Ryan Wikel has heard it all plenty of times.
St. Mary Central Catholic football can’t compete in the Sandusky Bay Conference. The Panthers are too small and have no depth to hang with the big boys. It’s not safe to put them out against bigger and stronger teams for fear of injury.
And of course, last but certainly not least, SMCC should leave the SBC for a more competitive fit in a different league.
But the third-year coach Wikel, a 1999 SMCC graduate and former player, hears nothing but white noise.
“It’s something we tell the kids we have no control of,” he said. “It’s just the way the schedule is read. Have some things changed since the last time we were competitive in the SBC? Probably.
“Is it the best fit for us? I think that’s someone else’s job. Our job is to
prepare our kids each week, and I told them we have no excuses.”
After averaging 40-plus kids per season on the roster for decades, the Panthers (1-5) broke camp this season with just 27 players, including freshmen. There is no junior varsity or freshmen team. The junior high has a combined roster of seventh and eighth-graders in the low 20s.
Faced with shrinking numbers in a conference with schools that have enrollment four times the size of SMCC, the questions about how the Panthers are surviving are getting louder with each loss, including after Friday’s 67-0 loss at Clyde.
Getting it back
For a 20-season stretch from 1988-2007, there were few, if any critics.
The Panthers made the playoffs 10 times in an 18-year span (1988-2005) and won the SBC title three times in a four-year window (1989-92). SMCC won nine playoff games in that stretch as well, including coming within two minutes of winning the Division V state championship in 1990, when it fell to St. Henry, 21-17.
SMCC also had 15 first-team All-Ohioans during those years.
But since missing out on the playoffs in the final week of the 2007 season, the Panthers are just 7-39 overall and 2-29 in the SBC. The Panthers have yielded 40 points or more in 12 of those setbacks, and two of the 29 losses have been by one possession or less.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” Wikel said of the SBC slate. “It’s going to challenge you. And 10 years later, when you are looking for work, maybe it’s going to be your experience going uphill all season that gets you that job. Find a way to turn it into a positive.”
When told speculation persists the Panthers can’t hang in the SBC, Panther quarterback Alex Guerra disagreed.
“I’ve been around this program for eight years, my brother (Adam) too,” he said. “That’s just St. Mary’s. That’s how it is. We’ve always been the smallest school, and always will be. Tradition shows us that we can do this. We can win the SBC, we can have All-Ohio players and compete in Division VI.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re in the SBC or not. Me personally, I do think we belong because of our tradition and our way of approaching games. I think other competition is great. I personally wouldn’t want to play in any other conference. I know we can compete. We expect to win every week, and when we don’t we are disappointed. We can still go 5-5, which would still put us in the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, injured two-way starter Ayden Opfer said he hears the talk too, but says people don’t get to see what he sees on a daily basis.
“The people that say that, they aren’t here every day. They don’t see us, and how bad we want to beat those bigger teams with the effort we put in,” Opfer said. “But because we don’t necessarily have what they have with the numbers, they don’t see that.
“In the offseason, that talk kind of gets to you, but once the season starts, you just block it out and forget it.
Wikel added there is still a sense of belief that each time the Panthers take the field, they will do the unthinkable.
“And it doesn’t all come from me,” he said. “Our kids go into games with a belief that they can compete. Once the pads start popping and some things happen, we may lose some of that belief. But I think every week they believe.
“Our locker room before the Huron game (49-7 loss, Sept. 21) was as intense as any in my three years here. But nobody thought they had a chance.”
The reality though, often paints a different picture.
“The reality is we spent Tuesday doing run defense with a half-line,” Wikel said. “We want our best on our best, and when we go full line, half of them are freshmen. Is Clyde over there going half-line preparing for us? No. They have a JV team to do that. We don’t have that.
“We adapt to what we have and find the best way to execute it. We constantly are adjusting to what we have. I think it keeps the kids fresh and gives them a belief they can win.”
In December of 2011, SMCC weighed its options for a new league, exploring an invitation from the Midland Athletic League. At the time, the MAL was losing Carey, Mohawk and Senca East to the new Northern 10 Athletic Conference.
While SMCC discussed internally which way to go, two other schools pursued by the MAL withdrew their interest, and on March 7 principal Mike Savona announced in a statement SMCC was staying in the SBC.
After the announcement, MAL schools North Baltimore and Hopewell-Loudon agreed to join the Blanchard Valley Conference in 2014, leaving just Tiffin Calvert, Lakota and SMCC rival Fremont St. Joseph as football member schools remaining in the league.
What does it all mean to Wikel and the SMCC coaching staff? Continue to plow forward. However, that won’t be getting any easier. The Panthers will graduate eight seniors after this season, but only have 12 eighth-graders currently playing a junior high schedule combined with the seventh-grade, also only a dozen or so kids.
“What we’ll focus on is getting as many of those eighth-graders to the freshmen level as we can,” Wikel said. “We have to get them up here to compete wherever we’re at. Is it going to be tough in the SBC? Yeah, it’s always going to be. But we have to try to retain these kids.
“And there are kids walking the halls who should be playing. When you ask them, they may not give an honest opinion, but I would tell you there are kids that would be playing, but they don’t want to play against SBC schools. That’s it. If we jumped to a different league, do more kids come out? Probably. But at this moment, we have to focus on what we’re doing each day with this group, because it’s a good group and they deserve to find that success down the road.”
Enrollment appears to have stabilized at SMCC according to the past two OHSAA reported figures, but like any other school, many alternatives also play a role in low numbers for the Panthers.
“There are easier options, and in some cases, options that are much better for the kids,” Wikel said. “Again, there are kids who should be out here and they’re not. But we’ve told our kids from Day 1, this is who we are.
“We can’t control who comes out, so just make sure you do your job and help make your teammates better, and we’ll see where we end up.”