By BEN JOHNSON
Stop for a second and ponder over the traditional powerhouses in Class 3A.
Blanchard, no doubt.
Seminole, of course.
Cascia Hall, yep — well, until the move to Class 4A.
Metro Christian, absolutely.
Heritage Hall, sure, why not?
There’s a good chance Keys’ name never arose. Don’t worry, Keys head coach Gary Willis said, that’s pretty common.
“I think it’s been a new program,” Willis said of his club. “It doesn’t seem new to us now, going into our 12th year at the high school level. There are schools that have been around for 100 years.”
While some of those century-old schools continue to make appearances in the playoffs, Keys is becoming a regular alongside those traditional powers. The Cougars have stamped their tickets to the postseason the past three seasons, twice making it to the second round.
One thing Willis’ teams have done regularly is exceed expectations.
“We have never finished worse than we’ve been predicted,” said Willis, whose team finished the 2012 season in the second of the playoffs with a loss to Metro Christian.
“We’ve always come in under that. If we’re ranked No. 25, we’re always in the teens. There have even been times when we’ve been around 12 or 10.”
While the perception of the Cougars isn’t about to change anytime soon, the players and coaches are OK with that. The unheralded role is something that is relished now in Park Hill.
“I think so,” Keys center Trey Horn said when asked if the Cougars play the underdog role.
“I think (other teams) shouldn’t count us out, though.”
Willis said he uses the overshadowed card as a motivator for his team.
“You feed your boys on that,” Willis said. “You just have to go out and beat everybody that you’re supposed to beat.”
In 2013, it seems as though Keys is replacing starters all over the field. Names like Cody Cole, Trevor Eubanks, Blake Maxey, JJ Ozturk and Tyler Blankenship are gone.
The roster this season will be young. But the talent is still there, says linebacker Dillon Clark.
“We’re kind of flying below the radar,” he said, “but I honestly think we have potential to be as good as we were last year — if not better.”
To do that, Keys will rely on sophomore running back Datoka Matlock.
“At tailback, (fans) will like what they see with Dakota Matlock,” Willis said of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound ball carrier. “...He is a sophomore, but he will hit you right square in the mouth. He is a very physical running back with good speed.”
Plowing the road for Matlock won’t be same kind of offensive line that Keys has possessed for the past couple of seasons. Previous clubs had plenty of girth up front, averaging anywhere from 270 to 280 pounds. This year’s team will hope to use quickness to its advantage.
“Our better average weight is closer to 200 — 210, maybe,” Willis said. “We’ve been a zone-blocking team, where those guys get up on people. This group is more of a man, down-blocking scheme, and they’ll go get people off the ball. It’ll look a different for us.”
Taking Eubanks’ place at quarterback will be Garett Willis and Dillon Stratton.
With very few seniors suiting up for Keys this season, Willis said plenty will be around for years to come — with some possessing star potential.
“I think there are four or five young guys that could be,” Willis said. “Obviously, Dakota Matlock is one of those guys right now. But it’s going to be neat over the next three years how they all develop, and it’ll be neat for the community to watch and see how steps up.”
District 3A-7 players to watch
* Bradley Campbell (Hilldale, WR/DB, 6-1, 165, Sr.) - Needing to find someone to fill the void left by Jamaul Cullom, Hilldale will turn to Campbell to be the playmaker on offense this season. He led the Hornets in receptions (30) last season while amassing 594 yards and five touchdowns through the air. He also picked off five passes while playing in the secondary as a junior.
* Justin Flewellen (Lincoln Christian, RB/DB, 5-11, 180, Sr.) - The brunt of the offensive workload will fall squarely on Flewellen after quarterback Austin Grauer and wide receiver Anthony Wilkinson gradated from last year’s squad. As a junior, Flewellen ran for more than 1,400 yards in addition to 20 touchdowns. He also tied for team lead with three interceptions.
* Cameron McIntire (Locust Grove, RB/DB, 6-0, 195, Sr.) - Matt Hennesy-coached teams have been ones to shy away from scoring points. Expect a lot of tallies for Locust Grove to be scored by McIntire this year. As a junior, McIntire rushed for roughly 700 yards, but that also included him missing almost half the season. With the ball in his hands, McIntire can give any defense fits.
District 3A-7 power rankings
1. Lincoln Christian - A 7-4 mark in 2012 was a down year of sorts for the Bulldogs. After all, it was the only non 10-win season in the past five seasons. So look for Lincoln Christian to return to the top of its district behind Micah Wilson at quarterback and Justin Flewellen at running back.
2. Hilldale - Chandler Puckett returns at quarterback, and Bradley Campbell is a solid versatile weapon, but the Hornets play at Lincoln Christian in Week 6. More than likely, the District 3A-7 title will be won that night.
3. Jay - At times, a forgotten team in the district, the Bulldogs quietly put together a solid 7-4 record in 2012. With plenty of returning talent, Jay should be a playoff contender again this year.
4. Keys - This is more credit to head coach Gary Willis and his coaching staff more than anything. The Cougars lost a lot in 2012. Quarterback Trevor Eubanks, running back Cody Cole and offensive lineman Blake Maxey are all gone. The Cougars could be rebuilding, but the district drops off after the first two teams, so Keys could be in the hunt for another playoff spot this season.
5. Locust Grove - Head coach Matt Hennesy managed to guide the Pirates to five wins in 2012, and that’s saying something, considering Locust Grove had posted five wins in the last four years combined. Cameron McIntire will carry a vast majority of the workload on offense, and with Hennesy calling the shots, McIntire will find the end zone with regularity. The Pirates’ playoff hopes could hinge on road contests at Sequoyah (Week 4), Jay (Week 6) and Keys (Week 10).
6. Sequoyah - There is a lot of replacing to do for the Indians this season. Nearly every position on the field has a vacancy to fill, which is monumental task for any 3A club to deal with. If Sequoyah is to succeed and contend for a postseason spot, it means the freshman and sophomore classes are having an instant impact.
7. Westville - Two wins last season was a huge plus for a club that labored to an 0-10 finish in 2011. The Yellowjackets still have a lot of catching up to do, but maybe they can win a couple of games for former coach John Gleason, who died of brain cancer in the offseason.