It wasn’t that long ago that a 3-6 year might be considered a decent year for the Indiana Indians.
Remember: This is a program that won only 26 games in the 1990s.
Times have changed, though. Twelve seasons after Mark Zilinskas took over the program in 2002, the Indians now expect to not just win games, but to win a lot of them.
That’s why 3-6 just won’t suffice.
“You hate to dwell on the past, but we’ve got to remember where we came from and what we did to get to this point,” said Zilinskas, whose team bottomed out last year after back-to-back WPIAL Class AAA playoff appearances. “The kids need to know that. This has the potential to be a special year, but we’ve got to make it happen and not just expect it.”
The Indians won only three games last year, and they spent the offseason dwelling on the sobering fact that four wins would have been enough to get them in the playoffs.
Oddly enough though, Indiana could have gone to the playoffs with three wins had they won their final game, against Hollidaysburg, by at least 10 points. Instead, the Indians won by four, and they fell short of the playoff-clinching touchdown on the game’s final play and walked away feeling defeated after a win.
This year, the Indians say they are determined not to let their playoff hopes come down to a point margin or any other tiebreaker.
“We need to win a certain amount of games to get to the playoffs,” said senior Darrious Carter, who has given a verbal commitment to play college ball at Temple. “After that, the sky is the limit. We need to keep getting better as a team and maybe go win a championship.”
One might think a team coming off a 3-6 year has little to be hopeful about, but the Indians are expecting great things this fall. They have nine players back who saw significant playing time on defense last year and eight who started on offense.
What’s more, the Indians don’t begin the season with a quarterback quandary, nor do they have doubts about where the big plays will come from. Right now, Zilinskas said the team’s issues are more mental than anything.
“I’m very happy with where we are physically,” he said. “The big thing right now is mentally. We need to get our minds right.”
And that means knowing that wins will only come if they’re earned.
“We’ve been playing together since seventh grade,” Carter said. “We know what we’re capable of, and we all know we can get better. We just need to be a team. We need to use our skills to the best of our ability to do what we can to win as many games as possible.”
The Indians’ offense will revolve around several big-play specialists who will give opposing defenses fits. There’s Carter, a rangy 6-foot-5 receiver who averaged 17.6 yards per catch and scored five touchdowns; fellow receiver Riley Stapleton, who led the team with 26 catches and averaged 15.5 yards per reception; quarterback-turned-fullback DeQuan West, who led the team with 383 rushing yards despite missing parts of four games with injuries; and speedy wingback Jordan Casses, who averaged 28 yards per reception and rushed for 262 yards.
Tying the whole thing together is senior quarterback Sean Thompson, who played well enough in relief of West last season to earn the starting spot this fall while West moves to the backfield.
“I think this will take a little bit of the pressure off (West),” Thompson said. “Now he just has to run the ball. We’re going to give him plenty of touches, and when he’s in space it’s pretty tough to bring him down.”
Last season, the Indians averaged just 16 points and 256 yards per game, numbers that will need to improve this year. To do that, Zilinskas has made the decision to open up the offense and use more shotgun and spread concepts in addition to the team’s tried-and-true veer option attack.
That idea makes Carter smile.
“We’re going to be throwing the ball a lot more than we did the last couple years,” he said. “At least that’s what our coaches have been saying. So I’m excited about maybe getting the ball in my hands a little bit more.”
On both sides of the ball, the key to it all, as it usually is in football, will be the play of the lines.
Indiana boasts experience from the likes of Cody Squiric, a Division I recruit who played varsity ball as a freshman in 2010, as well as talented veterans such as Jon Anna, Joe Pivetz and Brad Zoka. Those four are being counted on to lead the way on defense, where the Indians hope to make a major improvement from last year, when they gave up 27 points and 333 yards per game.
The Indians are counting on linebackers Derek Stapleton, Ryan Watters and Malik Meterko to make some stops.
The secondary consists of safeties Ian Scott and Jacob Zilinskas and cornerbacks Jordan Casses and Noah Mohney.
“Obviously, we gave up a lot of points last year, and a lot of yardage,” Zilinskas said. “Coming in here, we decided we need to be a more physical team up front. But we feel like, potentially, we can be pretty good on defense.”
Should the Indiana offense become more productive and its defense get tighter, the Indians just might be in line for another WPIAL Class AAA playoff berth.
“We know that every game in the playoffs could be our last,” Thompson said, “so if we get that chance, we have to take advantage of it.”
Expectations also were high last year, but the Indians had too many injuries and they took too long to develop into a team. And then, just like that, their season was over.
“That’s probably the biggest thing: The expectations from the kids and the community are for us to have some success,” Zilinskas said.
“That’s what makes it fun, but also what makes last season difficult. We walked away from that with a sick feeling in our stomachs. But we’re using that to motivate us and to prepare and get in there and compete.”
The Indians have come a long way, haven’t they?
“If we play like I think we can,” Zilinskas said, “we’ll have a lot of success this year.”