Third year head coach Jason Olejniczak says he is optimistic the Perry football team can reverse their fortunes from a 2012 season that saw the Bluejays finish 3-6 overall and 1-5 in Class 3A District 1 play.
"I have to honestly say I think we have the talent that, if we can stay healthy and catch a break or two, we should be able to win six games or so," he said. "If we can win at five, or at least four, we will have a shot at the playoffs and that will be one or our goals."
While a few important players have been lost to graduation, the bulk of the starters return, bringing with them a year’s worth of experience playing in the district.
"We will have only a few guys who will be new to varsity ball," Olejniczak said. "Most of the new starters are players who were on the field quite a bit last year and that will help us."
Olejniczak expects Harlan to be improved over last year, with Creston and Lewis Central — despite some key losses — also expected to battle for a postseason spot. Atlantic and ADM also lost key players, with Glenwood expected to be improved.
The season opens with the Cowbell Game against Greene County and ends against Saydel. Both games are at Dewey Field, with a week two trip to face a big, physical Boone squad the three non-district games on the slate.
"We are going to have our chances in more games this year," Olejniczak said. "One thing that concerns me is that, while our numbers are starting to improve, we still do not have the kind of depth I would like to see us have. We wore down in the second half some last year and have to make sure that does not happen again, and, of course, it is critical that we catch a break and avoid injuries."
The 2012 season saw Perry’s smallest margin of victory at 19 points, with their narrowest loss 15 points. Those numbers reveal no close games and mean two things: the Jays controlled the action in their wins and were simply worn down after the intermission in their losses.
"We definitely need to be stronger in the fourth quarter," Olejniczak admitted. "We can help make that happen by getting out in front and maybe being able to give some guys a series or two off to keep them fresh, but that also means those guys who take their place are going to have to play well so we can afford to do that."
Junior quarterback and defensive back Will Whiton is the jack-of-all-trades for Perry. He was 42-of-99 for 594 yards in the air last year and threw seven touchdowns against seven interceptions. The speedster carried 166 times for 811 yards and eight TDs, and, considering yards lost to sacks are deducted from rushing yards at the high school level, Whiton’s effectiveness carrying the ball becomes even more valuable.
Senior Seth Stetzel missed time to injury but managed 211 yards on 53 carries as a fullback, with Ben Daniels scoring three times and gaining 187 yards on 59 hauls.
Nic Wilhelmi caught nine passes for 92 yards and two scores and will see time, along with Eli Saemisch, as an H-back.
The speedy Daniels grabbed 15 passes for 158 yards and a TD out of the backfield last year but will be moved outside, where his long stride and size could cause problems for opposing cornerbacks.
Cody Chance and Marcus Meri will see time at what amounts to the tight end spot, with Keegan Wolfe and Cavan Finn in the mix on the outside.
Olejniczak said he expects to "Put the ball in the air and spread it out" much more this season.
"We have real good speed at several spots and we need to get those guys in space with the ball," he stated, "because if we do we will put points on the board."
Perry struggled in short yardage situations and on too many occasions failed to score when they moved the ball inside the 20-yard line, a key focus for Olejniczak.
"We didn’t have any field goals and could not pick up a one or two-yard gain when we needed it," he said. "Those are areas we need to correct. We simply can’t pass up opportunities to put points on the board."
Cameron Martinez returns at placekicker, with Anthony Guardado also an option. The former was 9-of-14 on PATs and the latter 4-of-6. Daniels (32.6 ypp) returns at punter.
Any success on offense will depend a great deal on the play up front, where Michael Pentico will start at center, with Michael Lansing to his immediate left and Jorge Soto to his right. Chase Carrick and Jacob Clark will start at the tackle spots, with Hunter Brobst and Jerry Garcia also expected to see time in the trenches.
The return team should be more than fine, with Whiton back on kicks and Daniels on punts. The former scored twice on 12 kick returns for 409 total yards while the latter brought back nine punts for 53 yards.
Soto, Carrick, Guardado and Chance will start up front on defense, with Lansing, Brobst, Saemisch and Blake Jans at linebacker while Stetzel, Whiton, Daniels, Wilhelmi and Finn will rotate through the defensive backfield.
Whiton was a pest to the opposition from his cornerback spot last year, earning INA Class 3A First Team All-State honors after making 31 tackles and intercepting five passes he returned for 85 yards while also falling on two fumbles.
"We will be smaller on defense this year but we have some studs that will come up and hit you," Olejniczak said. "We will be more aggressive in our approach and try to take advantage of that. We have a great opportunity in front of us and I expect to see us improve in all areas this year."