Coach Keith Penwell’s McClain Tigers start the 2022 season at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19 with a non-conference game in Frankfort against the Adena Warriors of the SVC. (HCP Photo/Stephen Forsha)
Coach Keith Penwell’s McClain Tigers start the 2022 season at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19 with a non-conference game in Frankfort against the Adena Warriors of the SVC. (HCP Photo/Stephen Forsha)
GREENFIELD — The McClain Tigers had their share of battles and adversity last season, but in 2022 the Tigers have a focus that is second to none as they learn a whole new offensive and defensive system en route to improving their program from where it was a season ago.

Last year in 2021, Keith Penwell took over as interim head coach midseason, and this offseason he officially became the new head coach of the Tigers’ program, a team that finished 4-5 overall last season, with all four wins coming in non-conference games.

Wins for McClain last season were against Adena (39-20), Goshen (35-0), East Clinton (34-13) and Shroder Paideia Academy (48-6), as these were their first four games of the ’21 season.

In Frontier Athletic Conference games in ’21, McClain lost two games by a combined eight points, with losses to Washington (27-21) and Miami Trace (56-54). MHS also had FAC losses to Jackson, Chillicothe and Hillsboro.

Preparing for the 2022 season, Penwell knows his players can handle adversity but are ready to play, as they are not only preparing for a different year with the Tigers, but Penwell himself has put in a lot of work in his first season at the helm of the Tigers.

“It’s been pretty good. I’ve had really good people around me. I’ve had past head coaches that give me advice and things like that,” Penwell told The Highland County Press.

“The one thing that no one ever thinks about is the logistics of everything — the organization, working with and getting to know all the parents, especially when it comes to community stuff and feeding the team. We do have a great community, and our community does a great job taking care of us.

“The biggest thing that I’ve felt like I’ve had to deal with, it’s just the time and logistics of it. Other than that, it has been really good.”

What about the progress on the field and getting the team ready for their Week 1 game at Adena? Penwell spoke about that part of being a new head coach as well.

“This is the best turnout we’ve had since I can remember,” Penwell said. “We have 55 right now in pads, which is our best numbers we’ve had. We averaged 40 in the weight room all summer with strength and conditioning. They have really worked hard this summer.

“They’ve worked hard in camps, and it’s all new. The offense is new, the defense is new, the coaching staff is new for some parts,” the coach said. “The players, I think, are buying in and they’re working hard, and I’m really proud of them.

“These kids like to play football. Our senior group works really hard, and they lead by example. Our juniors are that way. Again, they like to play football, so I think they’re just excited all the time to come out here.”

Penwell added more positives about his team thus far this preseason.

“They are coachable, and they will ask intelligent questions, too. Like I said, we’re going to have questions because this is all new for them (the offense and defense),” Penwell said. “The terminology changed, everything changed for them, so they’re learning new terminology and they’re learning new plays. They’re picking up on it and they’re asking good questions, and they’re focused and they’re wanting to learn.”

Gone from last season is quarterback Braden Wright — an All-Ohio honorable mention selection — who passed for 1,111 yards with 14 touchdown passes. He also rushed for 1,149 yards on 112 carries, with 18 rushing touchdowns.

Also graduated is Seth Wise, who in nine games last year as a senior totaled 13 catches for 333 yards with six touchdowns. Another player lost to graduation for ’21 is Trevor Stonerock, who at inside linebacker for eight games in ’21 finished with 61 tackles (19 solo) and four tackles for loss.

A big loss for the MHS defense from the ’21 season is Landen Eubanks — an All-Ohio honorable mention selection — who also was a senior last year.

In nine games, he totaled 103 tackles with 49 solo tackles as the Tigers’ defensive leader in ’21. The outside linebacker also had 10 tackles for loss and had three sacks.

Losing those players isn’t easy for the Tigers, but McClain has some quality players returning.

Among the returning players are new starting quarterback junior Drake Stapleton, who as a freshman in 2020 was forced to be the starting quarterback due to injuries on the offense, playing in five games.

Stapleton — who is 6-3 and 190 pounds — passed for 234 yards on 20 completions with one touchdown pass. During that freshman season, Stapleton averaged 11.7 yards per completion. Last season, Stapleton played elsewhere on the team, though he did throw for one touchdown pass.

“Drake Stapleton is going to be our new quarterback. I know he didn’t get a lot of reps last year, but his freshman year he started most of the season, so it’s not new to him. It’s not the first time he’s been out there starting on Friday night,” Penwell said.

“Drake’s a poised young man, he works hard, super strong, big kid, good athlete, knows the offense, smart. I’m really excited about what Drake can do. He’s very coachable.”

McClain’s senior class members are being the leaders Penwell wants to have at this point of the season, with those players being Luke Dhume, Michael Stevenson, Rocky Jeffers, Emerson Yates, Josiah Burchett, Robbie Wise and DJ Frost.

“Our senior class is the guys that are leading us right now, and they are doing a really good job of leading us right now. I’m really impressed with our seniors,” Penwell said.

“Luke Dhume, Michael Stevenson, Rocky Jeffers, Emerson Yates, Josiah Burchett. We’ve got some newcomers that are seniors, like Robbie Wise. I’m looking to see where he’s going to fit in. He’s working hard and he wants to play, so I’m pretty excited about what we can get out of him.

“DJ Frost, didn’t play last year, but he’s come back and he’s been real coachable, and he’s working his butt off right now. So we’ve got some new guys that are stepping up with the guys that’s been here the last couple of years, and they’re fitting in, so I’m really excited.”

There are some core players from the junior class including Kaden Penwell, Andrew Potts, Max Eikenberry, Stapleton, Jayden Allison, Cade Sponcil and Gunnar Bode who will contribute a lot.

“There’s several of those in the junior class that we’re going to be relying on as well,” Penwell said.

Some of the core players who are sophomores are Owen Sykes, Riley Cummins and Conner McCune, and Conner Frazier.

“As freshmen, now sophomores, all got playing time last year,” Penwell said.

“I am looking for good things from those guys to step in and contribute, and some others that I think have gotten much better and have worked hard in the offseason, out of that sophomore group.”

One of the juniors is Potts, who as a sophomore in 2021 had 174 carries for 763 yards with nine touchdowns in nine games. He also caught six passes for 92 yards as one of the running backs on the roster.

Defensively, Potts finished with 33 tackles at defensive tackle.

Kaden Penwell during his sophomore season in ’21 played running back and wide receiver on offense, and outside linebacker and defensive end on defense. That season, he had 33 carries for 270 yards with one rushing touchdown, and at receiver he caught 18 passes for 290 yards with three touchdowns. On defense, he totaled 19 solo tackles and had 43 assisted tackles for a total of 62 tackles. Penwell also finished his sophomore season with four sacks.

Eikenberry in ’21 finished with 17 receptions for 349 yards with two touchdowns as a wide receiver. As a defensive back, he collected 42 total tackles (25 solo) with five pass deflections.

Sponcil as a sophomore finished with 63 tackles, as 13 of those were solo, and four tackles for loss. Last season, he played inside linebacker and offensive line, with Penwell describing Sponcil as “our best offensive lineman” in 2021.

“Cade started for us on defense last year. He’s our middle backer. He’s a solid player and a fantastic guard up on the offensive line, too. He’s done a great job for us,” Penwell said.

Speaking of the offensive line, Penwell said this about the unit.

“We’re much stronger. I think they’re fast. I think they’re strong. We lost Isaac Smith last year.

“That was one senior on the line, but we’ve got some guys just really working hard, and it’s going to be a battle for that spot,” Penwell said. “I’m excited about it. I feel like part of our strength should be our offensive line.”

As for the running backs, receivers and tight ends on the offense, Penwell was excited to see them on the field in ’22.

“Running backs, of course we got Andrew Potts and Kaden Penwell, but Riley Cummins is going to mix in there, and so are Emerson Yates and Luke Dhume,” Penwell said. “Those guys are they’ve been working in with that first group.

“For the first time in a long time we’ll have a tight end, but we will use the tight end some and be in a tight end set with Owen Sykes and Cameron Medley, who’s another sophomore that I think has stepped up quite a bit. He’s really improved. I looked for him to play. He’s fighting for that corner spot, he’s also working in at tight end. I’m real excited about him as well. As for our receiving corps, I’ve got Max Eikenberry back and Conner McCune and Josiah Burchett, and those guys were out there with us last year,” Penwell said. “DJ Frost is going to mix in there. He’s done a nice job.

“Some other people that I think has worked hard, TD Matesic, he has worked hard so far this offseason, and he’s getting better and better. Zane Adams hasn’t played since junior high, so he’s coming out as a sophomore, and I thought he’s looked really good this offseason.”

“We have some new faces that might help us out and mix in with those guys,” Penwell said. “They’re good athletes, and we’re excited to have them aboard.”

With changes coming to the offense, defense and special teams — changes Penwell is keeping to close to the vest — most of the defense returns for McClain, and in general, Penwell is excited for the season.

“The one thing about us is we’re really kind of a small school, so everybody else is much bigger than we are. We will play two ways — most of these guys are going to play two ways. If I can get them off the field, I will, but a lot of them are going to play two ways,” Penwell said. “We’ve got to work on a system where maybe we can give Potts a break and Kaden Penwell a break and people like Rocky, Michael Stevenson, Sponcil, those guys a break.”

As for the schedule, the Tigers’ non-conference games are at Adena, vs. Northwest, vs. Zane Trace, at East Clinton and vs. Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy.

The Frontier Athletic Conference games for MHS include: vs. Chillicothe, at Washington, vs. Jackson, at Miami Trace and vs. Hillsboro.

Penwell concluded by talking about the entire aspect of the team.

“I’ve got a great coaching staff. Right now we’re working really well together. The kids — for me, this offseason was just watching the growth of the kids, including the young freshmen, has been fun to see,” Penwell said.

“We’ve got a group of freshmen that’s come out, some of them haven’t played before, but they have really worked hard, and they’ve seen growth in the strength and conditioning part of it.

“So that’s been my most exciting part, watching those kids from the beginning, you know, in the winter, and then all of a sudden to now and then seeing the growth that they’ve achieved.”

McClain starts the 2022 season on Friday, Aug. 19 with a non-conference game in Frankfort against the Adena Warriors of the SVC with a 7 p.m. start.