Cole hopeful Bridgeport’s experience pays off

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — John Cole has been around the Bridgeport football program 22 straight years.

While the first 20 of those were spent as an assistant coach, Cole is entering his third year as the Indians’ head coach.

Regardless of the title he holds, however, Cole has noticed a trend among the more successful Bridgeport teams over the last two-plus decades.

“Experience, strength and speed — if you have those three ingredients, especially the speed, you should have a pretty good season,” Cole said.

This year’s version of the Tribe won’t be short on experience and returns a strong core of key contributors to last year’s 11-2 team that saw its season end in a Class AA semifinal.

As for the other two ingredients, a surplus of the roster has added strength, but Cole remains unsure about the team’s breakaway ability as it moves forward without the school’s all-time leading rusher Jake Bowen.

“You can’t replace Bowen. I don’t know how productive our offense is going to be,” Cole said. “I think our line is going to be better, but I don’t know about our point production yet. We have a couple skill guys at receiver, but we run the football. 

“Is it going to be 10 and 12 play drives instead of four, five, six plays and then breaking a big one? And if we don’t score as much, then our defense has to better.”

As a longtime offensive line coach at BHS, Cole knows the importance of those tasked with opening running lanes for the Indians’ backfield.

“Jake would agree with this — the line is the most important thing,” Cole said. “It’s the most important thing to me and the most important thing to our team. He couldn’t have gotten near the yardage if he didn’t have those guys in front of him and the two blocking backs going.”

Cole also wants the Indians to get back to having the quarterback be a primary ball carrier. This season, that falls to Devin Vandergrift, a returning starter behind center who will work in second-year offensive coordinator Tyler Phares’ system.

“The reason we went to the pistol is so that can quarterback can run some. We’re going to run the quarterback more,” Cole said. “Defenses are going to have to worry about that and they didn’t have to last year.”

As for the Tribe defense, Cole is hopeful the improvement it showed over the second half of last season will carry over.

Over three straight regular season games in 2018, the Indians allowed 45, 41 and 28 points, respectively, to Fairmont Senior, Robert C. Byrd and Buckhannon-Upshur. Bridgeport then prevented its next six opponents from reaching 20 points, before ultimately allowing 35 in the season-ending loss at Bluefield.

“The first six games of last year, our defense wasn’t what we’ve been accustomed to and wasn’t very good,” Cole said. “We gave up a lot of yards rushing and missed tackles at times. But they got better. Hopefully the experience will make us better early.”

Cole knows challenges will be plentiful for this team early on. After opening with Lewis County, Bridgeport battles Morgantown in Week 2. The Indians then play at Liberty (Harrison), before back-to-back contests against Fairmont Senior and RCB.

“If our experience hasn’t paid off and we haven’t gotten better, we could have several losses by Game 5,” Cole said.

After winning three straight Class AA championships from 2013-2015, Bridgeport has been knocked out in the Class AA semifinals each of the last three seasons by Fairmont Senior or Bluefield.

The Polar Bears and Beavers have met in each of the last two AA title games and are popular picks to get back to Wheeling this year.

“It comes down to the same thing — winning that line of scrimmage,” Cole said. “So the past two and three years, Bluefield has beaten us on that line of scrimmage. Fairmont’s beaten us on the line of scrimmage.

“If we’re strong enough on the lines to play with those teams and if our defense has gotten better, we stand a better chance at playing with them.”

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