DURAND — Rick Winbigler exhorted his team in the weight room, the classroom and on the practice field Monday.
Hopes are high in the Railroad City after the team went 4-5 campaign in 2018, improving dramatically from an 0-9 season the previous year. After scoring just 21 points in 2017, Durand scored 200 in 2018.
As he embarks on his second season, Winbigler hopes the team can continue its resurgence.
“Our kids have really bought in,” Winbigler said. “They have confidence and they have the right attitude. They are working extremely hard. Our leadership is great and they believe in themselves. It’s something that, with the situation Durand has been in, with the up and down seasons, belief is one of the biggest battles you fight.”
Durand has been fighting the stigma of a losing football program the past decade. It went 5-4 in 2016, but that is the only winning season the program has produced since making the playoffs in 2009. The Railroaders have went 0-9 four times in that span and 1-8 twice.
Winbigler said gowing the trust between himself and the players is something that he has worked on.
“Not that they didn’t trust me, but you know the history of Durand. It feels like there’s been about 38 coaches in the last four or five years,” he said. “You’ve got to get past that. We had a great first year. They trusted me last year but it was still, here’s another new guy and another new system.”
Players were in helmets, shorts and T-shirts — there were no pads and no contact. The team got things started shortly after 4 p.m. in the weight room and then a short time was devoted to film. Most time was spent out on the field with conditioning, learning plays and techniques.
Wearing a large-brimmed Nike sun hat and sporting a full beard and mustache, Winbigler had his team execute several running plays for several minutes as a series of hip-hop and rap songs played softly in the background. It was a day of learning and re-learning for the players, who say that the team is picking up the enthusiasm and relentless optimism of the head coach.
He said Durand will have around 25 players on the varsity this season, give or take a few.
“There may be some sophomores or kids who come out late and things like that,” Winbigler said. “We’ll be thin in spots but any team has got to stay healthy.”
Winbigler said one ray of light will be a wide assortment of running weapons this season in its full-house T offense — among them Brock Holek, Tyler Purdy, Kyle Winslow and Jacob Lockhart. Holek ran for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore.
“We’ll be shifting some things around and we’ve got a ton of ball carriers,” Winbigler said. “We’re looking at different things to get more kids the ball, instead of being focused on just a couple of positions. We’ve got many kids that need the football. And yes, there are some new things that we’re definitely looking at.”
Holek, who last year doubled at quarterback and running back, was the team’s leading rusher last season with 1,104 yards and 14 touchdowns on 195 carries. Winbigler said Holek won’t have to do it all by himself this season.
“We’re going to spread the ball around,” Winbigler said. “Brock and Tyler Purdy are going to be a big part of it and Tyler did not get a lot of carries last year. Jake Lockhart had some explosive carries.”
Lockhart, a senior captain, will man the running back and middle linebacker positions. Durand will run a 3-3-5 defense. The first day of practice was a welcome sight for him.
“I love it,” Lockhart said. “I’ve been looking forward to this all summer. We’ve all been in the weight room. We’ve put so much work in, that it’s going to pay off on Friday nights.”
Winslow, 6-foot-2 and 205, is expected to start at right halfback and outside linebacker. One of the team’s captains, Winslow said he feels an air of optimism this fall.
“It looks good and we look a lot smoother than we’ve looked in previous years I think,” Winslow said. “It feels good. We’re all working hard and we have worked hard all summer. I think we return everyone who ran the ball last year and most of everybody else. There’s a lot of experience coming back.”
One player who was impossible not to notice was 6-foot-8, 340-pound Evan Egan. The Durand senior announced over the summer he has committed to play at Eastern Michigan University. Egan plays the right tackle position on the offensive line and also lines up at defensive tackle.
“We’re just getting ready for the season and getting ready to battle every single day and get better every single day so we can make the playoffs,” Egan said. “That’s the goal.”
Egan said he feels stronger and faster heading into 2019. He’s also noticed a change in work ethic for the team over the past year.
He said Durand is “going to shock a lot of people.”
“The way we’ve worked so hard in the off season compared to how hard our work ethic was last year is crazy,” Egan said. “Our team bonding and our team chemistry is just through the roof.”
Center Gavin Thomas also returns to the offensive line along with guard Hunter Spaulding.
Egan was leading the way in one of the lines as the calisthenics began on the football practice field. Stretching drills were performed before Egan and his lineman teammates gathered to go over assignments near the blocking sleds.
Senior Jacob Mills, who is a projected starter at cornerback and also is a running back on offense, said Monday was a day he had been anticipating for quite some time.
“I’ve always looked forward to this — my whole life — and this is my senior year,” Mills said. “But especially after this summer. We haven’t had people who had wanted to be in the weight room. This whole summer, we’ve had more people show up than any year I’ve seen. They want to put in the work. And I just can’t wait.”