FRANKFORT – A week from Friday, at about 10 p.m., the season will be over for roughly half of the high school football teams in the state. Some will be blown out. For others, there will be heartbreak.
Clinton Prairie may be one of those teams. But the fact that it will be there, competing in the sectional, is a stark contrast from the scene last year when the lights went out prematurely on the program.
“I’ve always been told that when if you start something, you finish it,” sophomore running back Sam Schoonveld said. “We never had the chance to finish.”
A year later, the wounds have healed. Clinton Prairie, led by first-year coach and Danville native K.C. Woods, is 5-3 heading into its regular-season finale at Sheridan on Friday. Woods installed a no-huddle, uptempo spread offense when he arrived, put the pedal to the floor and never looked back.
Maybe that’s by design.
“We started this year with a clean slate situation with everybody,” Woods said. “Whatever decisions had been made, good or bad, it was washed away. Everybody had a fair shot in my eyes.”
Located in rural western Clinton County about six miles southwest of Frankfort, Clinton Prairie is a small school by today’s standards. There are only 27 smaller football-playing schools in Indiana than Clinton Prairie with the 297 students it had at the most-recent enrollment classification by the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
Clinton Prairie, a 1961 consolidation of Colfax, Mulberry, Jackson Township and Washington Township, had enjoyed intermittent football success since the program began in 1963. Its first winning season came in 1978, followed by an 8-2 mark in 1979. Then there were 21 consecutive non-winning seasons.
“I think if you ask any of our opponents, they’ll tell you that Clinton Prairie fans always travel well and support,” said athletic director Eric Ulrich, the school’s former basketball coach. “It’s a tight-knit community that loves its athletics.”
The football team went 7-5 in 2001 and then 10-2 the following year under coach Ted Davis. Shaun Wines, a former assistant, took over in 2006. Under Wines, Clinton Prairie enjoyed its longest extended period of success, going 6-5 in 2006, 8-3 in 2007 and 10-2 in 2010.
The Gophers never won a sectional title – and still haven’t – but the program appeared to be on solid footing under Wines, a 23-year veteran on the coaching staff and chemistry teacher.
“He’s a first-rate human being,” Ulrich said of Wines. “Shaun Wines has done tremendous things for Clinton Prairie High School. He’s a mentor to other teachers in our building.”
But Wines’ tenure as football coach came to a crashing halt. It was this week a year ago, with the team scheduled to play its senior night game against Trinity Lutheran, that a petition calling for Wines’ resignation was left in the mailboxes of Wines, Ulrich, superintendent Chris Sampson and principal Brent Miller.
The petition, signed by 21 of the 27 players, called for the school board to fire Wines. The school board declined. Fourteen players quit. With only 13 players remaining – including two who were injured and unable to play – Clinton Prairie’s administration opted to cancel the final regular season game and forfeit its sectional game.
“A lot of people were upset with how the season was going and blaming it on the coaches,” said now-senior quarterback Chase Joseph, one of the 13 who stayed. “They weren’t questioning their own effort. They decided to get a petition together to get the coach to resign, it was pretty upsetting. Everybody was pretty confused about it all.”
Ulrich said there was little argument about pulling the team from the tournament. With only 13 players and most of them freshmen and sophomores, the decision had more to do with the safety of the players than anything else.
Still, it was an embarrassing end to a 2-8 season (one of those wins by forfeit).
“I felt like the people that quit should have manned up and finished the season,” Schoonveld said. “Some people didn’t agree with (Wines’) play calling and some of his methods. But there was no reason to quit.”
Wines, under no pressure to do so by the administration, resigned after the season.
Woods, 26, after four seasons as an assistant at Pike under Derek Moyers and one as offensive coordinator at Zionsville, was hired in March. The former Danville and Marian University wide receiver felt little need to delve into the details of last October.
“They asked me in the interview how much I wanted to know,” Woods said. “Basically what I asked was, ‘Is the administration supportive of its football program?’ and, ‘Do we have good kids in the school?’ and, ‘Is it a community that is behind its football program?’ I felt like there was a ‘yes’ to all three of those questions.”
There are 34 players on the roster. Eight are seniors. Though many of those who started the petition last year have since graduated, there are a few who signed it on this year’s team.
“It’s kind of an unspoken thing,” Schoonveld said. “We don’t talk about it anymore.”
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There wasn’t time to dwell on it, anyway. Woods immediately installed the uptempo offense he’d learned under Moyers at Pike. It was a drastic deviation from the run-based offense under Wines.
“It was hard to understand at first,” Joseph said. “I was a little concerned because I’d never ran this offense. We put in a whole bunch of new stuff. But then we started getting it.”
Joseph passed for 243 yards and four touchdowns in the opener, a 52-16 win over Frontier. After a loss to Attica, the Gophers won four in a row for just the second time since the 2011 season. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing – there were losses to Delphi and North White the past two weeks – but Woods couldn’t have asked for a better start.
“I can’t say enough about how great the kids have been,” Woods said. “There’s a lot of talent but more than that there are kids who have bought into playing on the attack. I’m glad they’ve got to accomplish winning some games this fall. We talked to those eight seniors about laying a foundation for the future. I can’t thank them enough for helping us do that.”
Wines remains at Clinton Prairie as a teacher and is currently helping out on the football staff at nearby Frankfort. On the surface, it might appear the presence of the former coach could be an odd situation for Woods. It hasn’t been.
“I think the world of him,” Woods said of Wines. “We’ve had some tremendous and productive conversations. He has some great insight into the game of football and I couldn’t be more appreciative of how he welcomed me to the community.”
Next week, a year after the lights went dark at Clinton Prairie, the program will host Frontier in a sectional game. Anything will seem possible.
“We’re back on firm ground,” Schoonveld said. “We’re going up, up and up. After last year, the only place we can go is up.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.