HOWELL — After squeaking into the playoffs the last couple of years, then getting blown out in the first round, Howell football coach Aaron Metz has set his sights higher in 2017.
“We can’t just get into the playoffs,” he said. “We have to work to get a better seed in the playoffs, to finish 6-3, say, instead of 5-4. But we play in a pretty tough league, where every week we’d better be ready to go. Any way you get into the playoffs, you have an opportunity, but we’ve got to play better and make our regular season count a little bit more.”
The Highlanders begin that quest tonight at Caledonia, a school which has had success in the past, including a state title in 2005, but was 4-5 last season.
They do so despite a pair of numbers that could work against them.
Howell graduated 34 seniors from last year’s team, a whopping number, and the Highlanders have just 42 players on the roster this season.
“We’ve got to stay healthy,” Metz said. “No. 2 for us is playing together. People aren’t going to look at us as the biggest or strongest team, but if we play together, we can beat anybody.”
Under Metz, the Highlanders have always stressed the offensive line, and Howell has three starters returning from last year. Nick Tholen and Mike Pelic started all of last season, and Evan Ogden became a starter down the stretch.
At quarterback, Josh Lynch will start the season ahead of Matt Hornyak, but both will get a good look early in the season as Metz looks to replace Ryan Brennan.
“As time goes on … we’ve had a two-quarterback system before,” Metz said. “it’s not necessarily new to us. We’re going to figure out what’s good for this team and roll with it.”
Howell employed two QBs as recently as 2015, when Brennan led a run-heavy offense while Brett Chaperon operated out of a spread.
The Highlanders also will employ a committee of running backs, something Metz has done before and, with the small roster size, something necessary to ensure they stay fresh down the stretch.
The offense is under new leadership this season. Chris Gadgev moved up from the JV team to take over the offense from Metz, who switches to defense along with Mitch Zajac. They replace Matt Holcomb, who left as defensive coordinator after last season.
“Chris is ultra organized,” Metz said. “He understands the schemes we want to run and how to set up a play and make it go. He also has a great relationship with the kids.
“On defense, our philosophy is that we have to line up correctly and get some takeaways,” he continued. “We can’t into track meets (high scoring games) and we have to be good tacklers.”
The Highlanders, like the rest of the KLAA Black Division, are facing a gauntlet as they look to reach the playoffs again, but Logan Ward, a linebacker-wide receiver, is ready for the challenge.
“We have a lot tougher schedule,” he said. “Every game, we can’t take a day off. If we take a day off, we’re in trouble. If we stay laser-focused, we’ll be good.”
Metz is starting his 11th season as coach of the Highlanders, and notes that two of the teams on his schedule, Caledonia and Canton, are run-heavy teams, an indication that the swing of the pendulum from rushing to pass-intensive attacks is beginning to swing the other way.
“We have two double-tight-end teams (on offense) on our schedule,” he said. “A few years ago almost no one had a tight end.”
Trends are one thing. Metz prefers to worry about his team and its weekly challenge.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is if you start worrying about everyone else, you’ll forget what you do,” he said. “We have to have our philosophies. WE have to play great defense. We may spray it out, but we still have to run the ball. There’s still some fundamentals. We have to win the takeaway battle. If a team gets four on us, we’d better get five on them. You do those things, and we’ll be successful.”p0p