Stonebraker leads renaissance at Casey County

Looking back on it now, Steve Stonebraker knows he made a mistake leaving Casey County after only two seasons. But as a young coach in his mid-20s, it was easy to be distracted by the next big thing.

So it was easy for Stonebraker to return to Liberty 16 years after he left. And everyone involved has to be ecstatic that he did.

Stonebraker led the Rebels to an historic season, shattering records along their way to a 10-2 record and a spot in the Class 3A region championship game. His name was the obvious choice as our 2016 All-Area Coach of the Year.

“There’s a lot of great people in this community, and I had a ton of fun when I was here before,” Stonebraker said about what drew him back to this job. “When I took the job in ‘99, I was 23-years old, and I was only coach in the state under the age of 30 at that time. I was just too young to appreciate how well I was treated here. You start looking for other things. The grass can be greener over here and over there. You start thinking about stuff like that. I was too young to appreciate how I was treated.

“The timing was just right to come back. I’m definitely blessed to have the opportunity to come back and finish out things here.”

The Rebels were better this year than the last three years in every category, outgaining last year’s team by nearly 1,500 yards and allowing 480 fewer yards than a year ago.

It was done with largely the same roster as before, too. Few benefitted more from the coaching change as quarterback Breece Hayes, who threw for 2,594 yards and 27 touchdowns after totaling 1,946 and 17 TDs in his sophomore and junior seasons combined.

“He was everything for us,” Hayes said. “Through his hard work and always pushing us to be our best, he always looked out for us. Without him we wouldn’t have been anything. Many people say that about a coach but he truly was that person for us.”

The season was also boon to running back Collin Miller, who played more like a receiver in totaling 1,020 yards and 14 TDs through the air. The Rebels rushed for 2,001 yards and passed for another 2,800.

Stonebraker built a strong relationship with his players in a short amount of time, and even when he had to be the ‘bad guy,’ the players always knew the end game was to improve the team.

“I’m definitely high strung over there without a doubt and like to be energetic. I enjoy the game just like I did when I was a player,” Stonebraker said. “The kids do know I have their back. That’s why I can challenge them in certain ways because in the end they know I have their back. To me, that’s very important in the coach-player relationship.”

When Stonebraker took the job in the offseason, he admits there wasn’t much indication a season like this was in store for the Rebels. The seniors had won 12 games over their previous three seasons and there was no groundbreaking change afoot — except for a new coach.

“I thought with some of the guys I saw on film that we could have a good season,” Stonebraker said. “Getting some more players out would make it more possible, and we were able to do that. You can never anticipate how things are going to jell and come together. The two things I’ve always said that made this a successful season is the attitude and effort of the players and the community support.”

As he said, simply getting kids to come out of the football team had become a challenge. The Rebels hadn’t had more than 35 players on the roster since 2009; twice the number had dropped below 30, and it was at 31 last year.

But just by word of mouth and excitement generated among the students, there were 48 players on this year’s roster.

“There was a lot of excitement in the community because I had been here before and been successful,” Stonebraker said. “The kids fed off of that and decided they would come out and give it a try.

“The thing that’s interesting about the numbers … is I did not go on a massive recruiting campaign like I did my first season here. We just had a lot of response from kids kids who wanted to come out and play football.”

There were different signposts along the way which showed Stonebraker and his staff this could be a special season. He pointed to wins over Lincoln County and Bell County as two of the biggest this season — it was the first win over the Patriots in 12 tries and the first win ever over the Bobcats.

“(The Lincoln game) was one of the things early in the season where we thought if we could get over this hump, we could make something special out of this,” Stonebraker said. “Certainly the Bell County game was a big one … because that one set us up to be no worse than district runner-up and get us the two seed and give us a home game in the first week (of the playoffs) and keep us away from Corbin until the region final.”

What might be most shocking about the turnaround was how fast it happened. There are normally baby steps as players and teams learn how to win and shake years of losing from their expectations.

Stonebraker said team morale was a huge factor in the quick turnaround, bringing up Centre College football coach Andy Frye in saying team morale is more important than the physical by a 3-to-1 margin.

“From day one when I came in, we had the expectations to win football games,” Stonebraker said. “The kids bought into that. One thing I’ve learned being in this business for 23 years is no one rises to low expectations. You’ve got to set the bar high, you’ve got to challenge kids. We were fortunate we built a strong team culture, the kids bought into one another and had strong bonds. It really just flourished from there.”

In his first time at Casey, Stonebraker led them to four wins in ‘99 after they had totaled one win in the previous four years combined. Then in his second season, they went 6-5, the first winning season in school history and winning the first playoff game as well.

The records Casey set along the way are numerous — most wins in a season, most passing yards, most points scored (458), and it was the first time the Rebels finished in the Associated Press state poll with a seventh-place showing. It was only their fourth winning season in school history and they doubled the amount of playoff wins in program history to four.

Individually, Hayes and Miller will graduate with their names atop the Rebels books for passing and receiving. And therein lies Stonebraker’s next challenge, how to replace the best offensive duo in school history.

“We’ve got to continue on the path with understanding the work ethic and focus that this team had is ultimately what will get us to continue to win games,” Stonebraker said.

“There are various communities where football participation is down for various reasons … but we have 170 kids in our youth league. When I took over this job, that is something that was a bonus for me and something I looked at with high regard. We’ve got a good base of kids that are interested in football.”

The Rebels program will begin to feed on some of those numbers while identifying quarterbacks at a young age, “training them in the offseason and getting them to where we always have solid play at that position,” Stonebraker said.

Without some more reflection and time, Stonebraker can’t accurately look back and rank where this season ranks among his years as a head coach. He mentioned his first time at Casey as atop his list, but this season ranks right up there as well.

“It’s definitely one of my favorite seasons,” he said. “This could very well be the best season I’ve ever had, without a doubt.”

Follow Jeremy Schneider on Twitter @jschneideramn