That's the mantra Clay head coach Mike Donnelly used with his football team heading into the season, and, by all accounts, his team lived up to expectations.
The Eagles went 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference, a two-win improvement in their overall record and a one-game improvement in one of the state's most competitive leagues.
On top of that, Clay was much more competitive in several key conference matchups as they hung tough with Whitmer and Findlay before falling in the second half. In fact, the combined record of the five teams the Eagles lost to was 43-12 (.781), three of whom (Whitmer, Central Catholic, Perrysburg) qualified for the postseason.
All in all, it was a successful season for the Eagles.
“I'm quite pleased,” said Donnelly, a 1992 Clay graduate. “We fought hard; we played really well at times. There are a lot of positives to take from this season.”
The season had its share of ups and downs. The Eagles started the first six games by alternating wins and losses. After beating Northview, 42-21, to open the season, the Eagles played Perrysburg in their toughest and most important game of the year, falling in heart-breaking fashion to the Yellow Jackets, 24-23.
From there, the Eagles won two out of their next three, defeating their rival, Waite (48-12), and St. Francis (38-21) and losing to Central Catholic (56-19).
Following the win over St. Francis, Clay lost three straight games, falling to Whitmer (37-6), St. John's (42-12) and Findlay (54-20) before salvaging the season with wins over Fremont Ross (34-14) and Lima Senior (41-13).
“Whitmer, I think we played them as tough as anybody in the league (this season),” Donnelly said. “We got inside their 10-yard-line twice and didn't score and were down 17-6 at halftime. They didn't score their last three touchdowns until the final four minutes. And we were down 19-14 to Findlay at halftime.”
After running the spread option last season, Donnelly simplified things and chose to run a standard spread offense with the hope that it would make things easier on his playmakers, specifically his quarterback.
It worked. The Clay offense more than doubled its point total from last season, scoring 283 points after putting 138 on the board last season. The offense, which averaged 28.3 points per game, was one of the main reasons the Eagles improved their win total and were a much more competitive team.
It started with the performance by junior quarterback Josh Pennington, who completed 131-of-243 passes (53.9%) for 2025 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Pennington also did some damage on the ground, running 111 times for 417 yards and six touchdowns.
“I was very pleased with (Josh's) progress,” Donnelly said. “He's 100% better than he was as a sophomore and he continued to improve as the season went on; he also broke a few school records. He blossomed as a quarterback and has room to improve.”
Pennington spread the ball around to a number of receivers, among them Kyle Row (43 catches, 723 yards, 6 TD), Mounib Jomaa (19 catches, 429 yards, 4 TD) and Anthony Ramirez (38 catches, 411 yards, 2 TD).
Twin running backs Devin & Damon Dominique helped to take pressure off Pennington by rushing for a combined 1572 yards on 211 carries and 20 touchdowns. Individually, Devin carried the ball 101 times for 832 yards (8.2 per-carry) and 10 scores while Damon rushed for 740 yards on 110 carries (6.7 per-carry) and 10 touchdowns. Both of them also contributed with their pass-catching abilities out of the backfield as Devin had 19 receptions for 289 yards and three scores and Damon had nine catches for 137 yards and one touchdown.
The offensive line featured six players manning the five positions.
Jared Lutz (6-0, 241) and Dillon Twining (6-2, 250) filled in at both tackle spots with Charlie Bee (5-10, 215) at one of the guard positions and Morgan Seymour (6-0, 215) and Jared Gray (6-3, 223) rotating in at the other guard spot. Joe Staudinger (5-11, 210), meanwhile, anchored the line at center.
Defensively, Cody Gore led the team with 106 tackles, followed by Michael Lee (60), Gray (57), Emilio Duran (56), Seymour (55) and Logan Badenhop (49). Cornerback Jay Smith led the Eagles with four interceptions.
The team will lose 13 seniors, most of whom were contributing members, among them Duran, Gray, Seymour, Gore, Jomaa, Badenhop and the Dominique boys.
“There are definitely some holes to fill,” Donnelly said. “We had some young guys that got an opportunity to play. We're going to miss the Dominiques and their big-play ability. I think offensively, we're going to be more methodical and have fewer big plays.
“Defensively, we struggled with the 3-4. I think it was an uneven performance from the defense. We've got a lot of work to do in our secondary. We need to improve on the back end. Are we doing too much? Are we not doing enough? We're going to do a lot of self-reflection. I have confidence in (defensive coordinator) Greg Kuvicki.”
The 27 juniors on this year's squad, a group that Donnelly has much faith in, will look to lead the group into the offseason as they prepare for next season.