They were just a couple plays away — a third-down conversion, a defensive stop, maybe a catch over the middle that goes an extra 10 yards. The Clearview Clippers were close.
For the first five weeks of the season, the Clippers had little to show for their effort. They were 1-4, having lost three games by eight points or less.
But first-year coach Mike Collier saw all the signs of a turnaround — underclassmen suddenly grasping the nuances of a new offense, a quarterback taking better control of the ball and, most importantly, a fast-emerging running attack.
No team has been hotter over the last three weeks in the Patriot Athletic Conference’s Stripes Division than Clearview. After shutting out Brooklyn 26-0, the Clippers pulled off their biggest win of the year with a 34-24 shocker over Stripes favorite Lutheran West.
“That was the big one,” said Collier. “We knew Lutheran West had the best offense we’d face all year and it looked like the Stripes was going to run through them.”
The PAC’s Stripes Division has been the most curious race of the year. The only team with a record better than .500 (Lutheran West) sputtered to a 1-3 divisional start.
Clearview, the defending Stripes champion, was thought to be in a rebuilding year, following the exodus of coach Matt Wilson, along with a 19 starters.
But because of the PAC’s parity, the door opened for another Clipper run.
“A lot of our team’s inexperience has started to fade away now that they’ve gotten some playing time under their belts,” said Collier. “Things are starting to gel well.”
Especially the Clearview running game. Over the first four weeks of the year, the Clippers were held to an average of just 116 yards of rushing per game. But beginning 30-28 loss to Black River in Week 5, Clearview has averaged 289 yards per game.
Antwaun Carlton has produced perhaps the quietest 972 yards in Lorain County. Sophomore Anthony Hitchens has suddenly sprung to life, totaling 344 yards in the last three games alone.
Clearview has a chance to win the Stripes Division outright with wins tonight against Oberlin and next week against Columbia. They have a two-point lead in the standings.
“If we continue to win, we’ll control our own destiny,” said Collier. “The kids have really come around. They’re starting to understand our system and everything feels like it’s taking off.”
All or nothing
It would be hard to fault Keystone for getting caught up in the high of last week’s 19-13 victory over Wellington. It was the Wildcats’ first win over the Dukes in 13 years and put Keystone in the driver’s seat for the PAC’s Stars Division.
However, the way the Stars is aligned means Keystone has to win out — or else. And that won’t be easy considering the team’s schedule, which closes with a road date at Buckeye tonight and at home against Black River next week.
Buckeye, in particular, has emerged as arguably one of the league’s toughest opponents at the end of the year. Since losing to Midview on Sept. 7, the Bucks have averaged 32 points per game — best in the PAC’s Stripes Division.
“We told our kids that it’s all or nothing,” said Keystone coach Rob Clarico. “If we win the last two, we’re in first place. If we split them, we’ll end up in third place. If we lose both of them, we’ll end up in fourth place. That leaves us little choice. We have to win out.”
While much of the attention of last week’s Chanel upset of Elyria Catholic focused on the game-breaking runs by tailback Aaron Roberson, the Firebirds were successful in another critical element. Chanel controlled the pace of the game — sweeping control of what has up until then been Elyria Catholic’s trademark strength.
“It was almost as if we were playing a basketball game and we were North Carolina playing Princeton,” said Panthers coach Ben Malbasa. “They were very patient running their offense and, in so doing, took away chances from us. When there are less possessions, scoring on the majority of your possessions becomes more and more important.”
By controlling the tempo, Chanel did something no other EC opponent has accomplished: holding the Panthers to under 20 points.
There hasn’t been a whole lot that’s gone the Elyria Pioneers’ way this season. But the reality is this was going to be a difficult year and no amount coaching wizardry was going to change that.
Coach Steve Hamilton has tried to focus on the bigger picture and has initiated 15 sophomores into significant varsity roles.
“That might not pay dividends now, but over the next two years, that’s going to be significant,” he said. “The most important thing facing this program will be getting those guys into the weight room, where the biggest amount of improvement has to occur. You have 16-year-old kids that have been lifting for two years going against 18-year-olds that have been lifting for five or six years. That shows up on a football field.”
Now it can be told
Coaches are superstitious creatures by nature, which is why I applaud the many who have agreed to sit down for our weekly question and answer feature, Four Downs (see Page B8). Recently, it was brought to my attention that participation in this exercise has repeatedly resulted in untimely defeats for the programs involved.
It was first mentioned earlier this week by Clarico, the coach at Keystone. Following his participation on Sept. 28, the previously unbeaten Wildcats was throttled 35-0 by Lutheran West. A week earlier, Midview’s Bill Albright watched a 4-0 start turn to ashes after talking to Four Downs.
All told, coaches have gone 3-5 after partaking in The Chronicle’s Q&A. And they say appearing on Sports Illustrated is a curse? Eat your heart out, SI.
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.