LAGRANGE — The Wildcats have been to the depths of the valley and they didn’t like the view.
After going winless two years ago, Keystone responded last year with a 5-5 record that could have been even better had a couple of games gone its way.
This year there’s a new attitude and a new offense around the football field and the players are vowing not to return to the depths of that 0-10 season. Instead, they have visions of championships dancing in their heads.
“We definitely worked a lot harder in the offseason than we have ever worked before,” said Keystone’s C.J. Conrad, who is getting Division I offers to play tight end from the Big Ten to the Southeastern Conference.
“After the winless season, we got to 5-5 and we let some games get away from us.
“We are stronger, faster and have more depth. I really think we’re going to be a lot better this year. We don’t want to go backwards after making great strides last year.”
History is not on Keystone’s side, however, since the Wildcats have not put together consecutive non-losing seasons in the 10 years under coach Rob Clarico.
“Last year we talked a lot about breaking chains because in 60 years of Keystone football, there has not been a lot of good,” Clarico said. “There can be a lot of negativity about the football program because of our history.
“Last year was all about changing their mindset to start to think like a winner, and even if you’re hearing noise from the outside, to set it aside and go forward and play. We have to take that next step to play championship football.”
On offense, senior quarterback Marcus Gunter returns after ringing up nearly 1,500 total yards (262 rushing and 1,207 passing). He also had 14 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
At 6-foot-5, Conrad (59 receptions, 924 yards, 14 TDs) is going to draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses, but that might be just fine with the Wildcats, who are working on some new wrinkles, including a fast-paced spread attack to take advantage of their athleticism.
Keystone also added a pair of potential weapons in junior Tyler Polen (RB/LB), who transferred from Wellington, and 6-3 wide receiver Tyler Gullett, who returned last year from St. Edward and starred on the baseball team.
“We have a ton of athletes on the offensive side of the ball,” Clarico said. “We’re going to have to replace some linemen, but I think we have the kids that can step in and get the job done.”
The Wildcats have experience on defense, too, with their top three tacklers (Kendle Stiner, Pierce Young and Ryan Tobicash) returning from a team that held opponents to 14 points or fewer in all five of their wins.
“Going from 0-10 to 5-5 was a big step for us,” Stiner said. “This year it’s all about coming together as a team. Everything we do in practice is a football drill to make us better for the coming year.
“We’ve come in this year with the attitude that we want to build our own tradition and become a championship football program. Just because we haven’t done it in the past doesn’t mean that we can’t become that now.”
Contact James Brady at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division
2012 RECORD: 5-5, 4-3
COACH: Rob Clarico, 10th year, 36-54
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 15
RETURNING STARTERS: 13
FAST FACT: After a second-place finish in the Stars Division behind Black River last year, Keystone is looking for its first back-to-back non-losing seasons under Clarico.
Aug. 30 at Monroeville
Sept. 6 Cloverleaf
Sept. 13 at Galion
Sept. 20 Clearview*
Sept. 27 at Brooklyn*
Oct. 4 Firelands*
Oct. 11 at Wellington*
Oct. 18 at Brookside*
Oct. 25 Buckeye*
Nov. 1 Black River*
All games at 7 p.m.
* Patriot Athletic Conference game