CHOUTEAU, OK —
Football has always been best played in backyards.
In Chouteau, backyard football is still going strong. The Wildcats' practice field is almost picturesque, surrounded on three sides by tall trees and buzzing with nature — and it's still a little untamed.
"Joe got him! Joe Dirt got him!" a Wildcat assistant coach yelled after a scout team ballcarrier tripped over the defense's 12th man: a patch of tough, uneven ground.
"I haven't been able to spread it out evenly yet," busy head coach Mark Jones said after their Wednesday practice, adding that he'd get to it this week. "We used to use that field over there," Jones said, gesturing towards an overgrown field just west of the Wildcats' current patch of earth directly north of the high school stadium.
"But we just tore it up so bad, we had to move over here."
The Chouteau players don't care about having to switch fields. They've got more important things on their minds.
"We set quite a few goals as a team," senior running back and linebacker Austin Hershberger said. "Staying positive is a big thing. A lot of teamwork, a lot of effort. Get better every day."
"We hope to win four or five games, maybe get a district game in there, a district win," senior lineman David Couch said.
The Chouteau football team has had a dismal recent past, including a 2-8 campaign in 2012. The last time they won a district game was in 2006, two years before Jones arrived from Hulbert as a Wildcats assistant. Currently, the team competes in brutal District 2A-7.
"Our records might not show it, but we have a lot of fun out here," Hershberger said. "We work hard and do our best. We have the best group of coaches out here we could have. We have a great group of guys. I couldn't ask for any better teammates."
"It's been a great experience, the coaches and the players and everything," senior quarterback Doug Mynahan said. "We've got to work hard to win games. I just want to be better than the past teams."
Couch agreed, and forecasted better things for the Wildcats this year.
"We have had some rough times in the previous years," he said, "but every year it seems like we improve a little bit, chip a little bit off. Be a little bit more of a team, you know. We've got a lot more discipline being shown."
Chouteau has just three weeks before its season opener at home against Warner.
"We're going to take it one game at a time," Mynahan said cautiously, "but we've always had a battle with Warner. The other year they beat us by one touchdown, and it was at the buzzer."
The Wildcats only get four games at home this season, so they have to make them count. They'll have plenty of obstacles to overcome at practice, too.
Jones isn't alone in fixing up the practice field. As Wednesday's morning prac-tice ended, Hershberger, Mynahan, Couch and the rest of the modest team set to work raising the newest monument to Wildcat football: a goalpost on the south end of the field.
"Coach! There's a huge rock in the way!" Hershberger declared after some digging revealed an obstacle to the Wildcats' work-in-progress.
In typical coach fashion, Jones replied, "So move it. Get to work."