Sages find positives in loss
MONTICELLO – Fifteen years after he first became a high school football head coach, Monticello's Cully Welter finds himself in an almost- identical situation to when he was a rookie on the sideline.
When he got his start at Ridgeview, it was at a school with a solid tradition in the sport, but one which had struggled immediately before his arrival.
The same is true at Monticello.
There are other parallels.
At Ridgeview, participation in football among the upperclassmen was down, but other sports were experiencing success.
In Year 2, he guided the Mustangs back into the playoffs.
At Monticello, Welter had a successful debut as the Sages opened with a win at Meridian eight days ago. Like at Ridgeview in 1994, youthfulness abounds. The Sages' 41-player varsity roster includes 18 sophomores.
The challenges for Monticello intensified for Friday's home opener when the opponent was the state's top-ranked Class 2A team, Maroa-Forsyth.
The Trojans stayed unbeaten, handing the Sages a 35-21 loss.
A Monticello program which went winless in 2008, however, is already guaranteed of a better record in 2009. And, after the first minute Friday, the teams battled to a 21-21 draw.
"We are in the process of changing mind-sets," said Welter, whose quest is to instill a winning attitude. "We have worked hard on two things, working hard in practice and keeping our head up in the face of adversity."
Maroa-Forsyth provided the Sages ample opportunities to work on the second facet Friday night, scoring two touchdowns in the first 27 seconds.
"We came out a little in awe," Welter said, "but overall, I am extremely happy."
Ben Palla passed for 185 of his game-high 228 yards in the second half, throwing three TD strikes. Two (for 73 and 35 yards) were hauled in by his brother Matt. The other was a 2-yard fourth-down toss to Cale Huisinga.
The Sages' first-game win last week was followed by an occurrence that Welter found even more pleasing Tuesday.
"We had what I considered our first really good practice," he said. "We still have a long way to go, but hopefully we will get a consistent effort."
During the introductory phase of his transition to the Piatt County school, Welter has joined the players in going through a learning process.
"It seemed like any little criticism or mistake would cause them to get their heads down," he said. "Hopefully, they are starting to learn from, but not dwell on, their mistakes or failures."
This year's opening-game win didn't give Welter a false sense of security. Before the school can return to its glory years – three straight 12-win seasons from 1989 to '91 – more work is needed.
"I figured we had some solid skill players and that we would be tested with depth, lack of size and experience in the line," he said. "Our line is still dealing with some injuries and we need to really develop in a hurry so that we can compete with the big boys."
He sees plenty of encouraging signs, however.
Senior Tyler Lieb, who sat out last fall, is making an impact in the backfield on offense and in the secondary on defense.
"He is really demonstrating outstanding leadership and is playing well on both sides of the ball," Welter said.
Lieb has been the Sages' top rusher in both games, gaining 82 yards against the Trojans.
Junior Paul Buchanan is a defensive lineman with a non-stop energy level. "He seems to be a very pleasant surprise," Welter said.
Even in the loss to the Trojans, who won 45 games the past four seasons (the same time period that Monticello won 13 games), there was reason for optimism.
"At halftime, we had a heart-to-heart, and then we came out strong," Welter said.
Monticello's leaders against the Trojans were Matt Palla with 189 receiving yards. Mitch Milton had five catches and Huisinga finished with four.
"I think we have skill guys, if we can protect," Welter said.