Conway High coach Clint Ashcraft changed the recipe for his players during the summer.
He hopes that has produced a more-fortified and hungry team that will debut Friday at Springdale.
Last season, the injury-riddled Wampus Cats started 0-5, which Ashcraft told the Conway Kiwanis Club on Wednesday was “humbling, humiliating and about every other adjective you can think of .
“The silver lining was when we went on the road, we got to park the bus in a handicap parking spot,” he joked.
Then, the Wampus Cats found some footing with an upset of Cabot and won four of their last six to finish 6-6, losing in the second round of the playoffs to eventual 7A state champion Fayetteville.
“The toughest part of the first five was learning to not feel sorry for yourself,” Ashcraft said. “Our guys learned from that. So, we have focused this year on the second half of last season and what happens when you stay positive.”
The Cats return almost all of the injured players from last year and those who were rushed into emergency duty are older and wiser.
He and his coaches switched the summer routine.
“Because of our location, we host a lot of events,” he said. “This summer we got on the bus and went to Bryant and North Little Rock and Little Rock Central for some events. These are teams that have been in the state semifinals and finals and so forth and we thought, to get to where we need to get, we need to get a look at some of those who are there.”
The Cats’ roster is done a bit this season from 140 to 122 players.
“I attribute some of that is we worked a little harder this summer, we asked more of them, we lifted more,” Ashcraft said.
Some of the guys, I think, thought this was not for them. The guys we do have this year have been battle-tested and we know they want to be here.”
Ashcraft and his assistants also encouraged the players to establish for themselves a set of five core values that they have placed into an acronym called RINGS. Those values are displayed all about the new indoor facility.
“We have Resilient (Mondays), Integrity (Tuesdays), Never Quit (Wednesdays), Grit (Thursdays) and Selflessness (Fridays),” Ashcraft said.
The Cats return two quarterbacks with significant game experience (Andrew Hreha and Javonte Johnson). Every regular in the offensive line has started at one point or another. But there is no experience in the defensive line.
The team has benefitted from the influx of a few baseball players. “I’m a supporter of two-sport players. I tell players to go give things a try,” Ashcraft said. One of those is Jordan Wicks, who has committed to playing baseball for Kansas State but seems to be ready to capably handle place-kicking duties.
The Wampus Cats will again learn a lot about themselves in the first five games — at Springdale, Jonesboro at home, Bentonville on the road, Fort Smith Southside at home and North Little Rock, which pummeled Bentonville in a preseason scrimmage on the road.
“It’s tough and challenging but I think our kids are really fired up about it,” Ashcraft said. “We’re excited to get going.”