Despite an average record, last year’s season yielded some great improvements for Josh Heppner’s team.
Troy Athens finished just 5-4, but with lots of returning talent, the program improved on three consecutive 2-7 finishes after a playoff appearance in 2011. A middle-of-the-road result in the standings, but what they did was, seemingly, as important as what they didn’t.
In a perpetually difficult OAA Red Division, the Red Hawks have been outscored by a nearly combined 700 points since 2008, suffering big defeats to the local powerhouses. That wasn’t the case in 2015, where Athens was plus-44, and the only wide-margin loss was to Clarkston.
“Overall, I think it just had to do with our overall mentality as a team, and we had a heckuva defense,” Heppner said. “In 2014, we gave up 36 points per game. In 2015, we only gave up 13.2.”
After losing the opener, Heppner’s team reeled off two wins in a row, including slaying a Lake Orion team that had beat Athens the past 15 seasons.
“We showed that we could play these highly-ranked teams tough,” he said. “We still have that powerhouse in Clarkston that just rolls, and we’ve got to get over that stigma. But we played Oxford and held a great team to no points, and that was a game that really turned us around. We got that Lake Orion win [and then] the Oxford win and just started building that confidence.”
Still, this is 2016 and not 2015, as Heppner will tell you. That means nearly all of the players responsible for the offense’s rushing and receiving yards have graduated, but there is the benefit of returning a senior quarterback in Joey Stark, who Heppner calls a hard-working, smart kid that responds well to the pulse of the team. The coaches have installed a new offense that uses pro formations and utilizes more ground-and-pound to take advantage of a healthy amount of experience coming back on the offensive line. Stark, who coaches have worked with on making quicker reads and identifying different fronts, is doing his part to build chemistry with a new group of targets, too.
“The receivers and I have gotten really close over the summer, and our J.V. team was 7-2 last year, so we have a lot of really good young talent coming up. I think they’re going to do a great job for us,” Stark said.
Heppner expected junior tailback Jake Cavazos to carry the load rushing, while Zack Spinek is expected to do things at wide receiver.
Meanwhile, just two starters return on the defensive side, but says Heppner, “We’ve got a lot of kids that we can rotate and keep fresh. We’re going to be super-young, but we’ve got some guys that have great athleticism that can fly to the ball and make things happen.”
Heppner likes his team’s chances, saying that while the team isn’t 50-to-60 kids deep on varsity like he wants to be, the numbers are increasing with motivated guys that want to take care of business. He doesn’t want to finish second or third, he wants to take Athens to a conference championship and the playoffs.
And if they beat Troy High for a fourth-straight season, that’s not bad either.
“We try not to focus on them and the hype of that game until Week 9, but if we keep beating them, that’ll be fine by me.”