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Mark Peach was wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt last Tuesday.
The irony, as he sat down to talk about the just completed football season and what lies ahead for his Anderson County Bearcats, could not be overlooked or overstated.
Suffice it to say that, based on what transpired over the last half of the regular season and in the playoffs, expectations are high for 2011.
Maybe not as out of this world as they perennially are in South Bend, but expectations are such that the time for basking in the Bearcats’ longest post-season run in school history is now in the past.
“When the kids brought their equipment in to turn it in, I told them the secret is out: Anderson County is capable of making a playoff run,” Peach said.
Indeed. Based upon the six-game winning streak that included two playoff victories -- a first in Anderson history -- and the fact that the Bearcats return most of their skill position players, the Bearcats appear to be positioned to do even greater things next fall.
But even though the time of congratulating each other has passed, Peach says that future success will have to build upon the steps Anderson took in 2010. The Bearcats were picked third in their district and were looking at a possible fourth-place finish when they caught fire down the stretch to win the games they needed to by the slimmest of margins.
Once the Bearcats got to the playoffs, they had a workman-like performance against a weak Waggener team then put together their two finest outings of the year, routing Bullitt Central, then playing the socks off top-ranked John Hardin before losing in the final 140 seconds.
Anderson’s final record of 9-4 was good, but not in the echelon of the greatest programs. However, it was almost like Anderson had two seasons of 3-3 and 6-1.
“I would certainly hope that when the kids look back at the whole season, it was certainly a great year,” Peach said. “This year certainly beats last year.”
In 2009, Anderson’s only regular season loss was a 10-7 decision at Oldham County but the Bearcats fizzled in the first round of the playoffs.
“This year,” Peach smiled. “We got beat playing the best we could. Sometimes that happens and when it does, you tip your hat to your opponent. John Hardin is a great football team. They were state runner-up last year.”
(John Hardin fell one step short of the state championship game, falling to Christian County 45-20.)
“The kids tried so hard and played so hard,” Peach continued. “I think we showed we belong and that we can compete with anyone.”
There were tears at the end. Sure, there was a realization that Anderson had won the district championship for only the third time in history and that the Bearcats went down swinging against a team that was supposed to knock them out early.
But the loss hurt deeply. “This group cared. They wanted to do something special and bought into what we were trying to do,” Peach said.
Part of that was the possible expunging of the perception that Anderson County can be good but not great in any sport. “I think we fought through that some this year,” Peach said. “These kids saw we can compete with the best and we can compete for a state championship.
“When you look at the great programs, it takes steps. I talk with (University of Kentucky assistant and former Boyle County head coach) Chuck Smith a lot. When he was at Boyle, they had to take steps. They had the 7-4 year. Then they had to get to a regional final before they won one.
“When I was at Franklin-Simpson, we went to the state championship game in 1995, but lost in the regional final the year before. When I was at Hancock County, we went to the state championship game my first year, but the year before, they had lost in the regional final.”
Peach believes he sees a pattern.
Seth Carmichael returns at quarterback where he threw for 2,621 yards and tied the school record with 29 touchdown passes in a season. Ethan Kelly, who shattered the school scoring record with 180 points, also returns.
“Everybody that caught a pass or scored a touchdown, except for Neal Wells, is back,” Peach smiled. “We have our entire line backing corps back. We still have some holes to fill in the line, but we will find some linemen. I am extremely excited about next year already.
“We don’t have a lot of Division I players walking the halls of the school. We have to outwork people.”
Peach says that the talent is there, but talent has not been the major problem at Anderson. It has been believing that the program can really be playing in Bowling Green on the final weekend of the season. Even though the Bearcats came up two steps short, Peach believes his team has overcome the perception that Anderson can be good but not great.
“After the game, several of the kids did not want to go home,” he said. “Some still had their helmets and shoulder pads on for a long time after the game was over.
“Woody Hayes said you win with people. You win with people who care, who are willing to work hard and sacrifice. I have been in coaching for 17 years and I can honestly say this was the most pleasurable season I have had.”
But now the work begins. Peach plans to give his team a few weeks off before hitting the weight room again. Players are expected to either be participating in other sports or working out during the off-season.
“You just can’t show up on July 15 and expect to compete for a state championship,” Peach said.
State championship? The words Peach uttered the day he was introduced as Anderson’s new coach in December of 2004?
“I talked to Duane (Hammons, Anderson’s defensive coordinator) this week,” Peach said. “We have some real expectations next year.
“We have a legitimate shot to play for the state championship.”