LAGRANGE — The Keystone football team has the same goal it had last year … only now it can point to the moment that goal was taken away.
Last season in Week 9, Buckeye came to Keystone High in a battle for Patriot Athletic Conference supremacy. The Bucks were 4-1 in the PAC, Keystone was 5-0.
It took a fluke play in overtime, with Buckeye falling on a fumble for a 2-point conversion, to hand the Wildcats their first PAC loss, 29-27.
The Bucks made the playoffs while Keystone failed to advance to the OHSAA Tournament yet again.
The loss has been with the Wildcats ever since.
“I’ve been here 11 years, and every year I ask the kids about our goals,” Keystone coach Rob Clarico said. “They usually bring up beating Wellington because that’s our rival … but I heard a lot of ‘beat Buckeye’ this year. They’ve thought about it a lot in the offseason.”
Senior tight end C.J. Conrad accepted a full football scholarship to play at the University of Kentucky next year, committing early so he could enjoy his senior year.
Conrad looks at the Buckeye loss for motivation as he hopes his team can be the first in school history to advance to the playoffs.
“Personally that one eats me up,” he said of the loss. “I know I didn’t play very well, and I know it eats up all these seniors because we could have won the conference outright and could have made the playoffs. That loss definitely drove us in the offseason, no doubt.”
Under the leadership of strength and conditioning coach Mark Fable, the Wildcats put in a lot of time in the weight room as a team.
Clarico thinks the results are evident.
“When we got on the field in our full pads, I was astonished with how big and strong we are,” Clarico said. “The credit goes to (Fable). He got in here about four years ago and each year they’ve gotten bigger and bigger. Not only does that help them deliver the hits, it helps their confidence to know they are bigger and stronger than the guy they are lining up against.”
Last season, Keystone was a run-first offense that threw the ball when it had to. As a team, the Wildcats rushed for 3,095 yards with running back-turned-quarterback Tyler Gullett accounting for 1,561 yards and 18 touchdowns.
With three starting offensive linemen back as well as second-leading rusher Tyler Polen (759 yards, 10 touchdowns), the Wildcats should again be able to churn out yards on the ground … with the added bonus of one of the top tight ends in the nation to throw to when necessary.
“I think we’re going to have the ability to run the football as well or better than we did last year,” Clarico said. “We always like to start with the ground and pound, but when you have one of the top 10 tight ends in the nation you have to find a way to throw the ball as well.”
Polen has a lot of confidence in his offensive line.
“I wouldn’t want to have any other offensive linemen than these guys,” he said. “They work hard and they don’t miss their assignments. They’ve worked really hard and are ready for a big year. There are going to be some big holes open for us. This year is a big year for us. All the seniors want to make history.”
Denny Szalai, who threw just 11 passes last year as a junior, is expected to start at quarterback.
“I want to give the senior every chance to be the starter,” Clarico said. “He and Trey Minnich, a sophomore, are battling neck-and-neck and no matter who the starter is they are both going to get time under center. I learned a good lesson last year when Marcus went down and I didn’t really have a backup quarterback ready. This year we will.”
Regardless of who is throwing the ball, Conrad is poised for a big season. The 6-foot-5 senior added muscle and speed in the offseason.
“C.J. is a great kid with great character from a great family,” Clarico said. “He is a hard worker with a lot of talent, but he’s never satisfied. One thing I told the people down in Kentucky is that they’re getting a winner. Coach (Woody) Hayes used to talk about how you win with people. He’s talking about character, and C.J. brings all of that.”
While catching the ball is what Conrad is known for, he realizes that is just part of his job.
“I love hitting,” he said. “My biggest transition from wide receiver to tight end was blocking. To get to the next level and to do what I wanted to do I had to block, and that also really helped the team. I love it and love whatever it takes to help the team.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic (Stars Division)
2013 RECORD: 7-3
COACH: Rob Clarico (43-57 career)
RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (Eight on offense, nine on defense)
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: None
NUMBERS GAME: The Wildcats graduated 1,816 rushing yards last year. They return 1,279.
PLAYER TO WATCH: C.J. Conrad has signed to continue his football career in the Southeastern Conference with the Kentucky Wildcats. The 6-foot-5 tight end has been named the most valuable receiver in the PAC for two consecutive seasons. He earned first-team all-league, all-county and all-district honors last season, while also garnering third-team All-Ohio honors.
Aug. 29 Monroeville
Sept. 5 at Cloverleaf
Sept. 12 Galion
Sept. 19 at Clearview
Sept. 26 Brooklyn
Oct. 3 at Firelands
Oct. 10 Wellington
Oct. 17 Brookside
Oct. 24 at Buckeye
Oct. 31 at Black River
All games at 7 p.m.