In his first season as Pacelli’s head coach, Randy Grace helped the team improve from zero wins to one in 2011. Last year, the Vikings upped that total to four, coming in each of the season’s first four weeks, and even had a shot at a playoff spot late in the year.
This year, the goal is to take the next step into the postseason, though Grace said the team still has a lot of improving to do.
“We still don’t have those pure athletes I think a lot of teams in our region have,” he said. “We do have a bunch of kids who have worked really hard during the offseason. I hear guys at other schools talking about winning the region or whatever, but right now our focus is just progression. But we are going to be better.”
That last sentence should be a no-brainer, regardless of what happens in region play on Friday nights.
The Vikings return eight players on both sides of the ball and seven three-year starters overall.
“That 1-9 season (in 2011) when we took the job, coming off the 0-10, we started a lot of freshmen,” Grace said. “Nine freshmen on defense. We took our lumps. The majority of those kids are still playing.”
Logic says that would mean less mental mistakes, less turnovers and less penalties. Experienced teams are usually well disciplined and don’t do as much to hurt their chances at winning games. Grace said those mistakes were costly last year, but cutting down those errors should keep them in games that ended up getting out of hand a year ago, specifically a four week stretch in October that saw the Vikings go from 4-0 to 4-4, losing by an average of 43-9.
Quarterback Wyatt Peterson, in his second year as Pacelli’s starter, said it was that stretch that shook the team’s confidence down the stretch. He doesn’t think that will be a problem this year.
“It’s not that we’re going to win all those games this year,” he said. “I just think we can keep our focus a little bit better no matter what happens. And I think we can compete a little better in those games.”
Not a whole lot has changed on offense for the Vikings. The offensive scheme has been the same for the past three years, even if they have added few new wrinkles.
Grace said the main thing is that players have gotten bigger, stronger and a lot faster.
Peterson, who had 1,824 total yards and 24 touchdowns last season, will again lead the offense along with primary rushing threat Deandre Bowman. Bowman, a sophomore, rushed for 643 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman last year. He will be helped by Keandre Ashley (334 yards) and Malik Marble (225 yards) at the position.
Grace said Bowman and wide receiver Luke Dawahare have both added 20 pounds to their frame. Receiver Bryan Foster, standing at 6-foot-2, will again be a threat in the passing game.
Three-year starter Cade Pepper anchors the offensive line at center. He is helped by Kahlil Jenkins and Marcous Herrera at tackle and Zach Luke and Chris Rehak at guard. Ben Davis will play tight end.
Peterson said the running game has come along well so far and the passing game will follow once they have gotten some more repetitions. Pacelli broke 20 points six times last season and 40 on three occasions. Only during the four games in October did the Vikings fail to reach 20, so the ability is there.
“We’ve got some real good folks on the offensive side of the ball,” Grace added.
Improving the defense in region play will hold the key to the Vikings’ season. During its four-game winning streak in September, Pacelli allowed less than nine points per game. After that, the total skyrocketed to 46 per game over the final six.
Rehak, a 6-foot-3, 317-pound force on the defensive line, said he thinks the unit is becoming more aggressive.
“We’re going to the ball more rather than letting things happen, letting them come to us,” he said.
He’ll anchor a defensive line that has a ton of size up the middle. Fellow defensive tackle Walter Meeks also weighs in at around 300 pounds. Cornelius Rogers and Davis will hold the defensive end positions, and while they may lack the same bulk, Grace said he expects both to be great assets on defense.
At linebacker, Grace said the team will rely on senior Malik Marble as the leader of the unit.
Overall, Rehak said, it’s going to take a lot more emotion out of the defense than what the Vikings got down the stretch last season. They can’t become complacent or putout if and when the team struggles.
The goal — and expectation, really — is clear for Pacelli this year: It wants to make the playoffs. It came close last year, and that would be the next logical step following consecutive years of improvement.
To do that, the Vikings will need some breaks.
“It takes a break here and there,” Grace said. “The ball never bounced our way last year. But you can’t expect that right now. If you keep working hard, you can create opportunities for the ball to bounce your way.”
If Pacelli can do that, its first winning season and playoff appearance since 2007 is within the realm of possibility.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.