Cougars aim to earn third straight playoff trip

Santa Maria head coach Steve Flores talks to some of his players during a practice earlier this year. The Cougars host the Progreso Red Ants on Friday.

The Santa Maria Cougars are fresh off back-to-back playoff seasons and are eyeing another heading into the 2019 campaign.

Working in Santa Maria’s favor is a group of 14 returning players and a bevy of seniors, but if that group is going to get where it wants to be, it is going to have to do it under the leadership of first-year coach Israel Gracia.

Gracia, who spent time as an offensive coordinator at Rio Hondo and Hidalgo before landing with the Cougars, said it’s been a change of pace at Santa Maria but that he has seen growth as the season draws near.

“It’s been a change for the team and a change for me, but the town seems excited about its football, so its fun,” Gracia said. “The progress is getting better, and we’re getting more and more consistency. In the beginning we had a little group showing up, now we have more and more coming out. They’re starting to get used to our system and our practices, and they know what to expect from them.”

Santa Maria returns 14 players, including eight on the defensive side of the ball, which is expected to be the team’s strong point this season.

One of those players is defensive tackle/offensive lineman Joaquin Sosa, who said the team is used to change and has prepared for the swap in coaching by staying ready and being familiar with the new faces.

“The switch hasn’t been too hard, because we’ve had different coaches for a good while, and every year we get a new coaching staff,” he said. “It’s nothing new, but with our previous coaches we went into offseason right off the bat and conditioning wasn’t too hard. It’s been good, and a lot of us have grown up together and we all pretty much know each other.”

One of the younger players looking to break out this season will be junior defensive end Rudy Flores, who said the old and new players are meshing nicely during the past couple of weeks and that having a senior presence has helped.

“Learning from them, whether it’s plays, the workouts, everything is just like having a big brother,” he said. “They teach you everything and everything that is going on, and just going out there and playing the game is different.”

With morale high for the Cougars, who went 4-7 one year ago, the goal now is to take another step.

The Cougars finished fourth in District 16-2A Division I last season and third in 2017, but their playoff runs were short-lived, running into Shiner in the bi-district round both seasons. They lost by a combined score of 137-0.

Gracia and company know that making the playoffs won’t be enough as they aim for a top-two finish in order to avoid the top teams in Region IV early on.

That is a tall task considering state powerhouse Refugio leads a tough district slate that includes Three Rivers and Freer, both of which picked up wins over the Santa Maria one year ago, but Gracia said his team is ready.

“In order for us to move on, we need to get past the first round of the playoffs,” Gracia said. “In order to do that, we either have to win or finish second in the district. We can’t let up one bit, and those are realistic expectations.”