[This is my column in the Sept. 24 issue of The Commercial Review.]
Some time ago, Fort Recovery High School football coach Brent Niekamp knew the Indians were about to make a big turn.
It was 2011, to be exact. The Tribe had gone 4-6 that season — the third consecutive year with a losing record after going 5-5 in 2007.
“There was something about those guys,” said Niekamp, who has been leading Fort Recovery since 2005. “We played with a lot of toughness. We didn’t get intimidated by anybody.
“You could tell there was a different way that we played.”
Although the Indians had lost 21 games in three years, the margin of defeat was getting smaller each year. They were fighting back. They were playing well.
It just didn’t turn into many victories.
Fort Recovery’s class of 2016 entered the fall 2012 season with a new mindset. They didn’t like the dreadful seasons of the teams before them.
“We couldn’t stand losing anymore,” said Kyle Schroer, a senior running back. “We knew something had to be different to become a team that wins.”
The Indians worked harder.
“Our work ethic, we decided that wasn’t going to fly anymore and that Fort Recovery …” Wes Wenning, a 2014 Midwest Athletic Conference first-team wide receiver, said, then paused. “We’re going to be one of the top teams in the MAC.
“We’re not going to be a bottom feeder anymore.”
The Indians got stronger.
They got faster.
“We felt like we were getting there and it was just a matter of time until things fell into place,” Niekamp said. “The right bunch of kids in terms of depth, skill and strength.”
They got better.
The record didn’t quite show it yet —Wenning, Schroer and their classmates went 3-7 in both their freshmen and sophomore seasons — but they were well on their way to turning that corner.
“And of course us coaches, we’re evolving every year too,” Niekamp said. “I think things just started to fall into place.”
The pieces were there. The puzzle just had to be put together.
In 2014, the first piece was a season-opening win against North Union, followed by a convincing 28-0 victory against state-line rival Jay County. The Indians later had a five-point win over the St. Henry Redskins, just the second such victory in program history.
The Indians were 4-1 for the first time.
Then the state-wide recognition came. First was being ranked sixth in Division VII by Associated Press. Then it was the No. 1 computer ranking in Division VII’s Region 26.
Next were the playoff berth and subsequent playoff win. Both were firsts for the team.
After a debilitating loss to eventual state champion Marion Local — the Flyers were bumped up to Division VI this year because of enrollment — Niekamp stood in front of his players and said three words.
“We belong here.”
It was a testament to the work the class of 2016 had put in to get to that point, standing on the field in the postseason, the regional semifinal, three steps away from the state championship — a place past FRHS teams only dreamed of being.
Success had been achieved. The Indians were in uncharted territory.
Proving it wasn’t a fluke was the next step.
Four games into the 2015 campaign, the Indians can look amongst themselves and realize they are once again in a place no other Tribe team has been.
The Indians are 4-0.
In two weeks, the Tribe could very well be 6-0. Fort Recovery hosts a winless Parkway Panther squad for homecoming Friday, and faces the New Bremen Cardinals (1-3) on the road Sept. 28.
The Indians are ranked third in the state in the AP poll. It’s the highest they’ve ever been.
“It’s really special that they’ve worked and earned that,” Niekamp said. “That’s not something that just happened. They made that happen over the course of some years of work.”
Is the high praise deserved?
Sure it is.
Still, the Indians aren’t satisfied. They want more.
Just ask the seniors, the ones who have been a critical part of the change in expectations on the football field.
“We definitely haven’t worked to our potential yet, but I feel like we are definitely a top team in the state,” Tanner Koch said. “We’ve definitely earned a lot of what we’ve got. But we have a lot to accomplish yet. We’re not nearly where we should be.
“We should be a team to be reckoned with by the end of the year.”
And Niekamp, who has suffered through all of the abysmal years both as a player and as a coach, is trying to downplay the opportunity for the Indians to be 6-0 heading into a matchup Oct. 8 with MAC rival Minster, the defending Division VI state champion that is now in Division VII.
“I try not to pay too much attention to it,” he said. “It doesn’t affect the game either way. If anything, it probably can get us out of focus if we worry about it.
“We just try to get ready for our next opponent and be ready to play them and beat them.”
Opponents beware; the Indians are on a mission — one that is decades in the making.