Russ Stoner knew what he and his players were up against in his first season as head coach of the Spring Grove football team.
"Last year, we didn't have any experience whatsoever, including the coaching staff," he said. "We were trying to figure out what offenses we should be running, and what defenses we should be running."
Playing every week against more experienced teams, the Rockets managed just one victory in 10 tries. The season left a bad taste in the mouths of the players, who vowed that it wouldn't happen again. They began working to make good on that promise in January, seven months before the official opening day of practice in August. No footballs or fans in the stands. Just lifting, running and stretching, all designed to make the players bigger, stronger and faster.
"I think I saw the change coming during the third week (in January) when the kids bought in to what we were trying to do," Stoner said. "They were all here, and the coaches were all here. Our kids committed themselves to the weight room, and now, you can see the result. They're stronger and more athletic."
They're also more confident.
"We were young last year, but now we know what to expect on Friday nights," quarterback Matt Runge said. "We worked hard in the offseason. Two hours a day, four days a week. A lot of blood, sweat and tears."
The work paid off. The Rockets have earned victories in three of their first five games this season. They open York-Adams Division I play on Friday night against Central York. Stoner was the defensive coordinator at Central for 16 seasons before taking the Spring Grove job.
"We're building a football program using the same foundation we did at Central," he said. "When I look at defense, we're not blitzing as much (as Stoner's Central teams did), but it's still the same philosophy of running to the football and making plays."
The Rockets will need an outstanding defensive performance to contain a Central team that is loaded with speed.
"Our defense is getting comfortable with fundamentals of things we like to do," Stoner said. "But can we stop Sherief (Sutton), can we stop Marquis (Fells), can we stop Darian (Hampton), can we stop Corey (Hartz), can we stop Jay Stone. If we can do that, we have a pretty good shot at winning."
Fells and Sutton are Central's leading rushers with yards-per-carry averages of 5.7 and 8.5, respectively. Hartz, the league's No. 1-rated quarterback, has passed for 948 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Runge has produced 738 yards of offense: 370 in the air and 368 on the ground. He's passed for three touchdowns. Jeff Delaughter is the Rockets' top rusher with 454 yards (5.1 average).
The 2011 season is now just a distant memory. Runge, Delaughter and their teammates are preparing for a Friday night game in Papermakers' Stadium that should draw a big crowd.
"We're bringing the excitement back slowly," Runge said. "It was tough last year, but near the end of the year, coach (Stoner) said we had our best practice, so we saw the light at the end of the tunnel."
-- Reach Dick VanO linda at dvanolin firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-5407.