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Humbling moments help Karns City avoid overconfidence in final

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 12:03 a.m.
Karns City coach Ed Conto speaks with his defense during a recent practice. The Gremlins will meet Kane Friday in the District 9 Class AA final at Memorial Stadium in Clarion.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger calls a play at the line during the second quarter against the Chiefs Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 at Heinz Field. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

A confident yet cautious group of Gremlins will try to put Karns City back up on the District 9 Class AA football pedestal Friday night at Clarion University's Memorial Stadium.

Karns City (8-3) enters the district championship game as the No. 1 seed and as a program arguably as familiar with the final as any in the past decade-plus. It's in the title game for a 14th time overall and a sixth time in seven seasons. A win will deliver the Gremlins a ninth district championship — they last won one in 2009.

The Gremlins' opponent, No. 2 seed Kane (7-3), owns just one district crown, which it won in Class A in 2007. It made just one other appearance in the final (2002, also in Class A). And it's the smallest of the district's Class AA schools.

Perhaps at an earlier point in their careers, Karns City's players might've placed more weight on past team accomplishments. But humbling losses to two Class A foes this season and a frustrating defeat in the final last year left the Gremlins aware that they do not rule District 9 the way they did last decade.

“The fun is definitely there,” senior Dalton Bly said. “It's becoming more of a family thing again. And the swagger is there, but we realize we're not quite there yet.”

Bly is one of eight seniors who hope to finish their varsity careers with a district title. As sophomores, they watched Karns City miss the playoffs. And last year, the Gremlins fell, 26-12, to Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference uber-rival Moniteau.

Those experiences forced Bly and the rest of the elder Gremlins to reassess Karns City's standing in District 9. But the freshmen, sophomores and juniors — many of whom started or saw significant playing time this fall — needed their own wake-up call.

Clarion and Union, two members of the KSAC Small School division, provided reality checks when they defeated Karns City, 34-12 and 28-18, in Week 2 and Week 4.

“It absolutely humbled the team,” Bly said. “I think, being a young team, we thought, ‘Oh, they're single A. They're not that tough.' … We needed to be humbled, though.”

Junior Tyler Kepple agreed: “Those games early in the year, they showed us some things that we needed to work on to come together and win games like that.”

Injuries prevented Karns City's lineup from jelling enough to find its apex. But the Gremlins played well enough down the stretch to win the KSAC Large School division, grab the top spot in the playoffs, and topple St. Marys, 34-14, in the opening round.

Kane needed overtime last week to win, 35-34, against Brookville, a team Karns City beat, 45-20, on Oct. 26.

Coach Ed Conto, in his 13th season, considers this batch of Gremlins a bit too young and banged up to compare to his best district title winners.

But he believes his boys are fully capable of claiming a championship Friday.

“I'm amazed with where we are, because almost anytime you look out there, there are five to six sophomores and freshmen,” Conto said. “It's going to be a work in progress as far as how far we get (this season). … But it'll just pay off next year and the year after.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wwest@tribweb.com or 724-543-1303.

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