CRESTLINE — Crestline High School lost nearly a third of its football team to graduation, but a strong junior class is helping to pave the way for a new generation of Bulldogs.
Coach Kevin Sipes is going into his fourth season at the helm, and his teams have shown improvement each year. After moving from assistant to head coach in 2014, the Bulldogs struggled through a winless campaign. The 2015 team tallied two wins, but it was the 2016 team that made the biggest leap, improving to 4-6.
“Obviously we’ve been progressing well,” Sipes acknowledged. “You have to start with a good foundation and I think we started that the last three years with kind of trying to change the program into something that is stable.”
Before Sipes took over, the Bulldogs saw a revolving door of coaches. That turnover left the players without a solid foundation or a consistent leader.
“That’s hard on a program,” Sipes said. “Now that they have stability, obviously you’re going to see progression, you’re going to see improvement. That’s what it’s about: just making sure there’s something stable that they can learn and understand.”
The players are now learning the necessary skills on their junior high team and, by the time they reach the varsity level, they already understand Sipes’ system.
“The other thing that we fight here being a small school, a small district, is numbers obviously. That’s a yearly battle, but we get through that,” Sipes said.
The coach noted the team’s strong offensive players come in the form of running back Dakota Wireman, quarterback Ty Clark, and wide receiver Davon Triplett. All three players are juniors. The Bulldogs will also boast a strong defense with junior Ethan Clum at middle linebacker, junior Tommy Hale as a 3-technique defensive tackle, senior Bailey Wollard at strong safety, and Destin Chatman at defensive end.
The team currently boasts a 21-man roster, but Sipes hopes to pick up a few more players by the time school starts. The additional players will be a necessity after the team lost eight seniors to graduation.
It’s those juniors who will be counted on to fill the void.
“Hopefully, they step up and take that leadership role we lost last year,” Sipes said. “There was a lot of talent in that class and they’re going to be missed. I see progression for these kids as they’re starting to step up and take accountability for themselves.
“Losing talent like that in a J.R. Wolfe, JC Clark, Chandler Gaskill, Timmy Tompkins – those were solid players and those were kids that really actually turned the corner for our program,” Sipes added. “They bought into the program, they did what they were supposed to do in the off season. Once you have kids buying into the program, you start to see improvement and that’s exactly what happened last year in turning the corner.”
Though the Bulldogs finished the 2016 season with a 4-6 record, Sipes said they were really a 6-4 team.
“If things would have went a little bit different ways in some games,” Sipes said as he thought back on the season. “We were beating South Central with two minutes left and we fumbled the ball. All we had to do was run the clock out. It’s just stuff like that we hopefully don’t see this year.”
As Sipes’ teams steadily progress with each passing season, he has set one big goal before his players.
“You don’t coach football to lose. You want to see the playoffs. That’s always been my goal – to get this program back to a playoff caliber team. That will always be my goal,” Sipes said. “Our goal ultimately is the playoffs and the state champion.”
The Bulldogs will not be fighting for a Mid Buckeye Conference (MBC) championship this year. After Danville and Loudonville left the football portion of the MBC, leaving only Crestline and Lucas, the Bulldogs looked to go the independent route. They are scheduled to play teams as far south as Miller High School in Corning, while their northern-most opponent will be Toledo Christian High School, though the Eagles will make the long trek to Crestline.
The Bulldogs will take on two county foes this season. The team travels to New Washington on Sept. 15 to tackle Buckeye Central and will close out the season with a home game against the Bucyrus Redmen on Oct. 27.
Crestline’s season will begin on Aug. 25 with a trip to Monroeville.