No one is perfect.
That makes the challenge of turning the St. Mary Central Catholic football program into a consistent winner again in the Sandusky Bay Conference sometimes seem larger than life.
“When we have a mistake, the teams we play have too much talent and are too well-coached to let us off the hook,” third-year SMCC coach Ryan Wikel said. “We know we have to play perfect football to have a shot.”
In many ways, the Panthers are a model program. Collectively, the players have no eligibility issues. There are no school discipline problems, and the current roster has put in over 100 service hours so far this school year.
But when the Friday and Saturday night lights come on, the game itself has become a struggle for the Panthers, who are just 7-39 in the past four-plus seasons. That includes a 2-29 record in the SBC in that span, where SMCC is a small Division VI school in a conference that features two schools in Division III, and four in Division IV.
After averaging 40-plus kids per season on the roster for decades, the Panthers (1-5) broke camp this season with just 27 players, including freshmen. There is no junior varsity or freshmen team. The junior high has a combined roster of seventh and eighth-graders in the low 20s.
Faced with shrinking numbers in a conference with schools that have enrollment four times the size of SMCC, the questions about how the Panthers are surviving are getting louder with each loss, including after Friday’s 67-0 loss at Clyde.
“It’s a shame that the scoreboard has become our measuring stick, but it is,” Wikel said. “And I understand. We’re out here to win football games too, but I think what people miss is, there is so much more here going on.”
Alex Guerra has taken his fair share of hits playing quarterback for the Panthers. But the senior looks at the roster situation as an opportunity rather than a burden.
“It’s probably different for someone with an outside perspective to come in and see us practice,” Guerra said. “You don’t see as many guys on the sideline watching. But it’s great for underclassmen to step up and play varsity right away the way they want to.
“There is a lot of criticism going around saying you can’t win playing sophomores and freshmen. We see it as an opportunity to become better people and football players. It’s a great way to approach the game. Have fun and play football for what it is.”
Guerra’s classmate, Ayden Opfer, has been one of the few lengthy casualties to the thin Panther roster. He broke his fibula in a Week 4 loss at Perkins, but said even on crutches, feels a sense of responsibility with the lack of players available.
“It’s a lot different, but you tell yourself ‘there are nine freshmen looking up to you,’” Opfer said. “They want to be exactly like you, and it’s a pretty cool feeling. They are working as hard as we are, and that pushes us.”
The schedule did the Panthers no favors to start the season, as it opened SBC play with Perkins, Huron and Clyde. Not only are Perkins and Clyde the biggest schools in the SBC, but adding in Huron meant three straight playoff-caliber opponents. SMCC was outscored 170-14 in the three setbacks.
“We approach every game to win, and having those three teams in a row really isn’t a big deal,” Guerra said. “It’s the SBC, that’s just how it’s going to be. Down in the trenches, it is as normal as football comes. Being small numbers doesn’t affect how we play on the field. It is 11 versus 11. That is how we approach every game.”
For senior running back Brandon Green, the depth is an issue, but it doesn’t change anything the Panthers do.
“It makes us depend more on each other to get the job done,” he said. “The depth is a big deal, but it also makes you better. Anything that also makes you better has to be good for you. We’re always looking to win, and we’re not going to stray from what we’ve been doing.”
Ofper added there is plenty to take away from the experience, even though he isn’t on the field and the Panthers will not finish with a winning record.
“The numbers aren’t where they need to be, but there is more than football here,” he said. “We’re learning that when we’re underdogs in life, just like we are on the field, we’ll get better because we learned in high school. It’s a great experience.”
Former SMCC head coach Toby Notestine, now an assistant under Wikel, said he understands the depth argument, but maintains it is all about believing.
“I see 27 young men that want to be out there,” Notestine said. “As long as they want to be out there, we can continue to teach lessons. You’ll think I’m blowing smoke, but I’m not. But when we sit in here on weekends and come up with a game plan to be successful, I truly believe if we execute those things, we can win.
“Obviously if I don’t believe that, I’m never going to sell it to a kid. They day I don’t believe we can win, I’m going to go play golf.”
Wikel has preached multiple times to his team that the schedule will be what it’s going to be.
But after all the rough losses the Panthers have sustained in his two-plus seasons so far, is it getting tougher to convince his team it can win?
“I think it has gotten better each year with that,” Wikel said. “That first year (2010) was tough trying to win over a group of kids that had three coaches in four years. Year 2 went pretty well, we kind of thinned out as the year went on, but mentally they were into it.”
Wikel implemented a mentoring program this year, where his players meet individually each week with a coach on the staff.
“That is the kind of stuff that keeps teams together,” Wikel said. “If we’re out here just coaching football and we’re not doing well, these guys may throw their hands up and just leave. but when we’re out here coaching them on trying to be good young men on and off the field, it becomes more than football.
“That is how it becomes a program, and that is where we are halfway through my third year here.”
The biggest challenge thus far as the head coach for Wikel has been getting his players to move on after a bad play or costly mistake.
“We’re still working on the mental side. When something adverse happens, how do we react to it?” Wikel said. “We are to the point where we’re still down from something that happened two or three plays before. We’ve talked and talked, and I think three years ago it was to a point where if something bad happened, the game was over.
“I think now we are mentally focused to where we can bounce back. We’re still not doing it quick enough, and we know with the teams we are playing, there is no margin of error for us.”
But when it comes to execution on the field, Wikel admits there is an extra pressure for his team to play perfect.
“There is, and I think especially here, you really do have to coach every single play,” he said. “We tell the kids if we lose on Tuesday, then it means we lose on Friday or Saturday. There is no margin of error, starting Monday when we begin scouting reports. We use the old motto “Win a day” because we can’t get away with a bad practice. We have to stay sharp every day to give us a shot.
“Are we seeing the results we want? No. We’re seeing improvement on a weekly basis, which is what we ask of them. If we can keep getting better, we feel we can sneak up on someone later this season.”
See Part 2 in Monday's Sandusky Register.