CADIZ - Justin Kropka isn't kidding when he says last season might have been the finest coaching job of he and his staff's career at Harrison Central.
Many wouldn't buy that considering the Huskies finished a disappointing 4-6, but when you take a much deeper look at the scenarios Harrison Central dealt with, you'll believe what Kropka is saying much easier.
"I know through the course of last season that I learned a lot about what's important in life," Kropka said. "It was really tough at times, but I thought the kids and coaches stayed together and worked hard the entire season."
Not many high school teams fare well after losing their intended starting quarterback during a scrimmage or, if that wasn't enough, prior to the team's third game, team member Jimmy Cameron passed away after a brief illness. Then you throw in all of the usual circumstances high school teams deal with and it's easy to see where Kropka is coming from.
"It was tough ... it was real tough," Kropka said. "You hate to think that 4-6 is the best job you ever did, but I honestly believe it was. A lot of teams might have folded, but we didn't. We went out and played hard every week, which is a credit to our coaches and last year's senior class. I hope the kids have learned not to take things for granted because I sure have. I hope it continues to get passed down."
Now, the newest challenge arrives in the form of taking everything they went through last season and channeling it toward the new campaign, which begins Friday at Wheeling Island Stadium against perennial West Virginia small-school power Wheeling Central.
"I hope the kids learned something from what we went through last year, and I hope history doesn't repeat itself," Kropka said. "It's a funny game at times, and you just never know what's going to happen. I think what's really entrenched after last year, is that no matter what, all you can control is how hard you play. You can't control how talented you are or how talented the other team is, but you can always play hard and do what you're coached to do."
As for what kind of team Kropka will put on the field this season, he's high on it.
"I think we're solid, but we're thin as far as depth goes," Kropka said. "We've got a talented senior class and I think we've got a lot of talent in the freshmen class, but in between? We're mixing and matching because they're good classes, but they're not big in numbers."
The Huskies have 41 players on the squad, including a 15-member senior class, that has experienced its fair share of ups and downs. They were members of the Huskies' only playoff team in 2009, but have gone 7-13 since.
"Our seniors have done a nice job of getting us ready," Kropka said. "We had a great offseason and not one bad practice this season despite dealing with some issues and minor injuries. If these seniors aren't hungry now, I don't possibly know what could make you hungry."
Much like many area coaches, Kropka's biggest concern is depth because of the drop off from the first unit to the backups, not necessarily in terms of talent, but in varsity experience.
"We had 52 kids out last year, which had been our lowest number since my first season," Kropka said. "I don't think there's any one factor for the drop in numbers. I think it's just one of those cycles because we have 43 kids out for our junior high program. I really think, as long as we stay healthy, getting into the postseason is a reasonable goal for this team."
Harrison Central wants to again be a run-first team, but Kropka and his staff have had a knack for adapting to their personnel, which could be in play again this season.
"We've had All-Ohio quarterbacks, All-Ohio receivers and a nice run of tailbacks, so if you're versatile enough - without changing the schemes - you can change who's getting the ball. But, at the same time, not changing your schemes and having continuity in the program is important, too. We've been successful offensively, but we've been fortunate to have some good kids at the skill positions and up front."
The Huskies are again handing the keys of their offense to quarterback Rashaen Mitchell (6-foot-5, 200 pounds). He won the job last season, but was injured during a scrimmage and missed the first six games of the season.
"He played well when he came back," Kropka said. "He's a calming force because he's a kid who doesn't get too high or too low. He managed the huddle well and has the respect of his teammates."
Junior David Miser (6-2, 185) is the top backup. He filled in admirably a season ago during Mitchell's absence.
"We think the world of David Miser," Kropka said. "He came into camp with a serious attitude because he understands that he could be just one play away from being back in there. I wouldn't trade our two quarterbacks for anyone. There's a package where you could see both guys on the field, so that's a possibility."
The third quarterback on the roster is freshman Zach Arbogast (5-9, 135).
At the tailback spot, the Huskies return one of the area's premier rushers in workhorse senior Maurtice Hython (5-9, 210). He ran for 1,558 yards and 20 touchdowns en route to second team All-Ohio accolades.
"We know what we're getting from Maurtice," Kropka said. "He's doesn't do anything fancy, but he's perfect for what we do. He carried us last year when we had a young quarterback. He understands how to carry the load."
The job of lead blocking for Hython will be split betwen junior Niko Williams (5-9, 195) and senior Jeremy Spoonmore (5-10, 180).
Supplying depth should anything happen to Hython are senior Terrance Lindsey (6-0, 175) and sophomore Nate Maykowski (5-11, 170).
Other running backs trying to earn action include junior Cyle Riedel (5-7, 145) and freshmen Travis Stenson (5-11, 160), Austyn Porter (5-8, 130), Tison Johnson (5-7, 135), Antony Risley (5-7, 145), Sam Hill (5-8, 135) and Denadre Claring (5-7, 140).
Kropka is also high on his receivers despite losing three senior starters.
Junior Nate Olmstead (5-9, 160) and senior Josh Moore (5-10, 160) saw action a season ago and will take on much bigger roles this season. Senior Ryan Rose (6-3, 180) has been a pleasant surprise after coming out for football for the first time after spending three seasons on the golf team.
Junior Dalton Rutter (5-9, 150), sophomore Kalub Mitchell (5-11, 165) and freshman Giovanni Rocchi (5-10, 160) could also work their way onto the field.
"We've not decided who our No. 1 receiver is," Kropka said. "We feel we've got pretty good speed out there, and I am sure someone will distance himself in practice."
Other receivers on the squad include junior Cody Evans (5-9, 170), freshmen Bryson Porter (5-7, 155), Brandon Mitchell (5-4, 120), Anthony Heavilin (5-6, 120), Max Hall (6-0, 155), Danier Hunt (5-8, 160) and David Morgan (5-7, 145).
One area of real strength for the Huskies is at tight end where senior standout Nick Pelegreen (6-4, 225) returns. Despite being slowed in the preseason by an illness, Pelegreen is rounding back into form.
"Nick has started every game of his career for us," Kropka said. "Nick is one of the best two-way players I've ever coached."
The only other tight end on the roster is freshman Taylor Steele (6-0, 170).
The Huskies have a veteran offensive line with four starters back.
"Our line has been there and seen it," Kropka said. "When they come off the field and tell me something, I know it's right. Most of those kids are good students, so they're intelligent, strong and have had good offseasons. We definitely feel we should be able to run the ball well this season."
Junior Sean Donato (5-8, 245) started all 10 games at tackle and returns to that spot this season.
Senior Tyler Rose (6-3, 210) is embarking on his third season as a starting right guard.
Senior Colton Houston (6-0, 240) will take over the center duties after working his way through the ranks.
The left guard post will be held down by senior Rhett Kuryn (5-10, 235), who is also a three-year starter.
Junior Cole Howes (5-11, 230) is pegged to take over the other corner spot.
Battling to get into the line rotation and supply depth are seniors Tyler Hood (6-3, 245), Kyle Smith (5-11, 310), Justin Friend (5-8, 210), Josh Leggett (5-11, 190); junior D.J. Jones (6-2, 225); sophomores Casey Runevitch (5-8, 195), Austin Sambuco (5-5, 170), Zach Manbeck (6-0, 205) and freshmen Brian Heavilin (5-7, 140) and Kendall Johnson (5-8, 200).
"We've got a little bit of depth up front, but not a ton," Kropka said. "Our offense has the capability of wearing you down because you're going to have to tackle us, shed blocks and our guys will get after you."
On the defensive side, Kropka didn't pull any punches when asked where his team needed to get better.
"Frankly, we have to get better in every area," Kropka said. "We're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water. We're going to run our base schemes, but we have to teach them better. We have to tackle better, we have to defend the pass much better. Actually, you name it and we have to get better."
The Huskies will again utilize the 4-4 scheme.
Pelegreen returns at one of the linebacker spot after recording more than 100 tackles a season ago.
"Nick is our glue on defense," Kropka said.
Williams will hold down the other inside linebacker post as he must fill the shoes of the graduated Clayton Coffman.
Spoonmore and Hython are penciled in for the outside linebacker spots. Maykowski will be the top sub there.
Rose returns at a defensive end spot and Kuryn is back at a defensive tackle. Howes and Leggett have the inside track to the other tackle and end spot, respectively. Jones will back up the ends, while Hood and Donato are top subs at the tackle.
Rashaen Mitchell, who Kropka calls a "ballhawk," will line up at free safety. Olmstead and Moore are expected to serve as the corners, while Rutter, Rocchi and Kalub Mitchell will provide the depth in the secondary.
The kicking game has been an uphill battle many times during Kropka's tenure. However, he's got a kicker this season in junior Geoff Pecar, who will handle just the placekicking as a soccer-style kicker.
Miser will handle the punting duties. Bryson Porter will kick off for the Huskies.
The addition of Wheeling Central is the lone change to the schedule. It was added in place of long-time opening opponent Claymont.
"Wheeling Central made us a tremendous (financial) offer, which we appreciate because we're trying to make money for the school," Kropka said. "Plus, I just thought we needed something different to give us a spark in the offseason, which a team that's won something like eight of the last 11 state championships can provide that."
They'll make a trip to Weir and welcome Caldwell for their home opener in Week 3 prior to opening the Buckeye 8 portion of the schedule.
Kropka's coaching staff added an old face as Rob Copeland returns. Also new to the staff is Blake Allen, a Barnesville product. They join Bryan Mays, Mike Valesko, Chad Figurski, Ken Parker, Cain Noble, Mike Palmer and Nick Yourkovich.
Working with the junior high staff are Bill Bryant, Ty Kenny, Ian White and Cody Kaiser.
Other graduation losses included OVAC All-Star Game participant Matt Shurina, Jonah Moore, Tyler Evans, Jason Warren, Brandon Kreptowski, Zak Riley, Doug Eddy, Austin Schurr, Kearnan Kutow, Chris Hyde, Garrit Sproull, Trace Butler and Tyler Erwin.