HOWARD – If any team knows what heartbreak feels like, it’s the East Knox Bulldogs.
Howard’s home team has finished ninth in Div. VI Region 23 the last two years. That’s one spot away from a playoff berth – one win from achieving what Knox County’s hungriest football program hasn’t since 2005.
“We’ve always came close, came close, gotten better each year, but we haven’t made that big jump to make the playoffs,” senior Gage Steinmetz said. “I think that’s where we’re at.”
Behind a senior class that includes four all-KMAC players from a year ago, East Knox will look to make it to Week 11 this fall.
The Bulldogs welcome back senior quarterback Kadden Lester, who threw for 2,378 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, earning first-team all-conference honors. The KMAC’s top gunslinger will have three of his top targets back as well – senior Caleb Gallwitz, junior Weston Melick and Steinmetz. The trio combined for 13 touchdowns last year.
Defensively, the team’s top four tacklers will return this year as well. Melick led the team with 110 tackles last season, followed by senior Dawson David with 88, Steinmetz with 65 and Gallwitz with 62.
The biggest losses East Knox incurred this offseason were Kasson Krownapple and Dawson Moreland. As a senior, Krownapple punished defenders with his relentless running style, amassing 1,397 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns as the team’s starting tailback. He also starred defensively, recording 61 tackles (including 12 for loss). Moreland started at wide receiver for East Knox and finished his senior year with 18 catches, good for second on the team.
Krownapple’s ground presence provided a crucial balance to the East Knox offense. His ability to run the ball opened up the passing game, and vice versa. When asked how the Bulldogs would make up for his absence this fall, head coach Cody Reese said it will be a running-back-by-committee approach. Gallwitz, who carried the ball 30 times last year, will share touches with Melick, Steinmetz and junior Ian Toller.
Reese insisted that despite losing Krownapple, the East Knox offense is “not going to change much” this year.
“We have some things that we’re going to do a little differently based off of the personnel that we have back there, and on the field with the guys who can stretch it a little bit,” Reese said. “Our offense, it is what it is. There’s little things here or there that we’re going to change, but we’re still going to stick to what we’re doing.”
The Bulldogs will return a majority of the second-best scoring offense (42 points per game) and the best scoring defense (13 points per game) in the KMAC from a year ago. But will this year’s team be able to do what last year’s couldn’t – win the conference and reach the playoffs?
The KMAC should be competitive once again this fall. Highland, the reigning conference champion, will be strong despite going through a transitional period.
Legendary head coach Chad Carpenter retired this offseason and the team graduated seven first-team all-conference players. However, the Scots are deep (they have a 44-man roster) and they have a winning tradition; Highland has won 24 games over the last three seasons, and it has won at least a share of the last two KMAC titles. The Scots welcome back all-conference tailback Jack Weaver and star lineman Cam Cutrone.
Northmor will bring back most of its regional semifinal team from last season, including the 2018 KMAC Player of the Year, senior Conor Becker. The tailback ran for 2,134 yards and 32 touchdowns last year, averaging nearly eight yards per carry. He’ll be accompanied by senior quarterback Hunter Mariotti and receiver Blake Miller. The Knights graduated Cole Dille, Chris Bood and Tony Martinez, three key skill position players from last season.
Centerburg and Danville will also challenge East Knox this season. The Trojans return most of their 5-5 team from last season, and Danville is riding high off a 4-1 finish to 2018, despite a slow start.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Reese said of the KMAC. “I think that the league’s gonna be tougher this year than it was last year. We had some concerns every single week, I didn’t feel like there were any [weeks off] last year or the year before. And we don’t see that getting any easier.”
The Bulldogs lost just two games last season, to Northmor and Highland. In those games, Reese said the biggest separating factor was strength. “We weren’t physical enough to win those games,” said Reese, while also crediting his opponents.
The team responded by hitting the weight room hard this winter; instead of playing basketball, Steinmetz said many Bulldogs chose to lift for football instead. The team saw a higher weight room turnout this offseason as a result.
“That was definitely a learning experience for us as a team – that we’re going to have to get better, we’re going to have to get stronger in the weight room,” Steinmetz said of last year’s losses. “We’re going to have to learn to win those games, to make the plays to get through that and to be in those games.”
When it comes to making the playoffs, the margin of error has always been slim for East Knox. The Bulldogs lost three games in 2017 and two games in 2018, and still couldn’t make it in. That won’t change this year, Reese said. He expects the team will need to win “close to nine games” again this fall to qualify.
“I would say this year, at least eight or nine wins is probably what it’s going to take for us, absolutely,” he said. “We’re still going to have a slim margin of error again. I don’t see it being much less than that.”
Last season, the Bulldogs’ strength of schedule – or lack thereof – left them little wiggle room when it came to late-season losses. Their three non-conference opponents went a combined 3-27. This meant they had to win three of their last four games after starting 6-0 to make it into the playoffs, based on the OHSAA’s point system, which prioritizes strength of schedule.
East Knox ultimately fell to Northmor by one point at home. They then lost to Highland in a 43-point road blowout in Week 9. And that was that.
The Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule will be slightly more competitive this year, as West Muskingum (0-10) and Strasburg-Franklin (1-9) have been replaced by Northridge (3-7) and River View (4-6). Still, it likely won’t put them over the edge when it comes to playoff points; Danville plays two playoff teams from a year ago, while Northmor faces three teams that had winning records.
Reese said his team knows it will likely have to win at least eight games to make the playoffs this season, but it’s not discussed in the locker room. Instead, the coaching staff tries to emphasize the age-old coaching adage: ‘One day at a time.’
“We just talk about learning the fundamental aspects of the game; do your job, get better every single day, be disciplined, and most of all, have fun. So that’s our message to our team, that’s what we live by every day,” Reese said. “The only thing we can do is focus on what’s right before us now, and everything else doesn’t matter at that point in time. All we can worry about are the things we can control. That’s what we lean on.”
Reese acknowledged there’s a lot on the line this season. The Bulldogs’ senior class is undoubtedly one of the most talented to play in Chet Looney Stadium in recent history. It’s the team's third year in Reese’s system, so the players have begun to coach themselves. After years of knocking on the door, the attitude in Howard seems to be playoffs-or-bust.
“Everybody around here, we all expect to have a successful season, more so than the last two,” Reese said. “Absolutely.”