There was an ominous sign from the beginning.
As South Kitsap coach Eric Canton reflected on the Wolves’ 4-6 record this season, he harkened back to the beginning of practices.
It was during the team’s first practice on Aug. 21 that South learned its opener at Kentridge, which originally was scheduled for Sept. 6, was moved up one day.
“We had a scheduling snafu,” Canton said. “It seemed like anything that could go wrong went wrong. It was crazy.”
The Wolves won their opener 40-0 before a four-game losing streak effectively ended their playoff prospects. At that point, it looked like South might struggle to win three games. But the team, buoyed by a lighter schedule, won three of their final five games. Their two setbacks during that stretch, Lincoln and Central Kitsap, were by 21 points combined.
“We were really pretty stingy in our last five games,” Canton said. “It was just a matter of making stops at the right times. We just couldn’t do it.”
Much of that had to do with penalties. The Wolves were penalized 29 times for 270 yards against CK.
“We gave up one big play all night,” said Canton, referring to Vaughn Beebe’s 70-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter for CK. “Every one of their other drives were aided a big, critical penalty. Whether we committed that penalty or not is beside the point. We need to take care of that next year.”
Despite the rivalry loss, South recovered to win its final game 41-25 against Foss. Canton said he was proud of his players for “fighting through the distractions” to win their finale. And while that nonleague contest against Foss had no playoff implications, Canton felt it was significant victory for players heading into the offseason.
“I think it’s really important, especially for the kids coming back next year,” he said. “That’s going to be the lasting impression coming into the spring and summer when everyone gets back.”
Canton believes the Wolves’ offense, which averaged 23.3 points per game to rank fifth among seven Class 4A Narrows League teams, can improve next season. Cooper Canton is expected to be the program’s first two-year starting quarterback since Gordy Anderson in 2008-09. Canton completed 98 of 180 passes for 1,414 yards, 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Several of the younger Canton’s favorite targets, including Dylan Garcia and Logan Knowles, are graduating. The tandem combined for 913 yards and five touchdowns on 58 receptions. But South faced a similar situation entering this season and found several productive receivers.
The situation should be different at running back as 5-foot-5, 234-pound running back Marshaud DeWalt, who rushed for 591 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns on 85 carries this year, returns for his third varsity season. He is expected to team with Corey Bell, who routinely showcased his explosiveness during the year. On Oct. 25 at Stadium, Bell returned a kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown and later scored on a 50-yard run. Bell had 407 yards and four touchdowns on 50 carries.
But CK coach Mark Keel said after his team defeated the Wolves that the key to beating his rival is stopping their running game.
“I’ve always said if you can get South Kitsap passing, you’ve got them where you want them,” he said.
Canton does not see that being an issue next year.
“I think we’re going to be able to do both really well,” he said.
Similar to the receiving corps, the offensive line will undergo a transformation as several starters graduate. But Canton likes several emerging linemen who will be seniors next fall.
“I think we’ve got some good pieces,” he said. “And we’re going to lose the majority of the offensive line, but that’s the way high school football is.”
While Canton likes his offense’s potential, he wants to see improvement out of a defense that allowed at least 28 points in six games.
“We need to shore up our defense,” he said. “We need to figure out what was going wrong and put a plug in it. We’re not going to score 40 a night.
There are times where you’re not going to click on offense, but there’s no reason not to do that on defense. Defense is played with heart, intensity and desire. We’ve got to figure out how to get that done on a consistent basis.”
Canton, who was an All-American defensive back in 1985 for South, believes that starts with containing the run. The Wolves shifted from the 4-3 to 3-4 base defense under Canton in 2012 and have struggled to stop the run at times.
He believes that was the result of several issues this season. Canton prefers to have players predominantly focus on offense or defense. But he had to use some key defensive personnel on offense more than he would have liked this season, which he believes did not keep them as fresh. Also, Canton thinks the linebacking corps will improve as there were several talented freshmen and sophomores he expects to compete for starting jobs in the fall.
This year marked the first time ninth graders were eligible to compete for the Wolves in all sports. Canton said he felt that was beneficial for freshmen because the high school season runs longer than that for junior highs and those players were able to compete against older teammates in practice.
“It was really nice to have those freshmen,” he said. “They got better by leaps and bounds.”
After serving as an assistant coach under D.J. Sigurdson from 1999 to 2008 at South, Canton spent the next three years as the coach at John Sedgwick Junior High. When he returned to the high school, Canton said he wanted to work closely with the junior high coaches to help build a program that can sustain success. In July, South took 111 players to camp at Fort Warden State Park and invited all three junior high coaches to attend. He hopes that becomes an annual tradition. In addition, Canton said he has provided local peewee football coaches with some of South’s basic schemes. Canton said those coaches are not under obligation to use those plays, but it is encouraged.
“It is what’s in the best interest of kids if they want to play here,” he said. “Having the terminology down is a big advantage.”
• Teams around the state should find out today what classification they will play in next season when the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association releases statewide school enrollment numbers. That means Canton and others must wait to arrange nonleague games. Canton said the Wolves have a verbal commitment to play at Eastmont of Wenatchee in 2014 with the Wildcats traveling to Joe Knowles Field the following year. But that could change if reclassification disrupts the Class 4A Narrows League or the 3A/4A Big Nine, which Eastmont competes in.