The term "feel-good story" is the last phrase that will be used to describe their 2000 season. But the 2001 Mercer High Mustangs will try to erase the memories of last year's 0-10 campaign, which saw the Mustangs go 33 quarters without an offensive touchdown and score just 13 points all season.
"I really believe that the first step to success is failure," second-year head coach Tom Phillips said. "And there's no doubt about it, we went through failure last year. I don't know how else to put it. That's the challenge of it, and right now I'm enjoying what I'm doing."
The off-season brought a stronger committment to weight-training and conditioning programs as well as several other off-field endeavors that strengthened team unity.
"We're just trying to bring some team cohesion and a family atmosphere into the program," Phillips said. "Where's it going to take us? I don't know. I just know that we're measuring our goals and objectives every second and we're seeing results."
What has resulted from the offseason work is increased competition at nearly every position, especially at the skill positions.
"Last year, there was no competition at any position," Phillips said. "A lot of these positions were handed to kids last year. There were kids playing that I don't think should've been out there, but they were the only ones. This year, we moved guys around so we produced competition within each position."
One player who has switched positions is senior fullback Donnie Styers, who played tight end last year but has moved to the backfield as the Mustangs will use some double-slot sets this season.
"He's a 100 percent weight-room guy," Phillips praised. "He shows up an hour before practice and he's our go-to guy when it comes to leadership. Donnie's a good kid."
The Mustangs also are receiving leadership from newcomer Ron Orr, who moved to Mercer from Linesville last academic year. Orr will start at split end and is the team's back-up quarterback behind senior Justin Brennesholtz. A newcomer to the Mustangs' program, the 6-foot-3 Brennesholtz will engineer the offense. Another newcomer, junior Zac Cameron, will start at the other split-end position.
Junior Jeff Reeher, who scored the Mustangs' lone offensive touchdown last year, mans one slotback position while sophomore Luke Erdos is the other slotback.
The Mustangs' offense will benefit from a beefed-up offensive line this season. John Patterson, one of just three returning senior lettermen, is the frontrunner at left tackle, although 285-pound newcomer Chris Cline is pushing him. Fireplug Justin Scilla returns at left guard. Derrek Christy and Tony Holder are projected to start at center and right guard, respectively. Both are 35 pounds heavier since the end of last year. Junior Doug Gilmore, another newcomer, will put his 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame at right tackle.
"I was honest with the kids. I don't believe in that system of coaches saying every spot is open until the season. That's bull," Phillips said. "We evaluate kids. We tell our kids we do have a starting lineup, we do have a second team. They know where they are."
The Mustangs' 5-2 defense will be led by inside linebackers Scilla and Styers.
Orr and Erdos are projected to start at defensive end, while Patterson has one of the tackle spots.
Gilmore and Christy will split time at the other defensive tackle post. Chuck Richards is the nose tackle.
In the secondary, Brennesholtz and junior Josh Dunlap are the cornerbacks. The Mustangs are deep at safety with Charlie Burk, Reeher and Jeremy Kidd the current favorites to earn starting jobs.
"We're small, we're slow, but hopefully we're going to play some sound football and build confidence in these guys," Phillips said.
"Game one (at Maplewood) is going to be very important for this program. They need to see success."
Phillips believes that Hickory, Sharon, Slippery Rock and Wilmington -- in no particular order-- will be the class of the Mercer County Athletic Conference this season.
A key loss from last year's team is graduated Dave Knechtel, who played quarterback, fullback, halfback, slotback, inside linebacker, punter and place-kicker.
Phillips is assisted by Bill Chess, Rob Kennis, Gary Krenzer and Hank Powell. Former head coach Frank Makarevich will coach the junior high team, along with Keith DeGraaf.