KEEPING HOPE ALIVE: Due to strength of schedule, Conchs remain in playoff hunt with juggernauts looming
By By J.W. COOKE Keys Citizen,2023-09-21
Playoff hope is not all lost for the Key West High football team despite winning just one of its first four contests to open the 2023 campaign, as due to one of the Top 25 strongest strengths on schedule in all of Class 2S, the Conchs remain on the cusp of an-large berth, currently seeded ninth in Region 4-2S, according to MaxPreps. Key West’s strength of schedule will only improve on Friday, Sept. 22, when nine-time state champion University Christian makes the trip from Jacksonville for a 7 p.m. kickoff during Senior Night at the KWHS Back Yard.
“In the beginning, we were shook by our schedule, but after we have played these games we realized we were right with them in the first half,” said Key West senior and the team’s leading rusher Clerf Alexandre. “We now see we are on par with these guys, and in this next game we know we can go blow for blow, we just have to keep it going through the second half. At the beginning of the games, we are starting like we are ready to punch down a door, but we just have to be able to finish what we have going on. As a team, we are there, but it’s just the execution of a complete game now.”
In fact, so far this season, Key West has played even with its opponents through the first half (58-58) but have been outscored by 26 points in the second half (68-42) including during their lone victory.
“I don’t know if it’s fatigue because every team we have played but Clewiston was have been running a different offense and defense out there, so it’s been tough,” said Hughes. “I think we are just getting worn down going both ways and then mistakes happen which compound.”
Having a short memory is the mantra Alexandre has been trying to spread to his younger teammates.
“When we are down, our mentality is not there and we just have to execute and that’s what we are working on in practice,” said Alexandre. “It’s all part of football, you are going to get behind in games or make mistakes, but we can’t let those get down on us because it just causes us to make more mistakes, which has cost us. It’s about fixing what happened on that next play. Every day we are hustling and working on our conditioning, going 110%, especially in this heat, we just have to get our execution better.”
The Conchs’ coach is not harping on the effort side, noting that sometimes he feels they are trying to do too much with the ball, which is causing mistakes and turnovers. But it’s something they cannot afford against University Christian, which enters the contest ranked one spot behind University High, the team that defeated Key West just a week prior, in all class across the state. With the talent level of the Christians, the Conchs coach expects to see a nine-man defensive front that will challenge Key West quarterback Adrian Mira to throw the ball.
“Their secondary is one of the best in the state with four guys who are all Division-I players and their running back looks pretty explosive, so it will be like Trinity Catholic coming down here,” said Hughes. “We are going to try and spread them out, even though they may have more athletic ability, the passing game will have to make plays no questions, they have to win some of the one-on-one battles, and Mira is one of our best overall runners, which is an underrated skill for him, but he just can’t try to do too much.”
The idea behind playing University Christian was so Key West would see a team on the level of district rival Bishop Verot, with that matchup two weeks away, but Hughes never imagined the Conchs would have faced four teams of that caliber to this point of the season. Despite the strength of schedule potentially keeping Key West with an outside chance at making the state playoffs as an at-large berth, Hughes knows the most direct way to the playoffs is to win the districts.
“We have two juggernauts in a row here, Bishop Verot looks legit as a state contender with Cocoa Beach, and University Christian is a nine-time state champion, so we will definitely continue to build our strength of schedule,” said Hughes. “But I really like our chances with anybody, as I said in the beginning if we are healthy we are as good as anybody.”
With that said, health had been a problem for Key West as they are looking to potentially to a fourth-string V-Back against University Chrisitan as Jaden Fox and Shane Lavallee are both expected to miss a second straight week and Leandro Batista is questionable for Friday.
“Anytime you get to a fourth-string anything, it’s an issue,” said Hughes, noting he’s not even positive who the fourth string would be at V-Back. “Going into the season we liked our group there but the injury has gotten us this year and you can never predict it, but we have to adjust with the ones that are still standing.”
Of course, any adjustment that Hughes makes will affect the depth at other positions, which has been a struggle for Key West since the start of the season.
“There’s only so many guys that can play so many positions so if we have to take a guy like Walson (Morin) to play V-Back then we will have to find someone to play in his spot on the outside,” Hughes.
Any halftime adjustments will also have the distractions of Senior Night taking place during the break, which is not ideal for a team that has had second-half struggles this season, but Hughes reiterated it’s not so much about knowing but executing with the proper mentality.
“As I told them are the last loss, ‘I’m not questioning the effort, I didn’t like the pettiness in the fourth quarter and we have to grow up a bit, but we really have to find a way to win,’” said Hughes. “There is going to be adversity, and they have to learn to battle and maintain, one play at a time, or let one play affect the rest of the game.”