz (280).
Overman and Eric Schmitz will get some help in the secondary from Minster native Eric Belcher, who will also work as a quarterback.
Not only are the Cougars expanding, so is the IFL. The league added two teams raising the total to eight, allowing for a realignment of the league. After playing in the South Division last season, the Cougars move to the North, joining Kosciusko County, LaGrange County and the expansion West Ohio Wranglers from St. Marys.
"It's a very competitive league," said Schmitz. "Any Saturday, anyone can win. It makes it fun."
"As far as traveling, everything will be a lot closer," said Wehrkamp. "We don't have to go three hours one way for a game. It will be fun."
The eight-game schedule begins this Saturday as the Cougars travel to Warsaw, Indiana to play the Kosciusko County Mustangs. The home opener for the Cougars will be July 30 as LaGrange County comes to Barrenbrugge Park for a 5 p.m. game. Admission for home games is just $3. The playoffs begin October 1 with Interstate Bowl II slated for October 15.