Pats still upbeat with verve of veterans

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Ross Dilger, right, Nathan Guth (72) Caleb Busler and the rest of the Heritage Hills sideline cheered after the Patriots scored a touchdown against Forest Park two weeks ago. Though the Pats have won just two games entering Friday’s Class 3A sectional clash with Evansville Memorial, coach Todd Wilkerson said Dilger, Busler and the rest of an eight-man senior class have done their part to maintain enthusiasm. and 

Herald Sports Editor

As if you’re in a sit-down session with Dr. Phil, Todd Wilkerson talks with an air of earnestness. The Heritage Hills football coach is both aware and refreshingly frank.

In a 15-minute conversation, he freely discusses the prickly reception that’s stemmed from an un-Heritage Hills-like season, and he does so without prompting. And with that lens of honesty in mind, when Wilkerson later praises his small band of seniors for their perseverance and focus, it’s a commendation that can’t be dismissed as flowery coachspeak.

For the Patriots (2-7), Friday’s 7 p.m. CDT Class 3A sectional tilt at home against Evansville Memorial (2-7) can serve as a chance to make repairs. It’s an opportunity for eight seniors to lengthen their stay in Lincoln City. And for the Patriots, it’s also a chance to prove themselves to a fan base that may have become restless before with losing two games in the regular season — and one that’s certainly not used to winning just two games in two months.

“Right now our community probably has a big question mark about the change in coaching here. You have Bob Clayton, who did what he did, and we’ve struggled since he’s left,” said Wilkerson, in his second season after Clayton won 320 games in 34 seasons. “So I think as a staff, we’re trying to put our finger on, ”˜Is it something we’re doing, is it something I’m doing,’ or are we just suffering a little bit with numbers and talent?

“It’s tough for us to deal with, and it’s tough for anyone to deal with. Losing is not fun. And I think that’s a challenge when you go through something like this, especially when you’ve had success, you have to stay true to what you know is right and keep working through it, because it’s real easy to start doubting yourself when things don’t go the way you want.”

To cope with those questions, Wilkerson has banked on the input of assistant coaches Chris Sigler and Stan Jochim, who’ve bridged the coaching transition and have been around for more than 25 years each, so “getting their input about how they feel really helps us get through a season like this,” Wilkerson said.

So, too, have the buoyant attitudes of the guys in pads.

With the exception of the week preceding the Forest Park game, when the Patriots fell in double overtime, Wilkerson can’t remember any bad weeks of practice this fall. For that, the Patriot coach credits the upbeat tenor set forth by his seniors, noting that leadership and success aren’t always intrinsically linked as people may think.

The Pats captured three more regular-season victories a year ago but did so shrouded in some drama, as a few seniors encountered disciplinary trouble, another senior quit midway through the season and another senior was kicked off the team.

“That’s something that really shakes a team, and you don’t realize when that’s stuff’s going on sometimes,” Wilkerson said. “This senior class, people sometimes want to get down on them. But we constantly talk about on the coaching staff that these are the eight kids that stayed out. These are the eight that stuck with it.

“Sometimes people want to put a blame on that class, where it’s not their fault that a bunch of their buddies didn’t stay out for football.”

To Wilkerson, Ross Dilger typifies the all-in attitude.

The senior, who rarely sees the field except for special-team duty, is “one of the kids that when you’re talking to the group about what your plan is for the week, he’s the type of kid that he’s locked in on you, hanging on every word,” Wilkerson said. He’s simply delighted to have the chance.

A torn ACL sustained at the end of two-a-days last year, and resultant surgery, robbed him of his junior year. Dilger beams as he talks about living adjacent to former NFL player Ken Dilger, a distant cousin, as Ross would visit Ken’s family’s house as a youngster and Ken engage in basement football games with his parents.

It’s why Ross has little regard for playing time or what the Pats’ record may be. It’s still Friday night. It’s still football.

“I love the atmosphere about being around football, and I just love being around the sport,” Dilger said. “You get to go out there and try your hardest and try hitting the guy across the line from you as hard as you can. I mean, you can’t do that anywhere else.”

Wilkerson also points to the work ethic of a guy like Caleb Busler, who became an emergency defensive end as injuries depleted the position and, at one point this season, the Pats had just four defensive ends between the JV and varsity teams.

Converted from an offensive and defensive lineman, Busler was already accustomed to trying to throw around the weight he does have. A lithe 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, he looks like a cross country runner or soccer player in pads but relies on hasty reactions and quickness to counteract a deficit in bulk.

Similar to Dilger’s outlook, it’s not about size and not about wins for Busler. He stuck with football as a chance to fall in line with a heritage.

“I think it’s just the love for the game and the Patriot name. It’s a legacy that has been built up from Day One, and it’s just fun to be part of it and we love it,” Busler said. “We’re part of a family, and it’s a tradition.

“We tried our hardest this year, but I think we’ve got next year’s (team) prepared. We tried our hardest for them, so hopefully they can step up for next year.”

Not that the Patriots have stricken the rest of this year as a lost cause.

Though senior and top rusher Gabe Konerding retweaked an ankle last Friday and may be consigned to defense only against Memorial, seniors Andy Sickbert (center) and Aaron Boehm (defensive end) should likely return after long injury layoffs — and a healthier line should allow Zack Jones to shift back to fullback after he operated in the trenches for a few games.

Wilkerson realizes some may think he’s crazy, but he offers another nugget of honesty: “Every week, we’ve gone into every game thinking we can win.” With four losses by 10 points or fewer, the notion isn’t too far-flung. And it’ll be applied again in Friday’s mission for reclamation.

“We’re eager to see where we can be now since we have everybody back,” Busler said. “We’re back up to full strength now, so we’re going to see where it takes us — no matter how many weeks it takes us.”

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