HAMLER -- The Patrick Henry Patriots are a program steeped in tradition. Wins, league titles, playoff appearances, playoff runs and even a state title ... they've been through it all and in recent years, it's just about all they know.
Winning is something that coaches, players and fans have become accustomed to and even with just missing out on last year's league title because of a week 8 loss to Archbold, the playoffs were still in the cards for the 9-1 Patriots.
This year, however, Patrick Henry found itself in unfamiliar territory with two losses within the first four weeks of the season and with one of those losses to league rival Liberty Center, it put the Patriots on the outside looking in for the NWOAL title and a playoff spot in a tight Division V, Region 18.
"We were in uncharted territory, we've never been down like that before, so we really had to rally the troops and regain our focus," remarked senior Kevin Kline. "We knew we'd probably have to win out to make it to the playoffs, we just regrouped after that week and have really started taking care of business after that."
While some teams may have hung their heads, folded or maybe even turned on each other, that was not going to happen to the Patriots, that's just not their style. Instead of feeling down, they simply buckled down.
"We knew we had to play better and quit making mistakes," remarked senior Lucas Rosebrook. "We knew what the problems were and what had to be done to correct it, it was now just a matter of stepping up and doing it."
Patrick Henry has had only two regular season losses once since after the 2001 season, when they finished 7-3 and missed the playoffs. In 2006 they lost to Evergreen in the fifth game of the season and Lehman Catholic in week 9, but followed up both losses with big wins against Delta (week 6) and Wauseon (week 10) to gain a share of the NWOAL and get into the playoffs.
The Liberty Center game served as a huge wake up call for the Patriots, every game now magnified. Their string of nine straight playoff appearances was in jeopardy. The NWOAL was not in their control, but with one loss, could at least still be in position for a share if LC stumbled in just one game.
"Ever since the Liberty game, that's been our goal, we knew we had to win out to probably have a good chance to get in the playoffs," said head coach Bill Inselmann, whose team is now 5-2 overall and 5-1 in the NWOAL. "That's one thing about football that's unique, you're not guaranteed postseason, morale can go down so quickly if you have nothing to play for."
With their backs against the wall, and perhaps one more loss away from having "nothing to play for" in terms of postseason or a league title, the Patriot players have come out swinging.
"I think we just started focusing more," said Kline. "We still prepared hard for those other teams (in the first four weeks), but I think we just started focusing and realizing we were backed into a corner and we had to fight our way out of it. We've done that so far."
Added Rosebrook, "No one had their heads down. After we lost to LC we wanted to get back on track. We knew we were better than a 2-2 team. We lost to two very good teams by three points each, so that showed we could still contend and we wanted to prove that to everybody."
In weeks 5 and 6, they did what they should do to teams with a combined 3-11 record, knocking off Evergreen and Delta by a combined 87-14, although they still battled inconsistencies in practice which was a bit of a concern for the head coach.
"We used to pride ourselves on having a minimal amount of what we would call sub-par practices," said Inselmann, who admitted that being on the outside looking in has been hard on the players and coaches, in part because they were not used to be on the losing end of some games. "We have not had a lot of sharp practices consistently this year and I think part of that is we're not used to losing. There's nothing like football as far morale, momentum, enthusiasm, whatever you want to call it.
"Last week though, we did, we had a sharp practice last Wednesday and Thursday, and I was really pleased with that and I think it carried over into the game. That's going to be our big thing right now is we can have no let-ups, our schedule is tough from here on out."
That game was not just another game either, it was against a Bryan team that came in undefeated, with more wins than the four teams the Patriots had already beaten, combined, and with everything at stake.
With only losing two games to two teams currently at 7-0 and losing by just a field goal, the Patriots knew they were good enough, but still had to prove it. They had to win a game against a very good team and show that they could answer the wake-up call sent after the narrow loss to LC ... and they did with a 47-14 convincing win over then 6-0 Bryan.
"We knew beating Bryan was a big part for us to make the playoffs, it's a must win with all the points presented to us," said Kline. "I think we really responded well knowing that was a must-win game and I'm happy to see that we responded like that with such pressure on us."
But the task doesn't end with Bryan. In the weeks to come, the Patriots see league and region foe Archbold (6-1), Division II's Dayton Belmont (5-2) and Wauseon (4-3), three formidable opponents.
"Now that we've beaten Bryan, a good team, we've shown that we're a good team, and we have to keep showing that by beating Archbold, (Belmont) and Wauseon so we can make the playoffs," said Rosebrook. "We can't let up at all. We need to win out, the last teams will give us big computer points if we can win out, we can make playoffs. That's what we want this year. We still have a chance at winning the NWOAL, but we really want to make playoffs and keep that streak going."
Mentally the Patriots are where they need to be. They know the task that lies ahead of them and that's something that Inselmann and his squad has going for them. Now, it's just a matter of executing the way they know they have to, the way their Patriot team is capable of doing.
"I think we know what we have to do, and I like that, it's not all the time that kids know what they have to do and how they have to practice and how they have to play," concluded Inselmann. "I think now the key is we know what we have to do, but I don't care what you do, every time you lace up the pads and go out Friday night, that other team has no respect for what you've done. I think kids are starting to accept their roles and now it's just a matter of going out and doing it, and that's easier said then done."