Keystone Oaks football team looking to improve its mindset
All that separated Keystone Oaks from a winning record in 2012 was a midseason stretch of three games where the final scores were decided by a touchdown or less.
It is a streak coach Matt Taylor hasn't forgotten.
“I still have nightmares over those games,”the second-year coach said. “This year we are trying to change the mindset and culture. We want the team knowing it is going to compete play in and play out.
“Instead of going in hoping we can compete, we want to go in knowing we are going to compete.”
The offense — which averaged 16.7 points per game last season — will receive an instant boost as quarterback Kobe Phillippi starts his second year under center. The junior gained invaluable experience last season, and his coach expects to see the dividends being paid in 2013.
“He got better each and every game,” Taylor said. “You could see the progress from week to week. This year we are looking forward to him going into Week 1 and being as productive as he was at the end of last season. We have high expectations of him, and he has high expectations of himself. He is that type of kid.”
Phillippi threw for 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore. While it was good production for a first-year starter, the junior expects to see an increase in production after working on his skills during the offseason.
“I am better prepared,” Phillippi said. “Last year was my first year at quarterback, and the coaches have really helped me in the offseason. I am more confident.”
Phillippi's favorite target from last season, Cory Sevacko, graduated and will play this fall at Clarion. The likely successor is Braydon Griffiths. The 6-foot-1 senior finished last season with six catches for 146 yards and a touchdown.
“We think he is one of the best receivers in the conference,” Taylor said. “All the kid does is work his tail off ever play whether it is a run or a pass or even if you ask him to go pick up a cone 20 yards away.
“He'll do anything for you and do it 100 percent.”
Senior Tyler Chiocca will start opposite Griffiths and has been described as his teammates as a big-play threat due to his speed. Sophomore Leo Palmer will be a target at tight end.
“Watching the seven-on-sevens, it is so entertaining,” senior lineman Declan Hartnett said. “What (Griffiths) and (Phillippi) do together and what (Chiocaa) can do is so fun to watch.”
The running game will need to find a new go-to guy as Dale Klobuchir — last season's rushing leader with 1,043 yards — graduated and is playing at Grove City. The likely replacement will be Jimmy Canello.
The 5-7 junior was the team's fullback last season. And while he was undersized for a typical fullback, he filled where he was needed and gained praise from Taylor for his team-first attitude.
“He was a little miscast last season,” Taylor said. “But I give all the credit to him for what he did. He didn't have the power a typical fullback did, but we used him to seal edges and some other things. He never complained and was just happy to be on the field.”
Canello will lead a pack of pack of running backs including senior John Beveridge and juniors Branon Carroll and Mike Lucas. Canello expressed relief moving into the tailback role and said he is looking forward to picking up where Klobuchir left off at the end of last season.
“It is more natural for me,” Canello said. “I feel like the line has developed some depth, and I am really looking forward to running behind them.”
Three of the five starters from the line return: senior Chris Grecek and sophomores Keynon Griffiths and Joey Kazalas. Hartnett will join the line as a starter.
“We will miss the seniors we lost, but the offensive and defensive lines are probably our strengths,” Taylor said. “We return three of five starters, but we also have eight or nine guys who can come in and play meaningful snaps.”
The defense will see a change as some of the size from last year' defensive graduated and the coaching staff will look to capitalize on athletic ability. That includes moving from a five-man front to a 4-3 scheme.
“I don't think we ever got comfortable in the five-front,” Grecek said. “We had been taught the four-front for years and felt much more comfortable. It is not so much thinking but more reacting. And coaches love when you react naturally.”
Taylor said his defensive strength will be at linebacker. Canello is the team's top returning tackler as he finished with 64 in 2012. Palmer saw playing time last season as a freshman. Senior Dom Shelow got experience last season, and Beveridge will fill in at middle linebacker after taking a hiatus from the team last season.
Griffiths and Chiocca will provide the secondary experience.
“I feel like we can honestly shut down a lot of teams,” Griffiths said. “We have some big games early, but I think the defense has progressed and the new players should help. We have some new linebackers who are strong, and our corners are solid. We should be able to stop offenses.”
There will be no adjustment time for the Golden Eagles. The team kicks its season off with games against three of the Century Conference's four playoff teams from 2012: Steel Valley, South Fayette and Seton-La Salle.
It was a stretch in which Keystone Oaks was outscored, 133-7, last season. But with returning experience and a new attitude, Taylor is looking for different results from his squad.
“Our goal is to play better from the first play of the first game,” Taylor said. “For whatever reason, we didn't have things clicking on all cylinders until halfway through last season in Week 4 or 5.
“If we can play that way in our first game against Steel Valley, we will be a more competitive team and a much more dangerous team.”
Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-388-5813.