Justin Sands admitted the outlook was a little daunting at first for the Penns Valley football team.
The senior linebacker, who will be moving over to quarterback this fall, was thinking about the coming season and how many key players were lost to graduation from the smallest school in the Mountain League.
“This summer it was a little bit unnerving,” Sands said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what do we have?’”
Although graduation losses are inevitable for every high school athletic program, the Rams were hit particularly hard this past year with 18 departures — each of whom was a starter either on offense, defense or special teams.
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The changes bring many different tests for the program, from how well prepared the underclassmen are, how quickly newcomers will be able to step in, how the coaches blend everything together and how well the team leaders supplement the coaches’ plans.
Martin Tobias, in his 22nd season as head coach, is taking the optimistic view of the changes.
“It has created a very competitive camp,” he said. “Players came in hungry knowing there were spots for them. We’ve told every player every position is open, even the guys who are returning starters are competing for those.”
The big hit from graduation did make the ranks thinner. The Ram roster typically averages 40-45 players per season, but this year they start with only 36 suiting up in blue and white.
Knowing the loss of bodies was coming, Tobias and the rest of the staff did their best campaigning to entice new members to join. The best recruiters in the hallways and classrooms, however, are the current team members, trying to twist the arms of their classmates.
The coaches are depending on team members in other ways.
In the spring, they also put together a leadership council, discussing the goals and objectives both of the student-athletes as well as of the coaches. It helps foster responsibility and leadership among the players even when they are not on the field.
“The ideas are shared,” Tobias said, “the expectations are shared, and the accountability is shared between all the members of the program to help build a stronger program.”
Although winning games is always a major objective, there is much more at stake with the team, as there is with any high school athletic program.
“We also have another responsibility — to build young men,” Tobias said. “We need to give them meaningful experiences and life lessons that can carry over into the real world.”
The Rams are in need of everything at their disposal to build success. Penns Valley has not had a winning football season since 2007 and has the smallest enrollment among the eight-team Mountain League members, so there are fewer students from which to find new players.
Tobias needs to make sure his student-athletes enter every season confident and mentally strong as they try to turn around the program’s fortunes.
“It’s important for any program,” Tobias said. “It’s especially important for ours to help try and get us over that hump that we can be more competitive in games and win more games.”
For the boys who are on that council and helping shepherd their teammates through spring and summer workouts, lifting weights and conditioning every day, they also understand how vital their roles are.
“It’s important every year, no matter how many kids you have,” senior receiver Nic Kubalac said. “It’s important to — talent only goes so far. You have to put in the work.”
The Rams had to deal with a lot of changes in the offseason, with half the roster gone.
The new season will test the athletic ability of the team members, but the boys are tested off the field may be even more important.
“We’re going to be OK,” Sands said. “We’re going to keep things simple and be who we are. We aren’t going to try to be anything more than that.”
Penns Valley Rams
Head coach: Martin Tobias (22nd season)
Last season: 2-8, 2-5 Mountain League
Assistant coaches: Tom Shearer, Rob Irwin, Kurt Troxel, Troy Kauffman, Dave Yoder, Mike Durn, Matt Myers, Eric Weaver, Ryan Woodruff, Brian Heiser, Evan Heiser, Dave Wolfe
Key losses: Jared Bressler, Takoda Bubb, Cameron Clark, Trevor Fleck, Cole Hess, Jared Hurd, Ryan Long, Christian Rudolph, Luke Snyder, Andrew Tobias, Colton Wenrick, Marcus Woodford, Conlan Burd, Garrett Fleck, Brett Hammer, Hunter Addleman, Dillon Steiger, Tim Breon
Returning players: QB/LB — Justin Sands (6-4, 215, Sr.); RB/LB — Matt Caldana (5-9, 240, Sr.); RB/DB — Ryan Ripka (5-10, 140, Jr.); WR/DB — Wyatt Daub (5-9, 160, Sr.); Nic Kubalak (6-3, 165, Sr.), Blaine Ripka (6-2, 195, Sr.); OL/DL — Thomas Kauffman (6-2, 275, Sr.), Jacob Hockenberry (6-2, 315, Sr.); TE/DL — Jacob Duffield (6-6, 270, Sr.); CB/WR — Tristan Klinefelter (5-6, 150, Sr.).
Key newcomers: QB — Aaron Tobias (6-2, 185, Soph.); RB/LB — Trent Heckman (5-10, 215, Sr.); OL/DL — Sean Mcgowan (6-0, 280, Sr.), Matthew Tobias (6-5, 260, Sr.); OL/LB — Dylan Covalt (6-0, 240, Jr.); WR/DB — Brennan Hyde (6-0, 160, Soph.), Nick Getz (6-2, 150, Sr.); TE/LB — Greyson Wolfe (6-0, 180, Jr.); OL/DL — Kasey Selner (6-2, 240, Jr.); LB — Logan Snyder (6-0, 180, Soph.)