Time after time last fall, first-year Slippery Rock High head coach saw his team play neck and neck with its opponents only to stutter in the second half and, at season’s end, wind up winless.
That’s all in the books for the Rockets, as is a stretch at Slippery Rock that saw three different coaches at the helm in three seasons.
Hathaway (0-10, 17-16 overall), who guided Coudersport to back-to-back postseason berths before taking the gig before the 2010 campaign with the Rockets, has been working to build the program back into what it was in the early portion of the last decade, winning back-to-back District 10 titles in 2002 and 2003.
All that starts with players who still have plenty of energy once the fourth quarter rolls around.
“I think we got bigger and stronger this year,” Hathaway said. “We’re going to be better conditioned this year. We’re going to be ready to finish those games.
“We were in every single game we played last year in the first half. Our motto this year is ‘finish the game.’
For the second straight year, the Rockets are again competing at the Class AAA level - one that has them in Region 5 with the likes of Corry, DuBois, Franklin, Meadville, Oil City and neighboring Grove City.
“We know the schedule inside and out because it’s the same as last year,” Hathaway said. “We’re excited. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
One of the biggest adjustments to having a new coach is becoming accustomed to a new mentor’s offensive and defensive strategies. Now with a season under their belts, Hathaway said the Rockets are more cognizant at almost every practice on settling in to where they’re supposed to be and when.
“I think we’ve made some good strides this offseason in the weight room and on the football field and I think our experience is showing during practice,” he said. “We’re watching film from last year and I think the kids understand what we need them to do this year. Putting in a new system last year, I think we’re finally starting to iron it out and the kids here are playing football instead of thinking a lot.”
Junior Ryan Currie is back to run the Rockets’ offense at quarterback and has been working with another junior in Mike Rummel and Sean White, a senior who saw time at the position as a sophomore before stepping away from football last season.
Hathaway’s offense utilizes the whole field and whoever ends up being the full-time quarterback will have the luxury in throwing to one of D-10’s top receivers in Sam Furrh. Now a senior, the 5-foot-11, 140-pound Furrh was an all-region wideout in 2010.
“He still has the speed, still has the wheels and he’s going to get the ball thrown to him,” Hathaway said.
Currie led the Rockets in rushing last fall and Hathaway said he will again be sharing carries with senior fullback Chris Thomas and Ben Gaul, also a senior. Manning the offensive line will be seniors Ziggy Mertens, Dylan Bollinger and Josh Antal and juniors Forrest Christmann and Dylan Neal.
Hulking 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior Caleb Whitney will serve as the team’s primary tight end with junior Spencer Rea seeing time as well, Hathaway added.
“They know what we need out of them and we have some real leadership up there,” the coach said. “I’m real happy with where the line’s at right now.”
Defensively, Hathaway said the team will adjust it’s alignment to a set with a 5-man front and work from there.
“You have to go with kind of where your talent is, where (the players’) strengths are,” he said. “A lot of those guys are going to have to go two ways this year. That’s why we’re trying to get in condition.”
Projecting to be on the defensive line Hathaway said he hopes will help stop the run are Christmann, Antal, Brown and senior Seth Patricca with others working in. Linebackers will likely be Neal, Bollinger, Mertens and junior Jeff Croll with Furrh, White, Gaul, Rummel, senior Davis Dimit and juniors Joey Meyer and Nathan Seekford all shifting in in the secondary.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Hathaway said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of guys who are going to see the field this year.”
Slippery Rock opens up Friday at Wilmington.
Hathaway will be assisted by Josh Anderson, Travis Sarver, John McCall, Ken Raabe and manager Matt Auxter.
Sept. 2 - at Wilmington, 7 p.m.; Sept. 9 - Franklin*, 7 p.m.; Sept. 16 - at DuBois*, 7 p.m.; Sept. 23 - Meadville*, 7 p.m.; Sept. 30 - at Corry*, 7 p.m.; Oct. 7 - Sharon, 7 p.m.; Oct. 14 - at Hickory, 7 p.m.; Oct. 21 - at Grove CIty*, 7 p.m.; Oct. 28 - Oil City* - 7 p.m.; Nov. 4 - General McLane, 7 p.m. * - Region 5 game.