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Collins; A Year From The Field, It’s Still All Football At Keystone

August 30, 2018

If he really tried, really wanted to stretch his memory back decades, Justin Higgins could probably think of the last Saturday in early September in which he didn’t find himself neck deep in a football game.

Why would he want to, though?

Saturdays without football, after all, are nightmarish thoughts for football coaches, and Higgins knows the one that’s upcoming is going to feel strange enough without exacerbating it with much thought.

All around the country, from Notre Dame to Penn State, from Stanford to Wilkes, and from Miami to Lackawanna College, programs are ramping themselves up to play their first game of the season. At Keystone College, Saturday will be a quiet day on campus.

Higgins hopes it will be the last Saturday of its kind in LaPlume, the last opening weekend that will go by without the Giants preparing to strap on the helmets and the shoulder pads.

“I think it’s a great thing, because of the opportunity we have and the unique challenge we have here,” Keystone’s head coach said Wednesday. “But I made a comment to one of my friends from a while back, this is almost the first time in 20 years not coaching in (preseason) camp, last week not getting ready for that annual scrimmage and this week not getting ready for your first game. That is different.

“But obviously, there’s still so much to do here to just keep us on that right path and get out there, get our name out there. I have to say, I’ve been plenty busy enough to keep my mind off of it.”

There sure is a lot to do at Keystone, and rightfully so, before it plays its first football game in more than seven decades as an independent team next fall. The Giants will begin play in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference against opponents like Alfred State, Castleton University and Maritime College in 2020.

Until then, Higgins plans to spend a good amount of his football-free weekends this fall around football.

Bottom line is, Keystone still doesn’t officially have any football players on its roster and, Higgins knows, it won’t for a few months, anyway.

So, he’s making this football season about finding them. That’s not the easiest task either, considering he’s still trying to educate potential players and their families and coaches that there’s a new program in town. And that’s not just in Northeast Pennsylvania, but everywhere Higgins and his staff hopes to recruit players in surrounding areas and states.

“We’re replacing our normal game prep and our normal game week with a lot of recruiting,” Higgins said. “We’ll go watch some high school games over the next several weeks, in terms of Fridays and several Saturdays. We want to stay close to football, so I’m sure we’ll mix in some college games, just to go watch.”

One thing Higgins stresses is that, even though the fall of 2019 seems far away, it really isn’t; which makes this fall a critical time for the Giants’ immediate future.

A big part of being on the sidelines at high school games on Friday nights is going to be seeing local players, letting them know about the program and gauging their interest. But another important aspect is getting those in the football community used to there being a team at Keystone, seeing coaches wearing shirts and jackets with the Keystone branding, getting them excited for a new chapter in the area’s rich football history.

A year from now, Keystone will be winding down its first preseason football camp. Right now, Keystone has only a handful of players, and they’ll have gone a year without playing before they get to put the uniforms on again.

“A great majority of our roster,” Higgins said, “is going to come from the incoming freshmen in 2019.”

So, Higgins will spend the fall trying to build that roster.

He’ll spend the fall trying to build a coaching staff, which currently stands at two assistants — offensive line coach Dominick Guglielmo and assistant Michael Gonzalez — strong. There’s another coming on board next month, Higgins said.

Keystone’s administration will keep working to get its facilities ready, and there are some last-minute adjustments and confirmations that will need to be done with the 2019 schedule, and did he mention the Giants need to get some players? Yeah, while other coaches are formulating game plans and conjuring strategies, Higgins will be busy building that recruiting base.

All the while, he’ll miss coaching football. Of course he will. It’s difficult for him to deny, really.

But he also knows he has an opportunity few in his position get: The opportunity to build a program from the ground up, from the culture to the style to the reputation.

“If the trade-off for that is not coaching this year and being able to get out there and build Keystone the right way,” Higgins said, “I’ll make that trade-off.”

Besides, in three months, when the season is but a memory and the fall begins its fade into winter, Keystone College will be exactly what the others are, anyway. A program looking to get the best players it can, with the best structure in place, to compete at the highest level it is able to next fall.

It happens that fast in college football, which is why now is not the time for Justin Higgins to take anything slow.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.

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