By BEN JOHNSON
PARK HILL — Gary Willis isn’t in the midst of his biggest roster turnover in his now 12th season as Keys’ football head coach. But it’s close.
When the Cougars’ 2012 season came to a close with a 42-14 loss to Metro Christian in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs, it spelled the end of 13 careers in red and black. It’s not quite what he went through after his fourth year in charge — but it’s not too far off.
“The first group we started the high school with as a Class A, Class B school had about 17 seniors, and it was a tremendous turnover then,” Willis said. “We’ve got several guys right here that played last year. It’s about a handful that started on each side of the ball.”
While some return, guys like Cody Cole, Blake Maxey, Trevor Eubanks, Tyler Blankenship, Frankie Walker and Chris Kelley are gone. So are JJ Ozturk, Jesse Haeberle, Mason Turman, Tyler Hunter, Darran Bird, Jacob Daugherty and Tommy Kuhns.
That means all the leadership and responsibility falls upon the incoming senior class. All four of them.
“Dillon Clark played some linebacker last year and will probably be our middle linebacker this year. Trey Horn is back at center, and he’s a three-year starter,” Willis said of half of his senior class, which also includes Josh Ferguson and Seth Alsenay.
Some incoming juniors will also provide production on a consistent basis.
“Rylan Davenport back at receiver, and he’s kind of the old receiver, which is funny because he’ll only be a junior,” said Willis, whose team finished the 2012 campaign 7-4.
“We lost some guys on defense, but we’ll have John Haeberle at cornerback and Ferguson at free safety. Hazen Williams, who played some O-line and D-line, will also be back. So that’s three guys right there.”
The Cougars continued through spring practice on Tuesday despite a second straight day of heavy rains. Keys converted the baseball team’s indoor facility into a modified football field to run through some plays.
“It’s a good facility,” Willis said, “to get something done.”
And that’s exactly what Willis and the Cougars are aiming for, especially with a young group primed to take over when the season opener against Claremore-Sequoyah rolls around.
“We’re going to be young, but I’m excited, though,” Willis said. “We have a lot of good athletes, and a lot of good attitudes. Everybody here is working hard, and there are no problem kids — it’s that kind of thing.”
As for preparing a budding group for varsity competition come August and September, it’s something Willis welcomes with open arms.
“We lost a lot of guys and a lot of size on the line,” Willis said, “but it’s always fun when you have athletes coming back and you get to coach them up. It’s kind of a new-blood type of deal, and it’s pretty neat.”
Next in the Cougars’ backfield
Keys will have fresh faces at both quarterback and tailback when the it opens its season against Claremore-Sequoyah in early September. Find out who the Cougars will use at those spots on our sports blog (www.tahlequahdailypress.com/sportsblog) and also in upcoming editions of the Daily Press.