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Cougars QB Nick Zaluzney threw for 1,400 yards and 14 TDs last year. He hopes to better those stats this season.
Life can be a little intimidating at times. So can being the starting quarterback for a high school football team that is used to winning.
Courtland senior Nick Zaluzney found that out very early last year. After backing up graduated starter Ryan McBroom for a season, he was thrust into the starting role in 2010.
It was an opportunity he had been looking forward to for a long time--the chance to lead one of the area's most storied programs to another championship. But a 49-20 drubbing by Massaponax in their opener left Zaluzney and the Cougars reeling.
The one-sided loss was the beginning of a painful four-game losing skid, but one that eventually turned out to be a rallying point.
Courtland posted victories in its final eight games, captured the Battlefield District title and advanced to the Group AA Division 4 state semifinals before losing to Briar Woods.
The growing process, especially those first four games, is something that Zaluzney and his teammates will not forget.
"Personally, I was just way too nervous," Zaluzney said. "It took a while for me to realize that I just needed to get set in the pocket and get used to the speed of the game."
Cougars coach J.C. Hall saw the nervousness that Zaluzney was dealing with, but never lost faith in his new starter. As Zaluzney got better at making decisions, the rest of the team followed his lead.
"It was a tough time for him," Hall said. "He made some bad decisions early, but he gradually got better and more confident. Once he got in his groove, we got better, too, and started winning."
After the shaky start, Zaluzney ended the season with nearly 1,400 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and a spot on the all-district second team.
With a strong nucleus that includes seven starters back on both sides of the line, Hall believes Zaluzney and the Cougars are ready for another big year. So does The Free Lance-Star, which is ranking them No. 4 in its preseason power poll.
"Each team takes on a different personality," Hall said. "We've got some new pieces and we hope they gel. Right now, we're feeling good about a lot of things."
Early results support his optimism. In Courtland's two preseason scrimmages, Zaluzney connected for three scoring passes and showed the benefits of a year's experience under his belt.
"The main emphasis with Nick this year is to keep us away from the bad play," Hall said. "He got flushed out of the pocket a couple of times in our scrimmage with Brooke Point and didn't panic. He's got more poise."
Helping him keep that poise this year will be a strong cast of returning starters. Running backs Kirk Wilson and Michael Bailey, linemen Jonathan Burton and Chris Kernisky, and wide receiver E.J. Green were all all-district selections.
Burton, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound tackle, knows the offensive line (the largest in 10 years) has a big role to play if the Cougars' wing-T attack is going to repeat last year's success. That's especially true when it comes to protecting Zaluzney.
"We have to step up and play as a team," Burton said. "And we've been telling Nick all year that we've got his back. We're going to do our best to make sure there are zero sacks."
That kind of protection will undoubtedly benefit Zaluzney in his second season under center. But even if the protection breaks down at times, it appears the hard-working senior will be able to weather the storm this time around.
"You can tell that Nick is a lot more confident and more excited this year," said Wilson, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season. "I really think he's ready to carry his share of the load."
The new-found confidence is not the only thing that has improved for Zaluzney and his teammates. There's also the maturity that comes from enduring last season's 0-4 start and then making it to the state semifinals.
The memory of that remarkable journey is still fresh, and the Cougars are ready to make some more memories this year.
"Football can [bring] adversity and you have to deal with it," Zaluzney said. "We've matured and that's what this team is all about. We're staying focused and everybody has a shared interest in having fun and winning."
Steve Franzello: 540/374-5440
PRESEASON TOP FIVE
This week, The Free
Yesterday: No. 5 MassaponaxToday: No. 4 Courtland
Tomorrow: No. 3
Wednesday: No. 2
Thursday: No. 1