LeRoy football making up for lost time in 2018

LeRoy football making up for lost time in 2018

LeROY — It's not a mantra veteran LeRoy football coach BJ Zeleznik has uttered countless times in the last 10 months since the Panthers last played.

But if LeRoy needs a slogan this year, well, it could prove prophetic.

The Panthers missed out on the playoffs for only the fifth time under Zeleznik — back on LeRoy's sidelines for his 16th season — and will try to regroup after a 3-6 record last year.

"When you look back on it, you also have to do a good job of trying to honestly self-evaluate why it happened," Zeleznik said. "Simply because we were so young, we knew we were going to be up against it some weeks."

Youth isn't an issue now for the Panthers, who host Eureka at 7 p.m. Friday at L.A. McKean Field in the season opener. All those underclassmen who took lumps last season are now veterans LeRoy will rely on to lead its wing-T offense into the playoffs.

"It changes everything when you've got experience," Zeleznik said. "There's a better understanding in terms of expectation of effort in practice and a better understanding of execution that is needed. You have depth, too, with that much experience, so you have competition for playing time. Your practices are much more effective."

And after more than two weeks of practices, the Panthers are eager to embark upon a nine-game slate against Heart of Illinois Conference Small opponents and four crossover games against HOIC Large schools.

"We're ready to play somebody else," Zeleznik said. "You get tired of practicing against yourself. We're ready to get on film against a competitive opponent to gauge where we're at."

Making sure the offense operates smoothly this season falls on senior quarterback Jakob Sexton, last year's backup.

"His command of the offense one year later is 10 times better than what it was," Zeleznik said. "I've just been really pleased with his attitude and effort. Not having to worry about your quarterback position in terms of competency and being able to run the offense and not having bobbled snaps is a great feeling."

When Sexton hands the ball off, he'll have a plethora of options. Senior Gabe Bennett returns after leading LeRoy with 511 rushing yards on 90 carries last season, with junior Rodney Kaeb (493 rushing yards, six TDs) and senior Isaac Nava back as well. Add in juniors Aidan Eddy and Jeff Tuley, and Zeleznik has five running backs he can rely on.

"We've got some experience there, and some depth," Zeleznik said. "That should help."

Making sure the running backs have room to run falls on senior center Wyatt Gulley, senior guard Jacob Conaty, senior right tackle Jacob Payne, senior guard, junior guard Austin Crytzer and senior left tackle Mike Mash. All saw action last season for the Panthers, with Payne a three-year starter shifting from tight end to tackle. Senior Sam Cornwell, senior Gavin Graybeal and senior Zeb Pliura are all expected to see time at tight end, another key position when it comes to blocking — and catching the occasional pass — for the Panthers.

"All 11 players on our offense started, or at least rotated in for some time last year," Zeleznik said. "They're a week or two ahead of where we were last year at this time."

LeRoy struggled defensively last season, allowing at least 40 points in five of its six losses. Looking to shore up the defensive line are returning starters in Payne (70 tackles), Conaty and Stephen Cornwell. Gulley compiled a team-high 84 tackles last season at linebacker, with Kaeb expected to start again at another linebacker spot, with Sam Cornwell moving into an outside linebacker role. Nava, Bennett, Eddy and Tuley are all slated to contribute in the secondary.

Even with so many starters back, Zeleznik understands a playoff spot is anything but a guarantee. The tough times from last year, though, should give the returnees an idea of what to avoid as LeRoy seeks to become the 26th team in program history to garner a playoff berth.

"Anytime you have this many juniors and seniors competing for playing time, you're just better because your practices are more competitive," Zeleznik said. "You want that validation of getting into the postseason for the kids, the community and the coaches. I think, if anything, last year made us refocus and confront some of the brutal facts. We needed to get better, and I think we have."

LeROY'S 2018 Schedule

DATE OPPONENT TIME

Aug. 24 vs. Eureka 7 p.m.

Aug. 31 vs. Ridgeview/Lex. 7 p.m.

Sept. 7 at Dee-Mack 7 p.m.

Sept. 14 at Tremont 7 p.m.

Sept. 21 vs. Tri-Valley 7 p.m.

Sept. 28 at F-C/Woodland 7 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. GCMS 7 p.m.

Oct. 12 at Heyworth 7 p.m.

Oct. 19 vs. Fisher 7 p.m.

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