Keystone may have said goodbye to the top senior class in school history, but don’t tell the Wildcats to lower expectations this season.
Gone, however, is a senior class that went 15-6 the last two seasons, including an 8-2 division record and a 12-2 PAC record. Coach Rob Clarico, however, is confident in the program’s pipeline.
“We’d like to build off of what we’ve done,” Clarico said. “We want to be like a lot of these teams that just reload every year. We don’t have a lot of kids coming back, but a lot of times Columbia didn’t have a lot of kids coming back, Avon didn’t have a lot of kids coming back and they go from one tremendous season to the next.
“What we’re trying to tell our players is that the groundwork has been set by the last successful years that we’ve had. All they have to do is continue what has occurred over the last few years and they’ll be successful. They’ve put in all the work necessary, we just have to see what Friday night lights do to them.”
The Wildcats do boast a strong front line led by senior Cole Goldsmith and juniors Cade Christoff and Brett Schuster. The trio will bring their experience back on the defensive side with Christoff compiling 37 tackles — 24 solo — a year ago. Goldsmith described Christoff as a big nimble guy who is strong and quick off the ball.
The offensive line will be further boosted by sophomore David McCullough, who missed most of last season with a concussion. Clarico said he came on strong toward the end of the season and in the team’s playoff game.
“We’re not as tall as we were before, but we’re just as strong, maybe even stronger,” Goldsmith said. “I think we can be just as good as we were last year. I think this is the strongest offensive line that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Looking to start as the other end is Jacob Sokolowski, who will also have the tall task of replacing C.J. Conrad at tight end. Conrad led the team in catches with 55 and piled up 752 receiving yards to go with 12 total touchdowns — 10 receiving — and is now playing for Kentucky.
“Jacob maybe isn’t as tall or as gifted physically as C.J., but he’s pretty strong and pretty fast so he certainly has a chance to put up the same type of numbers,” Clarico said.
The offensive line will be key in creating running lanes for Austin Conrad, C.J.’s brother, whom Clarico calls the team’s best player. The Ohio University commit will switch from playing fullback to running back and from defensive end to inside linebacker, moves Clarico said will put him in a better position to make plays.
Conrad earned special mention All-Ohio honors last year with 56 tackles (38 solo) and five sacks. He scored six touchdowns, two on the ground and two receiving.
Conrad isn’t the only player returning who boasts All-Ohio honors. Senior corner and wide receiver Chris Sittinger, who also was a special mention selection, led the team with five interceptions. Like Conrad, he is helping the younger players get acclimated to their expanded roles.
“Some of them don’t know their positions so well yet,” Sittinger said. “We have five seniors on the team, so we just have to help out all the younger kids so that they know what they’re doing.”
Who will get Sittinger the ball on offense is still being decided. Junior Trey Minnich and sophomore Bobby Weber are in a competition for the starting quarterback job. Minnich is listed at 6-0, Weber is 6-2 and both are also listed as defensive backs.
“We’re pretty young so there’s been a lot of learning so far,” Conrad said. “I think the goals are the same, though. We’ve got a lot of kids who haven’t been there before, but me being someone who has, I have to step up and help lead the guys as best I can so we can have the same success we’ve had in the past.”
CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division
2014 RECORD: 8-2, 4-1
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 6
RETURNING STARTERS: 6 (three offense, three defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 1
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2014 (lost in first round)
NUMBERS GAME: 51 percent, the approximate amount of last year’s team’s total catches (55) and receiving yards (752) accounted for by tight end C.J. Conrad, who is now playing football at the University of Kentucky.
PLAYER TO WATCH: David McCullough, sophomore offensive lineman/linebacker, missed most of the last year with a concussion, but coach Rob Clarico said he helped the Wildcats down the stretch and in the playoffs last year and will be expected to fill a bigger role this season.
Aug. 28 at Cuyahoga Heights
Sept. 4 Cloverleaf
Sept. 11 at Galion
Sept. 18 Lutheran West
Sept. 25 at Fairview
Oct. 2 Black River*
Oct. 9 at Brookside*
Oct. 16 Wellington*
Oct. 23 Buckeye*
Oct. 30 at Firelands*
* PAC Stars Division games
All games at 7 p.m.
— Chris Sweeney