October 21, 2014

Elyria
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48°F
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Football Week 3: Keystone turns offense into wins

The season wasn’t even two hours old and the Keystone Wildcats were gassed. As temperatures soared toward 100 degrees on the night of their season opener in Monroeville, Keystone entered halftime with its players on the verge of collapse.
“We were spent — we all were taking off our shoulders pads and could barely move,” remembered Wildcats quarterback Mike Herb.
Suddenly, a cool breeze came across the plain and circulated inside the locker room.
“Everyone just kind of turned and said, ‘Did you feel that?’” said Keystone tailback Shane Robinson.
The Wildcats got their second wind literally and burst out of the locker room. Two explosive quarters later, Keystone had thoroughly dominated Monroeville, who had beaten the Wildcats in 25 of their previous 27 meetings.
In the two weeks since, Keystone has overwhelmed opponents with its offensive weapons, tallying an impressive 103 points in three games. The Wildcats travel to Columbia tonight with a chance to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 1983, when they got off to a 5-0 start.
No one should be surprised that the Wildcats are putting the ball in the end zone with regularity. Keystone averaged better than 21 points a game last year, despite being shut out twice, and boasted one of the elite offensive units in the Patriot Athletic Conference.
What’s notable is that they are winning games that in previous years they might have lost.
“Last year, after beating a team like Monroeville, we would have gotten too happy and let our guard down,” said Herb. “This year, we’re keeping our poise and staying on track. We’re doing what it takes to have a winning season.”
Winning seasons, to be sure, have been rare at Keystone. Not since 1985 have the Wildcats won six games in the same year. That futility for a long time had become woven into the fabric of the football program.
“All of us can remember growing up and going to these games and watching the home team get beat,” said Robinson. “It eats at you. I think that’s why we’re so focused this year. We have a chance to really do something special.”
That sense of promise has been apparent for some time. When Keystone hired head coach Rob Clarico for the 2004 season, the Wildcats had just graduated 22 seniors. The incoming senior, junior and sophomore classes were all small in size and short on experience.
“One thing I did notice was our freshman class was rather big and they were having an excellent season,” said Clarico. “I think they only lost one game that year.”
Clarico moved two of those freshmen up to the varsity level early on Herb, who was a tall, wide-eyed, lanky quarterback, and Robinson, a diminutive back with a knack for outsprinting defenders.
Four seasons later, Herb and Robinson have become two of the most explosive weapons in the Keystone offense, along with two of the team’s most reliable leaders.
Robinson already has rushed for 542 yards and seven touchdowns, while averaging 10.1 yards per carry. By virtue of his natural ability, Robinson is among the quickest players on the football field. His ability to stop and restart at full speed is uncanny. But what may distinguish Robinson is his comprehension of what is occurring around him on the field, and his ability to apply his skills accordingly.
During last Friday’s 35-0 rout of Firelands, Robinson ran into a wall of linemen on a handoff. Realizing his first window was closed, he cut to his right again, no room to run. A spin to the left, and a cut to the edge later, Robinson found daylight and burst down the sideline for a 59-yard touchdown.
“He sees some holes that I don’t see until I watch the game film,” Clarico said.
Herb has had a decidedly different path to success. Brought up to the varsity in only his fourth game as a freshman, Herb was thrust into the fire. At first, he was asked only to manage the game and hand off the football. In his first year, he averaged only six passes per game.
Twenty-nine starts later, Herb has clearly found a comfort level with all the attention good and bad that comes with being a starting quarterback.
“I think the first thing that you have to adjust to is the defense moving 100 mph,” Herb said. “It took a long time to figure out what the defense was trying to do. But it slows down every year everything does. And I feel like I’ve grown with the team. You learn where everyone’s supposed to be and what the coach is really asking of you.”
Because Herb is an excellent runner, at times he struggled between finding the right balance between knowing when to pass and when to run. But in the eyes of Clarico, it all came together for Herb during last year’s triple-overtime victory over Brookside.
“That was where he became the quarterback that he could be,” Clarico said. “He kept his emotions in check, he saw the whole field and really it became the Mike Herb Show. It’s where he came of age.”
Much has been made of Herb’s preseason assertion that, “We all feel we can go 10-0 we really believe that.”
It was a statement that could be read as either a 17-year-old brimming with confidence or the first sign of hubris. But both Herb and Robinson believe a perfect season is possible if only the Wildcats maintain their focus.
“The way we look at it, in order to go 10-0, you have to go 4-0,” Robinson said. “You never want to get too ahead of yourself. But we feel we’re strong enough and that we want it bad enough, so if we work as hard as we have, anything is possible.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or palpern@chroniclet.com.