By CHRIS DOBROWOLSKI firstname.lastname@example.org
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — Despite missing playoffs for 1st time in 27 years, Gladiators have the same high expectations
TRAVERSE CITY — A 4-5 record in 2012 that kept Traverse City St. Francis out of the postseason for the first time in more than two decades was both shocking and disappointing for the Gladiators.
But that hasn’t lowered expectations for 2013 in any way.
St. Francis doesn’t just see getting back to the postseason as the ultimate goal, it wants to be a serious contender to win a state title when it gets there.
“Our standard every year, unlike some, is to win a state championship,” said head coach Greg Vaughan. “Especially when we were taken out of the conference we were in. Your goals have to change a little bit. So we look at it a little different in that our goal is getting to a state championship. Our kids sit down and say ‘O.K., how do I get there then?’ and they look at the process of getting there. You can’t go to a scrimmage and win (a state title) in a scrimmage. So you better get better in the scrimmage. First game, you can’t go (to the finals) just winning one game, so they understand you’ve got to win games along the way and get better. We’re able to talk about that in-goal and not lose sight of the process it takes to get there. They buy into that. For many years we’ve done well and sometimes it seems like anything less than (a title) and the kids didn’t have a great year. That’s just something they’re bred with. That’s the goal every single year.”
Coming off the uncharacteristic 2012 campaign has been fuel for this season, though the Gladiators maintain it’s been put in the past.
“Playing at St. Francis the No. 1 goal is to win a state championship, that’s year-in and year-out,” said senior Byron Bullough. “Last year we came short of that, but we’ve been putting in the work in the off-season and this season and we’re looking to make some noise come the first game and on. We tend as a team not to talk about last season. Last season is behind us. We’re looking to do something this year.”
Fifteen seniors, a few with more than two years of experience at the varsity level, are leading St. Francis in its effort at redemption. At the top of that list is Bullough, a three-year starter at linebacker and safety on defense, and running back on offense, and fullback/defensive lineman Jake Khoury, who is a fourth-year starter. Both have committed to play at the Division I level, with Bullough following the path of older brothers Max and Riley to Michigan State and Khoury set to head to Buffalo. Eric Coggon is a three-year starter on the line, while Adam Armour has three years of starting experience at linebacker and running back.
“They’re going to have to be vocal leaders and get some of the younger guys and inexperienced guys going,” said Vaughan. “Our secondary and linebacker corps, and our backfield, are a bunch of kids who have a lot of game experience. If anywhere, that’s the most experience is our skill positions.”
The Gladiators are breaking in a new quarterback in senior Parker Guss, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. After a year off that included surgery and then rehab, Guss is anxious to finally get the chance to step under center.
“I’m very excited after sitting out all of last season. I’m ready to go,” said Guss, who possesses good arm strength and leadership qualities. “It hurt that much more to sit out last season so I put in all the extra work to be ready for this season. I just want to get back out there and help the team. We have high expectations. Everyone does. We’re looking to make the playoffs and do whatever we can this year.”
Seniors Austin Lints and Christian Gallagher are key cogs on the offensive and defensive lines, as is senior Luke O’Brien. Senior Danny Gallagher adds another option at running back and linebacker. Junior Matt Seybert returns for his second year starting at tight end, with Vaughan looking for big things from the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder. Joey Trucco is the lone sophomore on the squad, providing additional speed in the backfield.
While size is lacking in the trenches, the Gladiators do have a lot of team speed at the skill positions.
“You hope your speed makes up for what you lack in size,” said Vaughan. “I think overall it’s a pretty strong team, definitely a conditioned team. With conditioning that speed shows up. Overall, I think we’re maybe a little quicker than we’ve been the last couple of years. Athletically, they show a lot of good things.”
St. Francis will need those attributes as it gets set to battle a schedule that might even be more challenging than it has faced in the past. That starts with week one’s matchup against New Lothrop, a program that has recorded double-digit wins in each of the last three seasons and went two rounds deep in last year’s postseason. The Hornets’ top player is running back/defensive back Amari Coleman, a Central Michigan commit, who clocks in with a 4.3 40-yard dash time. The Gladiators also meet an improved Gaylord team, Boyne City and Grayling — considered to be the top two teams in the Lake Michigan Conference — and finish the year with consecutive games against Saginaw Nouvel, Glen Lake and Muskegon Catholic Central.
“Tough schedule,” Vaughan said. “Our boys will figure out real quick where they’re at and we’ll just have to keep getting better every week. Not too many ups or downs, put your head down and get after it.”