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Tigers riding wave of success

by Chuck Smock

Mike Rippee and the Douglas Tigers enter the 1999 football season riding a wave of recent success that includes three consecutive playoff appearances, but only one 4A playoff victory.

The Tigers have proven they can play with the best teams in the North. Now it’s time to prove they can beat the big boys in the big games, the head coach said.

“No doubt,” Rippee answered when asked if it’s time for the Tigers to make some noise in the playoffs. “Obviously, we come into every season and establish the goals we want to accomplish. We don’t hope to go to the playoffs, we expect to do it as a program. It’s a mindset. If you have been there, that’s part of the battle. When the kids start believing, that’s really important.”

The Tigers aren’t loaded with returning starters on either side of the ball. A young, mostly untested, squad will get the chance to grow up quickly, however. Douglas opens the season at Division I power McQueen on Friday and plays host to Reed -a team many think will battle McQueen for the Division I crown -the following week. The Tigers haven’t beaten the McQueen Lancers since 1987.

The schedule might look brutal, but Rippee doesn’t see it that way. Instead, the coach is excited his young team will get the opportunity to play its three non-division games in the first four weeks of the season.

The key is preparing for the season-ending stretch of five consecutive Division II games that begins on Sept. 24 at Hug High.

“Not too many people think we’re going to win that game Friday (against McQueen), but we have to believe,” Rippee said. “A win against a team like that would be a great win for us, no doubt about it. We’re looking to take that next step, but at the same time a loss doesn’t mean our season’s over.

“The main thing is we stay positive, hang together as a team and overcome adversity. That’s what we’re trying to teach.”

One of the keys to the early part of the season will be how quickly senior quarterback Brandon Griffith takes control of the offense. Griffith has earned the starting spot, but junior Jared Kenison gives the Tigers a talented backup who will start at cornerback on defense.

Griffith got his only varsity start last season in the first round of the playoffs at Elko when Rippee was forced to suspend three offensive starters for violating team rules.

The Indians defeated the Tigers, 34-12, in that late-October contest, but Griffith -the younger brother Chris Griffith, the former DHS star quarterback and current UCLA kicker – looked poised and played with confidence against Elko.

“He did a great job,” Rippee said. “He didn’t throw any interceptions and he led us to a couple of touchdowns. I think that was important. That was a big step for him.

“Brandon is a tremendous competitor. He definitely is a kid who has worked hard to get to this point. He’s very unselfish. He’s a good leader and he’s very coachable. He has all the intangibles you look for in a quarterback.”

Senior Kyle Baker is another player the Tigers will look to for leadership. Baker is a bruising fullback who has the hands to move to a receiver position when the Tigers line up in a one-back set.

“Kyle does a lot of great things for us,” DHS offensive coordinator Ernie Monfiletto said. “I think he’ll be getting the ball a lot. For us to be successful, he needs to touch the ball 15 times per game.”

Baker and Griffith will have the opportunity to work with a beefy offensive line anchored by seniors Bryce Lister (strong tackle, 6-2, 235 pounds) and Sili Mafua (strong guard, 5-11, 280). The starting front five will average nearly 240 pounds per player. Throw in Division I prospect Joe Andrews (6 4 1/2, 225) at tight end, and the Tigers have the numbers that will get the attention of opposing defensive coordinators.

Both Rippee and Monfiletto said the Tigers will have to be extremely workmanlike on offense, despite the presence of deep threat Gabe Hatchett at receiver.

“We’re going to have to grind it out,” Monfiletto said. “We’re going to have to be able to run the ball and throw what (routes) we’re capable of throwing. As our (pass) protection gets better, we’ll throw more.”

“If you can’t establish a running game, there’s no use even thinking about a passing game,” Rippee added. “If, at the same time, you can’t throw the ball, teams will put nine or 10 people in the box (near the line of scrimmage).”

Defensively, the Tigers will have to replace all three starting linebackers. Junior Jason Porterfield has the mentality to play the key middle position, according to Rippee, but has been hampered by a calf injury.

Senior Josh Wilcox is a returning starter at cornerback. He and Kenison give the Tigers two good cover guys.

There’s talent and size on the line, but a limited number of bodies.

“I believe defense sets the tone for the team,” said Rippee. “There’s nothing more discouraging than watching a team get five, six, seven yards at a time.”

Rippee thinks McQueen has the potential to be one of the best teams in the state this season, but he’s not predicting a runaway in the Division I race. The Tigers coach expects Wooster and Reno to be strong in Division II, although he isn’t ruling out any of the other teams in the drive for the title.

“There’s a lot of parity and there will be a lot of teams battling for the playoff spots and battling for the championship,” Rippee said. “I think Division II will be very competitive. To be honest, I don’t think there’s a clear-cut favorite. If there’s a team to beat, I’d say it’s Reno, but no one else is far behind. It’s going to be a dogfight for those four (playoff) positions.”