High school football preview: Keystone Panthers.
(Photo courtesy of Shelly Atzeni)
Head Coach: Ryan Smith (3rd Season)
Last Season: 9-2, Tied for First in D9 Small School Division
Key Returners: Nick Weaver (1140 rushing yds.), Taylar Altman (914 rushing yds.), Zander McHenry (6 interceptions)
Coming off of their second-best season in team history, the Keystone Panthers return two big rushers and possess tremendous depth to bolster an already strong defense. Although Keystone has vacancies at the quarterback position and the offensive line, an infusion of developing talent should enable the Panthers to keep their strong offense rolling. On the defensive end, a group of young cornerbacks will compliment a returning core group of players that forced 26 turnovers last season.
What to Watch For
Coach Ryan Smith and the Keystone Panthers are looking to keep their momentum going after a fantastic 2019 season, but like the rest of the football nation, their pre-season preparation has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Panthers remained active prior to the start of formal practices, conducting weight room workouts and working on route running and defensive schemes. Social distancing and mask-wearing have been emphasized by the coaching staff and were staples of early workouts.
Keystone’s strong offense last season was due in part to the performance of junior running backs Nick Weaver and Taylar Altman, who combined for over 2000 yards on the ground. This season, Smith is looking for more opportunities to get both star backs on the field at the same time.
“We have some different packages in for them to be in the game at the same time,” said Smith. “Having a double threat back there and trying to do some similar things, plus some new things, should be a big part [of this season.]”
Keystone comes into the season with no clear starter at quarterback after the graduation of two-year starter Isaak Jones, but Smith is confident in his options under center. Both Senior Gavin Hogue and Junior Bret Wingard are expected to get game time, as Coach Smith looks to utilize their differing skillsets. Smith describes Hogue as a “strong runner and deep thrower,” while Wingard brings “a strong arm and great decision making” to the table.
“We plan on having multiple packages for both kids to be in there to make it tough for teams to prepare for us, having to worry about two different quarterbacks who can do many different things,” said Smith, who strives to take advantage of the versatility provided by a two-quarterback system.
Last season, Keystone snagged 20 interceptions, including a state record of eight in one game against Sheffield. When asked how his squad is able to force turnovers, Smith lauded his team’s athleticism. “We have a lot of good athletes in the secondary with speed,” said Smith. He also praised the work done by returning safeties Zander McHenry and Logan Sell, while citing a surplus of “depth and speed” as capable of replacing two graduated cornerbacks.
Smith thinks that Keystone’s strong depth within their 36-man roster will help the team overcome the limited practice opportunities offered due to COVID.
“With us only having seven or eight full pad practices before the first game plus not having the full season to condition, we are going to be using a lot of players. It’s nice that we have a lot of depth to rotate guys in and keep them fresh throughout the game, so when the 4th quarter comes, we are still going at 100%,” said Smith.
Depth will also be important in replacing three graduated offensive linemen. Keystone returns three-year starter Haden Peters at center and Landon Hurrelbrink at guard, but the remaining positions are up for grabs.
“We have a lot of really good competition going on now between some seniors and a lot of underclassmen,” said Smith. “I’ve been blessed this year with a lot of sophomore lineman that have come up from junior high and have good size and strength that can easily step right in there and do a good job.” A strong offensive line is vital for the success of the Panthers’ running game, and it should be interesting to see who fills in those vacant spots.
Keystone’s Senior Leadership (Photo courtesy of Dave Cyphert of ProPoint Media Photography.)
Keystone has 12 seniors who they will look to for leadership as they seek to continue their winning ways. Logan Sell, Cameron Easton, Keenan Heeter, Gavin Hogue, Taylar Altman, Nick Weaver, Koby Buzard, Peyton Means, Andrew Miller, Haden Peters, Colin Chapman, and Zane Bauer will look to provide strong performances on both sides of the football. The presence of seniority on the offensive and defensive lines will be vital in the growth of Keystone’s young linemen.
Throughout the tumultuous beginning to the high school football season, Keystone’s players have remained eager and ready to duplicate last year’s strong performance, exciting Smith.
“The kids, they want to be here; they want to play; they want to help to keep changing the culture, and we want to have consecutive winning seasons. We don’t want to be complacent with our 9-2 season last year. We want to improve on that and do better than last year’s team, and these kids are hungry for that.”
Smith hopes that this season continues to reflect a cultural change in Keystone football that emphasizes family and caring for one another as a means of achieving more both on and off of the field.
“We try to do a lot of team building items, and we tell [the players] that the team is an extension of their family, and that we are here for each other. Knowing that the coaches care for the players, and the players care for each other is [important].”
With key returning players, high-level depth, and a family-focused mentality, Keystone is set to continue the transformation of its program into a regular contender.
Listen to the full interview with Head Coach Ryan Smith below: