A freak thunderstorm boomed in the distance as the Mountain View Lions’ football team practiced on a recent June afternoon. The ominous site didn’t deter the young athletes, who worked through the sweat of summer practice.
The Lions have a renewed sense of hope under former Ironwood Ridge coach Matt Johnson, who assumed the same role at Mountain View.
Players and parents alike are hopeful that lightning will strike twice for Johnson, as he tries to maintain the high level of success he reached some three miles away.
Johnson, who went 85-35 in 10 seasons at Ironwood Ridge, believes this year’s Lions squad has the right mix of talent and experience to find glory on the field.
“The first couple of months here have been just great,” Johnson said. “It’s a great football facility. From the field to the field house and the weight room and everything. Admin’s been great, parents have been great, kids have been great. Couldn’t ask for any more.”
Johnson assumes control of a Lions program that went 5-5 in 2018, losing its first five contests, before sweeping their regional schedule.
The longtime coach believes Mountain View can return to the playoffs in 2019 thanks to the squad’s dedication on the field and in the weight room during spring and summer practice.
“We’re trying to get a weight room culture instilled,” Johnson said. “It’s just an understanding that every day, we want to get bigger and stronger. And then, a lot of good stuff is going on; this is a program that was already doing well, so we’re just trying to bring or own personalities to it.”
Johnson’s weight room impetus has left an impression on players of all ages, with senior linebacker and running back Aaron Logsdon vouching for his new coach’s system.
“I think it’s a blessing,” Logsdon said. “We have a whole new system now; our practices are different. We love him a lot, it’s just a lot more organized and everything’s going well. We’re really grateful to have him as a coach and now we’re excited to see how the season goes with him.”
It’s that buy-in from players that’s taken Johnson by surprise so far, after assuming the head coaching position in mid-March.
Johnson, who replaced longtime coach Clarence ‘Bam’ McRae, was apprehensive about how the team’s older players would respond to his system. So far, it’s been all systems go for the longtime coach, however, with players like Logsdon embracing his teachings with gusto.
“We wondered when we took over if we were going to have a lot of kids quit,” Johnson said. “Nobody that’s been to practice has quit. So, once they’ve come out and given us a shot, kids have been all in, so we feel really lucky.”
A big reason for that buy-in comes from Johnson’s focus on building players in all aspects possible, including physically and mentally, so they can put themselves in a position to be successful when the season starts.
Fellow senior Branden Devoy, who will take snaps at the safety position on defense and wide receiver on offense, said Johnson’s approach to the game has paid dividends already.
“He’s been installing the weight room, that’s the big thing now,” Devoy said. “We’re doing big lifts right now. I know personally, my bench press has gone up at least 60 pounds since the spring. So that’s something been something big he’s been teaching us.”
Maintaining that commitment to all aspects of the game is crucial for Johnson’s team, with a relatively small varsity roster of 35 to 40 players as of mid-June.
Johnson knows his players will have to be in peak physical condition when the season kicks off on Aug. 23 against his former school.
He also knows that a sizeable portion of his roster will be playing on both sides of the ball, so they’ll need all the muscle they can muster to handle the 10-week grind of the high school football season.
“We’re at about 35 kids every day, and they’re really committed,” Johnson said. “And it’s kind of like when I won state at Ironwood Ridge. We had, I think, 37 on the roster that year. It really isn’t about the size; it’s about having the right 25 kids out there.”
Logsdon believes the Lions will catch some people by surprise this fall, with a renewed sense of purpose and a returning cast of skill position players.
He believes the summer months will hone the team’s focus, so they can start the season on the right foot against the Nighthawks.
“We’ve been playing with each other since Pop Warner, eighth grade, or middle school. We have a ton of chemistry,” Logsdon said. “We’re all good friends, we know how to play with each other. And we love each other, and we have each others’ backs.”
For Johnson, another key to reaching a new echelon of success this fall is building on what McRae started, on both sides of the ball.
Logsdon, who rushed for 434 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2018, to go with making 55 tackles and 6 tackles for loss, will be a key part of the team’s plans.
So too will rising junior quarterback Hayden Parson, who showed flashes of brilliance last year, with 1,274 passing yards and 8 passing touchdowns in 10 games.
The key, according to Johnson, is to put players in the best position to be successful, and to tailor your systems so they can dominate their competition on the field.
He believes his staff has done just that in spring and summer camp and that the results will speak for themselves when the season kicks off.
“We’ve had a lot of success here before I showed up,” Johnson said. “I think good defense is always about knowing your assignments and hustling and good fundamentals. We’re going to try to keep that up. Offensively, I’m always going to be a guy that establishes the run. That’s not going to change, so if we can get some passing game around it, great.”