Good health and belief. With those two ingredients, third-year head coach Gary Denhart thinks his Mid-County football team can be formidable in 2017.

Good health and belief. With those two ingredients, third-year head coach Gary Denhart thinks his Mid-County football team can be formidable in 2017.

“We want to stay healthy and we’ve got to have to some confidence,” Denhart said. “I think we were getting there last year before the injuries happened. We just need to believe.”

Mid-County (Galva-ROWVA-Williamsfield co-op) raced to a 3-1 start last season and built an early 14-0 lead on West Central in Week 5 before a season-ending leg injury sidelined standout running back Bret Woodside. The Cougars never recovered from Woodside’s exit and dropped their final five contests.

Woodside returns for his senior season, and Denhart expects his top running back to pick up right where he left off.

“I don’t think he’s going to miss a beat,” Denhart said. “His leg is fine.”

While the leg has healed, Woodside battled other injuries as he tried to return in basketball and track last season.

“He may have rushed it a little bit trying to come back,” Denhart said. “The kid doesn’t want to be on the sidelines.”

In four-plus games last season, Woodside finished with 880 yards rushing (10.6 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns.

“I think come Friday night he will be the running back we saw last year,” Denhart said. Woodside isn’t the only player returning from lingering injuries.

Denhart said three key contributors were battling non-football injuries when practice opened this year, “but we’ve nursed them along and they are ready to play.” Denhart, who led the Cougars to the playoffs in his first season, likes the steps his team has taken in preparation for Friday’s opener at Abingdon-Avon.

“We’ve progressed well,” he said. “We’ve had some pretty good competition for some positions, and we let it draw out until the scrimmage Friday (Aug. 18) night,” Denhart said. “We preach to the kids that we want to compete every day at practice. We’ve had a good first two weeks.”

Denhart said he saw a lot of good things during the Meet the Cougars scrimmage, but admitted some positional battles didn’t go as the coaching staff anticipated.

“When you turn on the lights and get in front of a crowd, you see who’s ready to play on Friday nights,” Denhart said.

Denhart revealed his starters on both sides of the ball for the opener against the Tornadoes. Junior Jacob Varner gets the nod at quarterback, with senior Woodside at I-back and the junior duo of Ernie Heinrich and Jason Clark at fullback. Junior Payton Haynes is the starter at tight end and four players — senior Jason Boyer and juniors Brandon Merz, Tucker Sams and Raige Ballard — will share time at the two wide receiver positions. The offensive line has junior Remi Bell at center, sophomore Wyatt Dillon and senior Jacob Sedlacek at the guards, and senior Charlie Gibbons and junior Miles Brush at the tackles.

In M-C’s 4-4 defensive set, the line finds Gibbons and junior Mason McGowin at the tackles, and sophomore Dane Libby and junior Wyatt Lee at the ends. The inside linebackers are senior Cameron Meyer and Clark, with Varner and Haynes on the outside. The secondary has Woodside and senior Gunner Johnston at the corners, and Boyer and junior Gunner Spivey sharing time at the safety position.

The Cougars will be without All-Lincoln Trail Conference performer Lucas Cruz in the opener. The senior is sidelined with an injury, but Denhart expects to have him on the offensive line and at either linebacker or tackle on defense in the Week 2 home opener with Knoxville. Mid-County topped Abingdon-Avon 42-14 in last year’s season opener.

“With it being the first game, you always question whether they have changed anything,” Denhart said of the Tornadoes. “We felt we beat them on the line last year, but they had some nice athletes. We have to contain those athletes.”

While Denhart emphasizes the ground game with his triple option attack, he believes his offense has to diversify a little bit this season.

“We need to be able to throw them a curve,” Denhart said, adding opposing defenses will be geared to stop Woodside and the running game. “We want to be more balanced than we were last year,” the M-C coach added. “We want to make sure our other weapons are sharp and ready to use.”

Denhart acknowledges the usual suspects as the teams to beat in the Lincoln Trail Conference race — Stark County, Annawan-Wethersfield and Mercer County.

“We want to be there at the end,” Denhart said of how his team will fit into the LTC race. “It’s such a good conference. There’s not that break in the schedule.”

Denhart said his team battled perennial power Mercer County to the wire the past two seasons — falling short 24-21 in 2015 and 12-7 in 2016 — and that’s where a dose of belief could help push the Cougars over the top. “We just have to believe that we can beat anybody,” he said.