Season took a toll on Wildcat football team
The De Soto football coaching staff saw the trouble coming months before it actually did.
The Wildcats season started off with a few winnable games, but quickly spiraled into a series of contests against some of the state's best programs.
It came true, too. De Soto began its season 3-0, then won only one more game.
What no one expected was the Wildcats' season and how they fared, even in losses, to look more impressive every week.
That has also come true, however.
"Before the season started we were very concerned how we'd handle playing the bigger schools week in and week out," coach Brad Scott said. "But we feel like we really competed and that was one of our big concerns."
De Soto's schedule looked daunting when it was released last winter, it was treacherous when the big games came, but the Cats, 4-5, led at half in three of their five losses, stayed in the game against Louisburg and took Eudora, Paola and Gardner Edgerton to the wire.
The losses were disappointing, but impressive at the time, and as three of those four teams made runs in the state tournament, they became even more impressive.
Eudora ran to the quarterfinals before losing Friday to Girard. Paola, the team the Cats came the closest to knocking off, will take its own swing at Girard this weekend in the state semi-finals.
"We were within one point of one of the state semi-finalists," Scott said. "Heck, we led at halftime. We had a four-game stretch of pretty brutally good football teams and looking back, we rose to the challenge every time."
Scott said that took a toll, however. His team wore out in the fourth quarter of those big games, and it wore out in the fourth quarter of the season. The Cats lost 18-7 to Spring Hill, just missing a chance to advance to the state playoffs.
"I think we can go into next season and say hey, we were one point from a state semi-finalist. That's definitely something we can build off of," Scott said.
That's the task now -- turning 2006's disappointments into 2007's building blocks.
The task will by no means be easy, Scott said -- not with what the team is losing.
The Wildcats will graduate all-league first team and honorable mention players in Jordan Smith, Tyler Farmer, Jared Bader, Trevor Leahy, Dustin Ester, J.T. Thompson and Austin DeGraeve.
They will lose nearly half of their touchdowns, three of their top four receivers and two of their top three running backs.
This was a great senior class, Scott said, and figuring out a way to replace them comes long before figuring out a way to knock off the area's perennially powerful programs.
"Our seniors this year, that was the best team we've had top to bottom," Scott said. "It was the best team since I've been head coach and how we played the quality opponents reflects that.
"Our seniors set such an example for our younger guys in the way they worked and how they approached practices."
Some of the pieces to fill those holes are already in place, especially on offense.
Junior quarterback Jake Morse really grew into the position over the season, Scott said, and that was evident in his numbers. He piled up 15 touchdowns and had just nine interceptions, a major improvement from his nine touchdown and seven pick season he had as a sophomore.
"You look back and four of those interceptions were tipped at the line, so the numbers are even a little deceptive," Scott said. "Jake really had a good year for us. He grew and improved in one year as much as any player I've ever had."
DeGraeve, Bader and Farmer made for three of Morse's favorite targets, but he does return junior Erik Hill, who developed into one of the area's top tight ends with 22 receptions and 451 yards -- not to mention a team-leading eight touchdowns.
Hill will be joined by junior Shane Miller, who scored touchdowns in all three phases of the game. He returned a punt, returned an interception and scored three offensive touchdowns.
"Jake's going to be very comfortable in the offense next year, and we're going to have some important kids back," Scott said. "We're also going to have to have some younger kids step up."
It's exciting, Scott said -- exciting because of what is coming back, exciting because of the challenges that lay ahead and exciting because he's sure his team will be more confident heading into another season in the Frontier League's upper division.
But that doesn't mean he's thrilled with 2006. It was a good experience, he said, but the Cats will have to learn some lessons and move on.
"Week in and week out we'd be in it until that fourth quarter, but we don't have the resources in place yet to compete with the quality programs week in and week out. We're getting there though," he said. "I think we're getting better. Still, at some point the moral victories have to stop."