As the old saying goes, chemistry isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. That’s why Keystone’s coaches and returning players put a major focus on it this offseason.
Campfires, movie nights and other get-togethers throughout the summer have helped forge a stronger bond, the Wildcats say. They hope it pays dividends after going 4-6 a year ago.
“Last season we were not a family,” said Cory Hartle, a junior wide receiver and outside linebacker. “We’ve all learned from that and we’re hanging out more in the offseason. Upperclassmen are hanging out with the freshmen, practices are totally different and we have a much better vibe. That helps with our chemistry.”
Now that they’re back on the field, the Wildcats can focus on replacing the key contributors they lost. That begins with starting quarterback Bobby Weber, who threw for 1,058 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions and had a 56.3 completion percentage. He also ran for 367 yards and five touchdowns on 57 carries.
Filling the void will be junior Jacob Shackelford, who was one of the team’s top cornerbacks last year.
Shackelford had to fill in for Weber at times last season when the senior was injured and went 6-of-13 for 90 yards, a touchdown and an interception while rushing 20 times for 56 yards.
Coach Don Griswold said Shackelford can play both ways, but hopes to keep him focused on running the offense.
“We put a lot on our quarterbacks, it’s a lot to process,” Griswold said. “He has a boatload to process. Having another year under his belt, being more familiar with the offense, gives him confidence to do the things he does in practice on Friday nights.”
Griswold added he likes his offense this year, especially with junior running back Dylan Naylor returning after leading the team with 420 rushing yards on 90 carries.
He’ll be surrounded by a number of solid young receivers, including last year’s No. 1 in Karson Cendrosky. The senior caught six passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
Hartle will also see an expanded role after catching six passes for 55 yards and two touchdowns. And senior tight end Dalton Weber possesses the physical skills to put pressure on the defense. He only caught three passes for 42 yards his junior year as he worked his way back from back injuries that cost him his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“We have a lot of good receivers who can do something with the ball and a quarterback who can throw really well,” Cendrosky said. “Shack is ready to lead the team. He takes command over the field and makes sure everyone knows what they’re doing. He’s going to play an important role for us.”
Hartle and Weber both will be key members of the linebacking corps. That unit will have to recover from the unexpected loss of its leader — Kayden Williams.
Williams, who led the team in tackles with 123, died in a car accident in December. The team plans to honor him throughout the season.
Hartle is the team’s top returning tackler with 57 and Weber will see an expanded role after recording five last season.
Naylor will also help lead the secondary after recording 52 tackles, a sack and an interception.
“He’s a great thinker on the field,” Cendrosky said of Naylor. “He can read a pass play really quickly and react to it. He never gives up anything, he has relentless effort and that’s really admirable about him.”
Keystone’s schedule isn’t kind in the non-conference, kicking off against Bay — who at 12-1 made its fourth straight trip to the playoffs last season and reached the Division III, Region 10, final — and Norwayne in Week 3, which has qualified for the postseason in three straight seasons and is coming off a 10-2 year.
The Wildcats lost to both teams last year, but kept things close against the Rockets. The team is welcoming the challenge and keeping their sights set on finishing about .500, something the program did the three seasons prior to 2017.
“Everybody wants to be 10-0, but our coaches ask what makes us different from the other teams telling themselves they’re going to be 10-0,” Weber said. “We have to push ourselves, and we have really tough competition. I think we can be a winning team.”
CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division
2017 RECORD: 4-6, 2-3
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 11
RETURNING STARTERS: 7 (4 offense, 3 defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 1
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2014 (lost to Bellevue in first round of Division IV)
NUMBERS GAME: 2 — games decided by two scores or less last season (both losses to Bay and Columbia).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Alex Pataky, sophomore offensive lineman, who is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds at just 15 years old. Coaches say he’s picking up varsity game quickly and should be an anchor in the trenches.
Aug. 24 Bay
Aug. 31 at Cloverleaf
Sept. 7 Norwayne
Sept. 14 at Columbia
Sept. 21 Brooklyn
Sept. 28 at Black River*
Oct. 5 Brookside*
Oct. 12 at Wellington*
Oct. 19 at Buckeye*
Oct. 26 Firelands*
* PAC Stars Division games
All games at 7 p.m.