GRASS RANGE — In TJ Smith’s first year as head coach of the Grass Range-Winnett football team, the Rangers, playing several freshmen, suffered a devastating one-point loss to Bridger in the final minutes that kept them home from the playoffs.
Fast forward three years. Those freshmen are now seniors for Smith, and the Rangers have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. However, if Grass Range-Winnett was going to take the next step as a program, it would have to find a way to beat Bridger — something the senior class hadn’t done in three previous tries.
But the fourth try proved to be the charm, as the Rangers shut out Bridger 27-0 earlier this season.
“It was a huge mental block,” Smith said of the previous losses to Bridger. “I’ve worked hard to instill a mentality of never giving up, never quitting no matter what happens, good or bad. It’s showing in these boys. They’ve been listening for the last three or four years, and it’s really showing in these boys.”
Part of the mentality that Smith has instilled is giving maximum effort and focusing on the play at hand.
“I tell the boys it doesn’t matter what the score is at the end of the game. The only thing that matters is if you can look in the mirror after the game and honestly ask yourself, ‘Did I give 100 percent for this game? Did I do my best? Did I try my hardest?’ If you can say yes to that, that’s really the thing that matters,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter the score, the only thing that matters is giving your best effort all the time. When you make a mistake, don’t focus on that mistake but do better from that, overcome the mistake.”
The Rangers have bought in to Smith’s philosophy and it has paid dividends to this point. Grass Range-Winnett is one of just three unbeaten teams remaining in 6-Man, along with Wibaux and rival Roy-Winifred.
The success to this point in the season has hinged upon the Rangers’ continuity and chemistry. Players such as linebacker/fullback Caleb Hess and linebacker/tailback Zane Stahl are four-year starters defensively and have played huge roles for the Rangers since their freshman seasons.
Familiarity with Smith’s offensive and defensive schemes, too, has enabled the Rangers to assert themselves as the 6-Man South’s top team. Smith began coaching this group of seniors when they were in eighth grade and has been with them since.
“Our kids know the offense and run it so well,” Smith said. “They also know the defense, too. Plus, they’ve got a good attitude and a good work ethic.”
There’s just one more goal ahead for Grass Range-Winnett to check off before the postseason — 6-Man South conference champions. The Rangers and Roy-Winifred are setting up for a de facto conference title game on Oct. 20, should all hold to form.
“You can feel it in the atmosphere. There’s just a sense when you’re around the guys that they’re hungry for it, it’s in their grasp and I don’t think they’re going to let anybody take it away from them,” Smith said. “The atmosphere centered around the football team is pretty intense in Grass Range and Winnett right now.”
“I really haven’t seen that much (on Roy-Winifred),” said Smith. “They don’t run much fancy stuff. Our kids are looking forward to it. That’s a big rival for us.”