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Joint football team gives Bridgman and New Buffalo students chance to play

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. - This time of year is always exciting for high school football teams, with the first week of the season finally upon the state of Michigan.

But maybe no team in the area appreciates the opportunity to play than the South County Cougars.

If you don’t recognize the name, that’s because it’s brand new.

The Cougars are formed by players from both New Buffalo and Bridgman, coming together as a co-op team to make sure they all have a chance to play.

“The kids that go to Bridgman are still Bridgman Bees and the kids that go to New Buffalo are still New Buffalo Bison,” said Cougars co-head coach Matt Johnson. “They still need to represent their school, but them being able to come together and do this as something totally separate is exciting for them. I think both parties realized we needed each other.”

That realization coming after a recent trend of low participation numbers put the 2018 football season in doubt for both schools. And even if they were able to play separately, safety concerns of playing freshmen or forcing some to play both offense and defense made it unlikely.

So this offseason, administrators met and agreed to work together, choosing the South County Cougars as a new name with new team colors rather than focusing on one school or the other.

Over the summer, players had to quickly form the same sort of bond which other teams have built for years, but it has seemingly been no problem getting these athletes to come together.

“They’ve done real well together,” said Aaron Locke, the other half of the head coaching duo. “They’ve meshed, they’ve bonded. We’ve ran them hard and we’ve taken them bowling so they’ve gotten both ends of the spectrum together. They’ve hung pretty tight so far, so we look forward to seeing that throughout the season.”

Now that the worry of simply putting a team on the field is behind them, the Cougars are now focusing on the season starting this week.

They’ll play Fennville in the first game together, and though there could certainly be reason to lower expectations, the Cougars refuse.

“They’ve jived really well,” Locke said. “Each set of kids sort of complements each other really well, so we’re looking forward to it. We’re looking forward to a seriously good season.”

Locke pointed out that even the mix of talent shows that the schools are complementing each other well. Bridgman’s group brings some good skill players while New Buffalo boasts interior strength, adding up to an impressive overall core.

While there still may understandably be bumps in the road that every football team can expect, South County is setting its sights on a possible playoff berth if all goes well.

“Success can come in different forms,” Johnson said. “You don’t always have to win or have a winning record to be successful. But we’ve really been focusing on the fact that we want to be competitive. If the kids can learn to compete, then the wins will take care of themselves.”

That confidence comes in large part from the coaching staff, which also boasts several coaches from either school.

“We’ve got a great group of guys that’s humble and focused on the kids,” Johnson said. “It’s always tough when you enter that situation with who is doing what, how and where. They’ve done a good job of meshing the concepts that we hold near and dear as separate programs and making it one so it’s functional for the kids.”

With two staffs joining forces, Johnson said the adults have learned as valuable a lesson as any of the students.

“You see someone on the other sideline and they’re your mortal enemy, but then when you’re on the same team you find out that there are a lot of similarities and we’re all in it for the same reason. So that camaraderie is cool as well.”

In addition to the combination of two schools’ football teams, the other factors surrounding the sport are combining as well.

Bridgman and New Buffalo will both contribute cheerleaders, and will split the four home games on the schedule. Even the pep bands are joining forces, and have worked together to choose a new fight song as well.

“I think they’re excited to play. That’s what it comes down to,” Locke said. “Offering opportunities to kids from both schools is what everybody wanted. They have an opportunity to be a part of something successful.”

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