When the air turns chilly and the leaves begin to fall from the trees, every high school football team hopes their games will still mean something.
It has been awhile since games played late in the regular season have had a sense of importance at Keystone. After a winless 2011 season, the odds were long that the Wildcats would be playing meaningful games in Weeks 9 and 10 this year.
Don’t tell that to sophomore C.J. Conrad, who will lead his team into action against Buckeye tonight. A win would put the Wildcats in sole possession of second place in the Patriot Athletic Conference’s Stars Division — Keystone and Buckeye are tied with five points — and possibly give them the outright lead if Black River lost to Firelands — the Pirates currently have six points.
The Wildcats won the Inland Conference title in 1971 … the school’s lone conference championship. This year’s team is hoping to add a second trophy to its case.
“A lot of people ask how our offseason went after we were 0-10 last year … it was the best offseason we’ve ever had,” Keystone coach Rob Clarico said.
“The seniors did lead that, but C.J. was a big part of it as well.”
Conrad, who plays wide receiver and safety, has been a big part of everything this season. He leads Lorain County with 49 receptions, 796 yards and 13 touchdown receptions. Defensively, Conrad averages 8.4 tackles per game, has two interceptions and has recovered a fumble.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder proved early this season that he was the go-to guy on the Wildcats offense.
“In the first game against Monroeville we were struggling to get much offense going,” Clarico said. “Late in the fourth quarter, C.J. caught a simple hitch and took it about 75 yards to turn the field over. Then he scored the winning touchdown on the same drive. That was, basically, our whole offense that entire game.
“After that game, I think the kids have gotten the confidence that if we can’t get anything else going C.J. is going to get a touchdown at some point during the game. It gives them confidence to keep playing hard, even if we are behind. They know C.J. is going to eventually beat someone on the other team and get some points for us.”
Conrad played in five games as a freshman on the winless 2011 squad. This year he said his team identified its goal early. Keystone (4-4, 3-2 PAC) hosts Black River in the season finale, so a pair of wins to close the season would allow the Wildcats to achieve that goal.
“We know that we control our own destiny, that if we win out we are the conference champions,” Conrad said. “The goal at the beginning of the season was simple — we wanted to get a number on a banner in the gymnasium. We just have to focus over the next two weeks and get the job done.”
You have the feeling it would mean just a little bit more for Conrad than for anyone else. His father, Mike Conrad (Class of 1985) is enshrined in the Keystone High School Hall of Fame after a stellar basketball career. His sister, Kenzie, pitched the Wildcats softball team to a state title last season.
The pressure to succeed is all around him, but Conrad takes it all in stride.
“I use it as motivation. (My father) expects a lot out of me and wants me to be a leader on and off the field,” he said. “I want to follow in his footsteps and try to do my best all the time because I know what he was able to do at this school. People remember him and I don’t want to reflect poorly on that.
“I let expectations fuel me. I don’t worry about statistics. My job is to do what I can to put the team into the best position to win. I can’t worry about the numbers … I just worry about playing football and having fun with it.”
Clarico believes his previous varsity experience has helped, too.
“He’s mentally tough and I think the fact that he played five games for us as a freshman last year, then played the entire year on the varsity level in basketball prepared him for the spotlight,” Clarco said. “He comes from a great family that has taught him how to compete. His older sister was an All-American softball player, so watching her grow up and mature as an athlete really helped him as well.
“His dad is in our athletic hall of fame here for what a great basketball player he was, and went on to play college basketball. He also helped coach his kids as they were growing up so I think that has helped them quite a bit.”
Conrad, who played significant minutes on the conference champion Keystone basketball team last season, wants to put the Wildcats’ football program on the map as well.
“Football has always been kind of overlooked around here at Keystone,” he said. “It would be great to be a part of winning a football conference championship for the school.”
Clarico has made sure his players carried the historical significance of what they could possibly accomplish with them.
“If you ask any of our football players what ‘1971’ means, they will all be able to tell you,” he said. “That was the year of the only football conference championship in Keystone history. We’re not afraid to talk about that, and we’re also not afraid to talk about how tough it is to turn a program around.
“Now it’s all up to them. The history of Keystone football means nothing to this year just as much as last year’s winless team has nothing to do with this year, but they are all aware of the last conference championship.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or email@example.com.