Bob Riley sensed an almost tangible shift in player morale as Graham battled perennial power Urbana in last year’s Central Buckeye Conference finale.
“We played ‘em really hard,” the Falcons’ well-traveled high school football coach said. “We felt like we were really coming around in that game.”
Graham’s two-touchdown loss, it’s ninth that season, proved anything but depressing inside a quietly upbeat locker room.
“You’d think losing by two touchdowns isn’t very close,” but that game was a lot closer than what the final (29-14) score indicated,” said Riley, entering his third season at Graham following stints at Miami East, Covington, Sidney, Bradford and Troy Christian.
The in-transition Falcons, still adjusting to a new coach and system, dropped their first six games and were outscored 227-32, managing no more than a single touchdown per outing.
Then came a breakthrough 44-14 win against Greenon. The Falcons were outscored just 109-99 over the final four outings.
“These guys know the system now. They have some experience,” said Riley, 98-83 overall.
The 40-year veteran’s first order of business? Trading a 4-3 defense for a 5-2.
Roughly half of Graham’s 37 players will see action on both sides of the ball, and most have hit the summer weight room hard.
“First and foremost, you’ve always gotta think you’re going to be successful,” Riley said. “We have the potential to be very competitive in the (CBC Mad River Division) - maybe even win the league.”
Returning starters include seniors Wiatt Hanlin (6-2, 186, RB/DB), Barry Suttles (5-11, 190 TE/DE), and Eric Hess (6-1, 190, TE/DE), and juniors Cole Theodor (5-10, 200, RB/LB), Harold Farmer (5-10, 190, OT/DL), and Sterling Maurice (6-0, 200, OL/DL).
Senior Keith Ackley (5-10, 190, RB/LB), junior Conner Burr (5-9, 150, RB/DB), and sophomores Vic McGowen (5-11, 160, QB) and Dillon Driskell (5-11, 190, OL/DL) are key newcomers.
Graham scored four times in a pre-season scrimmage win over Northeastern and lost 14-13 to Mechanicsburg. The Falcons open Friday at Tippecanoe.
“We’ve developed a workman-like attitude. Our kids believe they can get the job done,” Riley said. “We’re excited about the year.”