With transition in rearview, unified Pats poised

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Heritage Hills senior Gabe Konerding returns as the team’s leading rusher from last season, when he amassed 812 rushing yards. Though starting quarterback Logan Wilkerson will be sidelined for several weeks as he rehabs a torn ACL, the Patriots hope to expand their offense as the season progresses. Heritage Hills opens its season tonight at 7 CDT in Lincoln City against Class 2A No. 3 Evansville Mater Dei. tonight at 7 p.m. CDT in Lincoln City.

Herald Sports Writer

Even after dropping four of its first six games, after dealing with some disciplinary issues, after its starting quarterback sustained a season-ending injury and the team fell out of contention for a Pocket Athletic Conference title, the Heritage Hills football team still emerged from 2012 buoyed by the hope that the hardest times had passed.

And more importantly, that the transition was more or less complete.

“Last year was really the breakdown period,” Patriot senior Ethan Reisz said. “And we had to, as a team and not just as individuals, process this and try to get into a whole new ”˜this is how we do things’ kind of mentality.”

Their 5-5 record marked the first time in more than 20 years the Patriots finished without a winning record. And their 27-24 tumble against Brownstown Central served as just the second opening-round sectional loss in program history.

The setback marked the end of a quasi-turbulent first year for coach Todd Wilkerson, who assumed responsibilities following 34-year coach Bob Clayton’s retirement.

Yet when he reflects on that first season, it’s with a smile, a crisp honesty and an understanding that some things are necessary to grow.

“I think for me, and I think for us as a staff, the transition was huge. I think we didn’t realize how big it was until we had the chance to look back a little bit and see how difficult it was early on in the season,” Wilkerson said.

“Going through that period, it affected how our team played, it affected the way we coached. And I think looking back at that, I think it was necessary. It had to happen.”

Wilkerson admitted that thoughts of how people would accept/reject/scrutinize his concepts invaded his mind too often. And it became evident the transition’s depth stretched far beyond the playbook, as some players remained skeptical and didn’t quite buy into the new system.

Yet by season’s end, it appeared as if success was imminent. The Patriots barreled into the postseason winning their last three games and outscoring their opponents 107-15 in those contests.

And while the early exit marred that sentiment of progress, it undoubtedly set the stage for what was to come.

“We started doing a little better with each other last year, started getting things together a little more, figuring out how we needed to do things to prepare for games better. And I think we’ve got it all together this year,” senior Gabe Konerding said.

“This year’s more about just proving we’re back to Patriot football.”

What that is, exactly, is a concept rooted in togetherness, Wilkerson said.

The team modified its preseason Strongman competition this summer, opting instead for a Strongteam event that featured groups of five or six teammates carrying logs, pushing and pulling sleds, dragging weights, sprinting with dumbbells and flipping tires.

“That approach has just allowed us to become more unified,” Wilkerson said.

The message resonated.

“We’ve got to be more of a family. We’ve got to be a brotherhood where we’ve got each other’s back,” Reisz said. “If one of us falls down, the other one picks the other one back up, dusts him off and off we go again.”

Reisz should factor into the offensive line as a tackle along with senior returning starter Ryan Baker, and junior Harold Sunderman. Senior Andy Sickbert occupies the center position while senior Aaron Boehm returns at guard alongside junior Jacob Wilson. Corydon Central transfer Zach Durham should also see snaps at the tackle spot.

The Patriot offense has been dealt one blow already. Predicted starter Logan Wilkerson (49-of-87, 723 yards, seven TDs), who assumed quarterbacking duties five games into last season after Justin Hedinger tore his ACL, suffered the same injury in January. The junior isn’t expected to return until midway through the season.

Filling in will be sophomore Caleb Mulzer, while wide receiver Kenton Crews, another sophomore, could vie for time under center as well. However, finding options to throw to isn’t as concerning, Todd Wilkerson said.

Even after Spenser Minto, the Patriots’ top wide receiver, decided not to play this season, Heritage Hills boasts a sturdy receiver crop in 6-foot-6 senior Logan Steckler, 6-4 junior Caleb Sabelhaus and Crews. Konerding has also been impressed with junior Sam Collins, who could also see action there.

Konerding, who fuses pace with punch, heads the backfield after leading the team in rushing yards (812) and touchdowns (eight) last season. Junior Zach Jones, who served primarily at tight end last year, has migrated to the backfield as well.

Team speed will define the Pats’ defensive fabric, Wilkerson said. Steckler will return at safety and serve as the lone senior in the secondary, which the head coach said will concentrate on minimizing big-play opportunities. Crews will also be slotted at safety while Mulzer and junior Sean Schaefer will reside at cornerback.

Konerding and Jones both resume their roles at linebacker with Sabelhaus completing the trio. Baker will anchor the defensive line at down tackle, with Reisz, Sunderman and Durham competing for the other tackle spot. Boehm and Sickbert are expected to round out the line as defensive ends.

In working throughout the summer and preseason, Todd Wilkerson has heard one message resonated more than any other among players.

“The confidence that the transition’s over with,” Wilkerson said. “We’re not hearing a lot of talk about, ”˜What are we going to change?’ It seems like we’ve bought into what we’re doing and just focused on our opponents. There’s not a lot of talk about all the peripheral stuff that goes on. It’s about, ”˜OK, how are we getting better?’”

Though it’s been slowed by Logan Wilkerson’s absence, it is hoped that improvement is illustrated in the offensive expansion shown toward the end of last season. In the Pats’ defeat versus Brownstown Central, Konerding scampered for 84 yards on the ground, Wilkerson amassed 167 passing yards and Heritage Hills totaled 329 yards of offense. And even with Logan Wilkerson sidelined, the threat of pass is far from extinguished, Reisz said.

“We do have two younger quarterbacks,” Reisz said, “but for being as young as they are, and not having as much experience, the more they play this year the more I think they can really step it up and be really good quarterbacks.”

Heritage Hills’ season opener against Class 2A No. 3 Evansville Mater Dei, which will kick off tonight at 7 CDT in Lincoln City, should provide an immediate sample of the Patriots’ continued progress. In last year’s Week 1 encounter, the Wildcats spoiled Wilkerson’s head coaching debut, pasting the Patriots 34-7.

Yet Wilkerson has also found optimism beyond the hashmarks. He thinks about jobs he’s had in the past — even as a math teacher in Lincoln City. Those first years are never the prettiest, he said.
And often that’s not such a bad thing.

“I really thought a lot about last year, and reflecting about last year. And anything that I’ve ever done, when I look back the first year, was never good. I never started any job or any position where the first year I tore it up and I got worse. It was always, after three or four years, you look back at those first couple years and say, ”˜Wow, I’ve learned a lot since then,’” Wilkerson said. “The learning curve was huge last year. And as a staff, we’ve done a good job of looking at that, and we’re not going to make those same mistakes. We’re going to grow.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.

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