OSWEGO — The Oswego Indians were a fledgling 11-man program on its last breath. From 2015-17, the Indians won five games. The school only had one playoff win, ever, to its credit.
Enter Matt Fowler.
Prior to the 2018 season, Oswego made two radical changes to its football team. The Indians dropped down to the 8-Man level and hired Fowler, who won a state title at Spearville in 2015, to take the reins as head coach.
The hire has proven to be a match made in Heaven.
In nine seasons at Spearville, Fowler amassed a 62-32 record. In the last four years, that record was 45-3 including that 2015 state championship.
Oswego’s ability to lure Fowler, who wanted to move closer to his native Lockwood, Missouri, to helm its new 8-Man program was widely viewed as perhaps the best coaching hires in the state regardless of classification.
When Fowler arrived at Oswego, he embraced his own opportunity for a new start by getting his players to believe in the same concept.
“Some of the things that jumpstarted us, with the transition to 8-Man, were a lot of new things,” Fowler said. “We were playing different opponents. It was a different coach with a different system. You got the idea that you could have a fresh start.”
Accelerating Oswego’s turnaround has been Fowler’s previous experience. He knows the roadmap.
“This is only the second job I’ve ever had,” Fowler said. “There’s some pitfalls you can avoid. Some of that is your expectation level and the priorities of things that need to be in place.
“If you’re not teaching, you’re allowing it to happen. So you need to decide what you give and take.”
Oswego went 6-3 in each of Fowlers first two seasons and didn’t lose a game in Three Rivers League play (Oswego didn’t face then-powerhouse St. Paul in those years). But the legacy of 2019 left conflicted emotions.
While Oswego won six games and a share of a league title, it also missed out on the playoffs after it struggled in district play.
“It was a great teaching tool for us,” Fowler said. “When you get into district play, you only get so many opportunities to compete. If you have a slip up in another sport one night where you play 20-plus games, that night doesn’t doom you. So last year taught us that every opportunity, we had to be totally prepared for. A few bad breaks is what cost us last year.”
This season has presented its own set of obstacles, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic. In the preseason, Fowler described this year as the “hardest environment” he’s ever coached in.
“The initial stress of hearing how everything would be handled was overwhelming,” Fowler said. “Once we had a couple of games under our belts and adapting to what we had to do, that eased some of that pressure.”
While the school was one of many in the state to temporarily shut down its summer weights program, Oswego’s football locker room has largely been left unscathed this fall.
“I’m very grateful that we really haven’t dealt with it directly,” Fowler said. “Throughout the course of the entire season, we only had one player and an assistant coach who was quarantined. We’ve had no positive cases.”
However, Oswego has lost two games to non-COVID related forfeits this fall. Altoona-Midway and Marmaton Valley ceded their contests against Oswego as they couldn’t field enough players.
“It disrupts the routine,” Fowler said. “In both weeks, we had begun our preparations for the opponent. We wanted to be understanding. We didn’t know how much of a season we’d have. We knew some things could happen. That idea that any game could change in an instant helped us get through that.”
Nonetheless, Oswego persevered through a disjointed schedule to win its second-ever playoff game last Friday night in front of a home crowd against Central-Burden.
“That’s been the main focus,” Fowler said. “We needed to respond to adversity instead of reacting to it. We’ve come a long way in that department.”
Now Oswego is set to square off against undefeated Madison with a berth to the quarterfinals in 8-Man I on the line. The school has never won two playoff games in one season and Friday’s tilt is expected to be a tight one.
“I’ve tried to emphasize that there’s a lot of teams whose seasons have ended,” Fowler said. “There’s a lot of teams out there that would love to still be playing. I want them to feel a sense of accomplishment while still preparing to play a football game.”
Ultimately, Oswego’s turnaround is a testament to a program that has thrived in a new bubble through a fragile environment.
“I’m going to enjoy every second I have with my team,” Fowler said. “Because it is measured. The season is going to end at some point. So we need to enjoy it the best we can.”