MOUNT VERNON — The 2009 high school football season was a success on many fronts for the Mount Vernon Yellow Jackets.
Under the direction of coach Gary Keller, the Jackets (3-7, 2-4 Ohio Capital Conference Capital Division) increased their win total (from one to three), increased their average points scored per game (19.9, up from 10.8 in 2008) and decreased their average points allowed (26.7 in ’08 to 23.3 in ’09). Mount Vernon also overcame a host of injuries in the process, and very rarely missed a beat.
“I really feel that our team came of age this year in terms of being a competitive team week in and week out,” said Keller. “I look at our squad and see that we played with just about everybody in our conference and in our nonconference. We were very competitive. Now, did the season, in terms of wins, end up the way I wanted it too? No, but we had a lot of things that happened that complicated my original plan, and that’s very typical of football.
“With the depth that we had in our squad and the situations we found ourselves in, I think we did a pretty good job playing the cards that were dealt to us. I’m very proud of our young men for the way they played and conducted themselves throughout the season. They really were competitive, although it didn’t always show up on the scoreboard as such or in our final record. Week in and week out, there was never a situation or a time where our players felt like it was over or they couldn’t go on. We met the adversity and really tried to plow right through it.”
The Jackets started out the season in rough fashion, as storms postponed the game against Lexington until the next evening, a delay which seemed to cost Mount Vernon some momentum. The Minutemen led 7-3 when play was halted in the first quarter, and after coming back on Saturday, the Jackets lost starting tailback Jordan Montgomery in the second half to a knee injury. They dropped the game, 42-17, and Montgomery’s season was over.
“I thought we had a good defensive effort, and I really felt at that point and time, we were coming together and would be a competitive football squad,” said Keller. “As it played out in that game, I think we got a glimpse of how we would perform throughout the year.”
Game 2 started a three-game road trip for Mount Vernon, and featured continued strong defensive play. Leevi Stump rushed for 123 yards as the offense tried to find a rhythm, but the defense was holding up its end of the deal. The Jackets led, 2-0, at halftime thanks to a safety, and were ahead 15-10 late in the fourth quarter. The Generals scored on a long pass play in the fourth quarter, however, to steal a 16-15 win.
“We had a lot of seniors on the defensive side of the football, so I expected a lot, and have to credit our seniors for the leadership they gave us,” Keller said. “That was really important. It is nice to say we did this or that, but it comes back to the jimmies and joes. I think out jimmies and joes, especially on the defensive side, really stood up and were accounted for.”
Everything finally came together for Mount Vernon in Game 3. The Jackets scored early and often, piling up 313 yards rushing at Mansfield Madison. The scoreboard was also lit up to the tune of 41-13. Stump finished with 197 yards, while Kody Green passed for another 71 yards. Mount Vernon’s special teams also came up with a blocked punt, which was recovered by Derek Baker for a touchdown.
“That was a big because we got a very convincing win against a team that had beaten us for several years,” said Keller. “Our kids came our of there feeling very good about themselves. At that point, we had to make some adjustments and it was one of those transitions our team had to work its way through. I feel like that was a point where we moved forward as a football team.”
The Jackets started league play in Week 4, traveling to Olentangy Orange. After losing at Mount Vernon in 2008, Orange extracted a measure of revenge and shutout the Jackets, 35-0. Stump, who was hurt against Madison, did not play, and Mount Vernon tried to find other options offensively.
“I think you learn from every game you play, but especially this game,” Keller said. “We were very disappointed after that game. I think they felt let down because they didn’t play as well as they could have. At that particular place and time, Orange handled us more than any other team this season. That was a little bit of a low point for us.”
Mount Vernon finally returned home in Week 5, hosting the rival Delaware Pacers. Turnovers hurt the Jackets as they fell, 35-16. The biggest problem came when Green was diagnosed with a bruised spleen on Wednesday of game week. That left Keller just two days to get a replacement ready.
“The Delaware game was when we found out Kody (Green, our quarterback) couldn’t play,” said Keller. “Shawn Maxwell was thrown in and didn’t get a lot of practice; in fact, he didn’t take any reps until Thursday evening, so that was a real tough outing for us.
“We had a lot of guys banged up, and a whole lot of things we were trying to work through. I think after that week, we started playing better. We started growing up a little bit.”
After getting knocked around by Delaware, Maxwell began to show his potential in Week 6. Maxwell threw for 113 yards and two touchdowns and senior Jordan Williamson, filling in for Montgomery, added another 71 on the ground, but it was not enough. The Jackets came up short, 29-22, after the Wolves built up a 29-14 lead.
“Kilbourne was a big confidence booster for our kids,” Keller said. “I really believe our kids saw a team that was pretty competitive, and the way we played them almost surprised ourselves. It was another time in which our team took another step forward in terms of confidence within themselves. We figured out we could play with the big guy on the street.”
Whatever momentum the Jackets gained against Kilbourne carried over the next two weeks. For the first time in Keller’s tenure, Mount Vernon won back-to-back games. They beat Hilliard Bradley on the road in Week 7, 29-7, and then followed it up with a 49-14 thrashing of Watkins Memorial in Week 8. Williamson rushed for 197 yards against Bradley and then combined with Stump to rush for 211 against the Warriors. Maxwell also had a solid game, passing for 107 yards, including five completions to Ethan Abell for 82 yards. The Jacket defense also did its part, shutting down both offensive attacks.
“Getting back-to-back wins was great,” said Keller. “We would like to get to the point where we can be that kind of football team. It was a good feeling. We had a sense of moving forward. I think the overall mood of our squad was very good.
“There is no question that the big parts of the puzzle were coming together. Our offense was starting to play better, and that complimented what we were trying to do on special teams and defense. The more Shawn Maxwell and the rest of our offense continued to improve, our team became a better football team.”
Week 8 saw poor weather conditions once again as the Jackets made the 26-mile trip to face Big Walnut. Big Walnut amassed over 300 yards of offense, but scored only once offensively. The killer was that the Eagle defense picked off three of Maxwell’s passes and returned them for touchdowns in a 28-0 defeat.
“I think we played a good game, defensively,” Keller said. “They had a good football team. We were playing in nasty conditions. Offensively, out offense didn’t do a very good job of controlling the elements. However, defensively, we were locked on and played pretty good. I was really pleased with our effort.”
That left one last game on the schedule for Mount Vernon — New Albany last Friday night. The Eagles entered the game with a shot at the OCC title, and the Jackets wanted nothing more than to spoil it for them — and they nearly did. Mount Vernon struck first, taking a 3-0 lead on a 33-yard field goal by Nick Sahr, who missed several games due to injury.
The Jackets took a 10-6 lead into the locker room at halftime after a successful hook-and-ladder play from Maxwell to Robert Kane to Stump. It looked as if the lead might hold, after New Albany was limited to just a field goal in the third quarter, but a 48-yard punt return setup the Eagles at the Mount Vernon 5-yard line. Two plays later, the Eagles scored what turned out to be the go-ahead points in the 15-10 win.
“We had New Albany where we wanted them. It was a situation where it was our game,” said Keller. “We were playing hard on both sides of the football. The biggest play was late in the fourth quarter when they returned the punt. That’s uncharacteristic of our team. We had been doing very well, but all of the sudden, they got outside us. Them running the ball back to the 5-yard line was really the nail in the coffin. Our defense did come back and shut them down, giving the ball back twice to our offense, but we were unable to convert. Overall, I think we played well in that football game.”
Despite the loss to New Albany, Keller was pleased with the way his team played all around. The defense did its part against a top-notch offense, and the offense won the yardage battle (231 to 200).
“That game brought me great satisfaction,” said Keller. “Even though we lost the game, I felt like our kids had played well. As a coach, this is what I wanted to see. We were playing hard, and their kids had to play harder to beat us.
“Our jobs as coaches is to put our kids in the right positions where they have the chance to be competitive and have have an opportunity to win football games. I think we were doing that pretty much every game. I look at our team with a sense of satisfaction. We made progress this year; we are a better football team than people might give us credit for. I think you saw that in the way we played.”
With the 2009 season just in the books, Keller is already looking and planning for 2010 and why not. With the ground gained by this year’s squad, he has something to be excited about.
“Every week we came to play,” Keller said. “We may not have won all of the games, but the fans never left disappointed in our effort or how we were playing out there on the field.”