Van Wert’s 2018 high school football season is one that won’t soon be forgotten by fans, players and coaches.
The Cougars (9-3) shook off a 1-2 start and finished the regular season with seven consecutive wins, secured a home playoff game for the first time in school history and won that game before falling to perennial power and Western Buckeye League foe St. Marys Memorial in the Division IV, Region 14 semifinals.
Jake Hilleary (left) Drew Bagley (front) and Nate Place (right) were mainstays of Van Wert’s offense in 2018. Bob Barnes/Van Wert independent
“A couple things that you can’t see but I believe were present with this team – confidence and culture,” head coach Keith Recker said. “This group really trusted their abilities and their teammates, which gave them great confidence during games. I also believe our seniors did a very good job of creating a close knit team that worked very well together.”
Van Wert opened the season with a 34-7 victory over Bryan, a team that went on to qualify for the postseason. Back to back losses ensued against Wapakoneta and St. Marys, which left the Cougars 1-2 (0-2 WBL) entering Week No. 4 against then state ranked Ottawa-Glandorf. The Cougars had a 16 point lead in the fourth quarter, only to see the Titans tie the score late in the period. However, the Cougars made the most of their remaining opportunities and won the game 40-34 in overtime.
After victories over Shawnee, Kenton, Elida and Bath, it became apparent Van Wert was a legit playoff contender. A road win at Celina in Week No. 9 clinched a playoff spot and a victory over Defiance in the regular season finale secured a home playoff game.
Along the way, quarterback Nate Place became the WBL’s leading rusher, while Jake Hilleary emerged as the perfect backfield compliment.
“A couple of things that were evident on the field were that we had a very special player at quarterback that could make a lot of plays for our team,” Recker explained. “We had an offensive line (Austin Clay, Garrett Black, Colin Place Nathan Temple, Mason Place, Turner Witten), along with tight end Drew Bagley, who did a very good job in blocking, specifically the run game.”
“Having Jake be able to take some pressure off of Nate was huge,” Recker continued. “I love Jake’s running style and the leverage that he runs the ball with.”
“He allowed us to be much more balanced in our run game because of his ability. As the season wore on, he continued to get stronger in his running ability and ability to break tackles. He is exactly what you want in a player, a great kid off the field and a tough football player on it.”
Place, who was named WBL Offensive Back of the Year finished with 1,319 yards and 21 touchdowns and completed 127 of 190 passes for 1,361 yards during the regular season. He added 253 yards rushing and five touchdowns, plus 389 yards and two scoring passes during the postseason.
Hilleary, who was named to the WBL second team rolled up 1,057 yards and 15 touchdowns on 157 carries, then added 170 more in the playoffs. Drew Bagley led the team in receptions (56) during the regular season and earned WBL first team honors. Temple and Black were named to the WBL second team as well, and Colin Place was named honorable mention All-WBL offensive lineman.
Parker Conrad (17) Isaiah Bretz (81) Butch Eutsler (51) and Joey Schaufelberger (20) were among the key contributors on defense. Photo courtesy of Jerry Mason
As the regular season progressed, Van Wert’s defense emerged as a force to be reckoned with. The Cougars finished first against the run and was equally effective against the pass.
“I believe our defensive line was a huge key to our success,” Recker stated. We switched to a four man front this year, and those four guys did a great job of reading blocks, fighting off blocks, getting to the quarterback, and pursuing to the ball.”
“Having a defensive line like we had in Drew Bagley, Joey Schaufelberger, Nathan Temple, and Keagon Hammons allows our defense to be as good as they were, especially against the run.”
Bagley and Hammons earned WBL first team honors along the defensive line, while Schaufelberger was named to the all league second team. Linebackers Butch Eutsler and Parker Conrad were named to the All WBL second team, while defensive back Jalen McCracken earned honorable mention accolades.
In Week No. 11, the Cougars delighted their fans with a 33-14 victory over the Huron Tigers. Van Wert trailed 14-6 early in the second quarter, but exploded for three touchdowns before halftime, then tacked on another score early in the fourth quarter. The victory set up a rematch against St. Marys, but the end result wasn’t what the Cougars had hoped for.
Recker praised the 16 seniors on the roster, a group that went through some tough times but were rewarded in the end.
“This is a group that was counted on heavily as sophomores and as a team we went 0-10 that year,” Recker said of the senior class. “Instead of complaining or quitting, they just continued to work and put forth great effort with no promise of a season like this.”
“I am so happy for these guys that their work was rewarded with a great season. They have left big shoes to fill for our underclassman, and my hope is that those guys will not only fill those shoes, but work to raise the standard another level.”
While reflecting on the 2018 season, Recker noted the Cougars and other teams will be in a similar situation in 2019.
“Every team in the league will lose some good seniors and return some good underclassman, and we are in the same boat,” the coach explained. “We have some very good players back that started quite a few games this past year, and we have some good players that have been waiting for their opportunity.”
“The key to another good run is great off-season commitment to workouts, and just like most teams we need to have great play from our offensive and defensive lines next season.”
Recker also noted that fan support was an important key to the team’s success from start to finish, and will continue to be in the future.
“I want nothing more than to continue the excitement that we have generated from this past season,” Recker said. “Our fans have been hungry for a winner for a while, and now that we got a taste of what it can be we need to continue it. I was very anxious to see how the response would be from our fans heading into our first playoff game, simply because we hadn’t been there in a while. The fans and community completely exceeded my expectations with their excitement and events that were put on for our football program.”
“I want to thank everyone who took part in this season, on the field or off the field, for everything they do for our football program.”