By Steve Ruman
High school football fans throughout the Mahoning Valley viewed Struthers’ 6-4 finish in 2012 as a major accomplishment for the program.
After all, prior to last season, the Wildcats hadn’t finished above .500 since 2000. Considering the Wilcats first winning record in 12 years occurred under first-year coach Curt Kuntz (Struthers’ third coach in three years), you would think that Struthers players and coaches would share in the enthusiasm expressed by the fans.
In fact, spend any amount of time around the Struthers practice field, and you get the impression that “6-4” doesn’t even resonate with the 2013 Wildcats.
Rather than be satisfied with a winning record, this year’s team is haunted by a different set of numbers — 0.0624
That’s how far out of eighth place Struthers finished last year in the Division III, Region 11 computer rankings. Or, that’s how close Struthers was to making the playoffs.
To put things in a different perspective, had any of the Struthers’ six defeated opponents won just one more game throughout the course of the season, the Wildcats would have advanced to the playoffs. Had just one of Struthers’ wins come against an opponent which was just a division higher, the Wildcats would have played in Week 11.
So 0.0624 is translated, “Unfinished Business.”
“I don’t think anyone on our team viewed our winning record as a successful season,” Kuntz said. “Our goal always was to play beyond Week 10. Not making the playoffs really left a bad taste in our mouth.
“I know this, the Monday after our last game, the guys were begging to get into the weight room. There is a 28-day no-contact period following the last game, and for everyone on this team, those 28 days couldn’t go by fast enough.”
While coaches and players may not have viewed last year as a success, the winning season obviously has benefited the program. This year, the Struthers headed into the season with a 52-man roster, up from the mid-30s just last year.
The increase in numbers and the fact that Struthers returned 17 lettermen have propelled the Wildcats to a 4-0 start.
“Last year, we would lose a player, and it was like losing three,” Kuntz said. “Losing one player to injury meant we lost someone on offense, defense and special teams. In that regard, adding numbers to the program is a great luxury.”
Kuntz also was quick to point out that his veterans “make up the greatest group of players I have ever been associated with.” He said that this year’s core of seniors have taken the team concept to a whole new level.
“Honest to God, this group might ruin it for every other class that comes along,” Kuntz said “In terms of character, teamwork and dedication, I will compare every future class with this current group.
“Unlike last year when we had a few playmakers who were our go-to guys, this year it’s a total team effort. All everyone is concerned about is helping out others, and getting a win. They’ll do whatever it takes to get that goal.”
Last year, Struthers started out 3-0, but lost to Brookfield in week 4, and proceeded to finish the season by going 3-4. After beating Canfield and Niles in back-to-back weeks, the Wildcats needed a season-finale win over Howland to clinch a berth in the postseason. The Tigers prevailed 35-20, and the Wildcats didn’t get enough outside help to gain the last playoff spot.
Struthers hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 1999.
“The thing is, we don’t ever want to get to a point to where we need outside help,” said Struthers senior linebacker Braxton Koup. “We need to take care of business, one game at a time, one day at a time.
“This year we are all about doing the little things that will take us to the next level. We seem to focus on every little detail, and so far it has paid off.”
When asked if he felt as though last year was a success, Koup echoed the comments made by his coach, and said that a record alone isn’t an indication of how well a team performs.
“Our goal was to make the playoffs, so ultimately we didn’t achieve what we set out to do,” Koup said. “In terms of improvement over the previous season, I guess you can say we did okay. But in our eyes, it wasn’t enough.
“I look back to last year, and what sticks with me are the losses. A winning record was nice and all, but what I remember more than anything are those four losses. Those stuck with me more than the wins.”
Koup noted that an “0.0624” banner hangs prominently in the locker room to serve as a reminder of last year’s close call.
“Those numbers haunt all of us,” Koup said. “I think we’re more of a team than ever because of that. No one on this team cares about personal stats. It’s all about playing past Week 10.”
Struthers opened the season with an impressive 39-6 win over backyard rival Campbell. Comfortable wins over Lakeview and Field followed, then the Wildcats visited Brookfield last Friday. It was the Warriors who handed Struthers its first loss in 2012.
This time, Struthers coasted to a 26-7 win. Gary Muntean, who has thrown for more than 100 yards in each of the first four games, completed 10 of 18 passes, two for touchdowns, for 112 yards. Luke Witkowski (600 all-purpose yards) turned in another strong performance from the backfield, rushing for 131 yards.
The Struthers victory snapped Brookfield’s 17-game regular-season winning streak.
“That was a big win for us, not because of who we beat, but because it meant we got one step closer to achieving our ultimate goal,” said senior lineman Mike Pape. “We don’t look at any game in terms of revenge or in terms of a rivalry game. Every game on our schedule is of equal importance.
“I think that one of the valuable lessons we learned last year was that we have to approach each game with the same mindset. We want to walk away from every game believing that we just gave the best effort possible.”
Nick Pollifrone, a senior fullback and linebacker, said his goal of “taking Struthers to the next level” goes beyond what happens this year.
“I think we turned the corner last year, and this year we want to be playing our best football beginning in week eleven,” Pollifrone said. “That’s what this season is all about. But when our senior class plays its last game here, I want to walk away thinking we were the start of something big.
“This community loves its football. They are always there to support us. If our class can be the start of a big turnaround, that would be great. It would be neat to see a winning team here 10 years from now, and know that we were the ones who set the standard and got the program going.”
For now, Struthers is content to focus on the present. The Wildcats’ next two opponents — Hubbard and Poland — are a combined 8-0, and ranked eighth and seventh, respectively, in the Associated Press Division III state poll. Future opponents include Beaver Local and Howland, a pair of teams which defeated the Wildcats in 2012.
“The nice thing about this team, I don’t even know if these kids realize they are 4-0 right now,” Kuntz said. “They are so focused on the present, whether that means turning in a perfect practice, or playing performing well on game day. For them, it’s all about improving, one day at a time, and living up to their own expectations.”
To this point, Struthers has achieved what it has set out to accomplish.