COLUMBIA — Battle High School football coach Justin Conyers was adamant that the Spartans would play varsity football in their inaugural season.
"They asked me, whenever I got the job, the approach I wanted to take, and I was 100 percent for playing a full varsity schedule," Conyers said. "How do you really sell a program to a group of new kids that come from ... high schools that have varsity athletics ... and tell 'em ... (they're) gonna have to play JV for a year?"
It would be easy to sit back and armchair-quarterback Conyers' decision, focusing on the Spartans' decline.
Battle (5-4) lost its last three games, all to Class 5 and above opponents. Add to that the team's morale, which Conyers said suffered in recent weeks. And then cap that off with injuries that have plagued the team in its last few games.
But Conyers would tell you that you're missing the point.
In his mind, this season was about building experience. And that experience has Conyers and his staff focused on tangible improvements going into the offseason: strength, attention to detail and focus.
There's no doubt the Spartans are a young, athletic team — Conyers would be the first to point this out. And he'd be just as quick to say they have to get physically stronger in the offseason. Battle has speed, Conyers said, but the team can get faster.
And while speed is important, Conyers said the Spartans have to bolster their brawn. Pure might will be the focus in the offseason, he said, adding that physicality — and health down the stretch — will be critical to the team's success against the larger-class schools dotting next year's schedule.
While the players get stronger in the weight room, Conyers and his staff will also look to strengthen their attention to detail.
"That's something I know I can do better, really paying more attention to detail as far as in the film room, practices," Conyers said. "Making sure our kids are really cued in — bought in — to what we're doing."
Conyers said he may have missed opportunities to fully explain to players why they ran certain schemes, what certain plays were designed to do. Players who understand buy in, Conyers said, and buy-in and focus will be additional ingredients for success next year.
Focus was hard to maintain in a season that's been an "emotional roller coaster," Conyers said. "The biggest challenge was trying to keep a young group focused for a whole season. You could feel, as the season went on, that ... some of our focus wasn't quite there."
Conyers said that early on, when the Spartans were winning, the focus was there. But when the "highs and lows" — the loss to Hannibal, the back-and-forth win against South Callaway, the three straight losses that followed — hit, the team struggled to handle them.
That will change, Conyers said, with a Spartans squad that's more experienced, more veteran, more mature. For many of Battle's players — the majority of whom are sophomores and juniors — the 2013 season was their first full varsity season. Having this experience — understanding the lifespan of a season — will help Battle's returners maintain focus next year, Conyers said.
"We're not gonna win state championships in Weeks 1, 2 and 3," Conyers said. "It's gonna come in those last games, and we've gotta be hitting our stride ... in Weeks 9, 10 and 11."
Whether a state championship is on the horizon for the Spartans remains to be seen. Regardless, Conyers is optimistic about next year, when he'll return all of his starters — all of his squad. (Battle had no seniors on this year's roster.)
"Not to be cliche, but I think we're gonna be Battle-ready next season," Conyers said.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.