Cougar Football Regains Winning Form
By Chris Adams, Director of Communications & Marketing
The last game of the 2023 Cardigan football season was scheduled to be something special—a Friday night game against Fessenden School hosted by St. Paul’s School in Concord. The entire school community—students and adults alike—packed into buses and drove the hour trip to the game. Many of the boys carried signs or wore green face paint, adding to an electric atmosphere that many hoped might be the start of a new tradition.
When the final whistle blew, the Cougars found themselves on the losing side of a close, hard-fought battle with Fessenden. While it was a certainly momentary disappointment for the boys, many adult fans were able to see through the emotion that the 2023 season was a significant step forward for Cougar football, the result of four seasons of courage and hard work in rebuilding a program derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cougars didn’t play contact football in 2020. Instead, like many schools, Cardigan boys played flag football—and only with themselves, not against other teams. Though the school did resume playing contact football in 2021, the season proved to be quite challenging, as some varsity players had never played contact football and most had never played a game against a real opponent. “We spent the entire season teaching the game instead of coaching,” says Head Coach Hal Gartner. “We showed up to practice with a simple goal—to find a way to get one percent better every day.”
“The football team has shown tremendous improvement in the last few years. I am thankful for our determined coaches and my teammates and fellow captains for pushing to be better.” Noah Humphrey ’24
The final game of that season, a decisive 38-8 victory at home against Avon Old Farms, provided both a welcome reward for the team’s hard work and the spark the program needed as it looked to the future. Indeed, the 2022 team continued the trajectory of improvement, notching a few impressive wins, including beating Eaglebrook for the first time since 2018. Meanwhile, Cardigan’s JV Football Team, under the guidance of Head Coach Chris Kelleher, won three straight games to conclude the 2022 season with serious momentum.
Ninth-grade leadership is an integral part of all aspects of life at Cardigan, and it is especially true in football. With 19 ninth-graders on the 2023 varsity roster, Coach Gartner felt the team had the experience and leadership for a successful season. “Some of these boys were 6th graders playing flag football during the COVID year,” he says. “To see them emerge as leaders was critical to our success.” Because so many of the ninth-graders were three or four-year boys, it also meant that the coaching staff could teach and install more complex offensive and defensive schemes.
“The season had some ups and downs, but we persevered and followed Coach Gartner’s motto EAT: Effort, Attitude, Toughness, and that motivated us to keep working.” Julian Santini ’24
The 2023 Cougars earned three decisive wins against two close losses, a record that included a win at home on Eaglebrook Day and a victory over Exeter High School during Fall Family Weekend. (Unfortunately, a scheduled game against Belmont Hill School was canceled.) Cardigan outscored its opponents 156 to 56 on the season. At the same time, the JV Team continued its success from the previous year by winning four consecutive games to start the season, including an 8-0 victory on Eaglebrook Day, which adds to Coach Gartner’s tangible optimism for next year. “To see both teams learning how to win consistently creates a positive culture within the entire program that provides the foundation for growth,” said Coach Gartner. “There are boys who played JV this year that I expect will be key players on next year’s varsity, and I can’t wait to see it.”