Heading into his 24th season as head coach of Central Kitsap’s football team, Mark Keel knows he’s closer to the end of coaching career than the beginning.
That doesn’t mean Keel is spending much time thinking about retirement. Not now at least.
“I’m still fired up,” said Keel, who owns a career record of 114-108.
After the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 high school football season, Keel did entertain thoughts about retirement. It wouldn’t be an immediate exit, but more of a transitionary departure. The plan would be to give up play-calling responsibilities on offense, while allowing other assistant coaches to increase their duties during practices and games.
Keel stressed that he wanted to leave the program in a good place. Instead, Central Kitsap lost the first eight games of the 2022 season and finished 2-8 overall and 1-6 in the South Sound Conference 3A.
“Some things didn’t work out,” said Keel, noting that losing top running back Kouper Hall to a season-ending injury in Week 3 against eventual 3A state champion Yelm severely hurt Central Kitsap’s offensive capabilities.
It was the worst season during Keel’s career with the Cougars. Central Kitsap won three games during 2003, 2005 and 2006 seasons before reaching the 4A state semifinals in 2008. The team’s struggles, Keel said, didn’t go unnoticed in the high school’s hallways.
“Around the school, we were the punchline of a whole bunch of jokes,” he said.
Heading into the 2023 season, Keel is back as play-caller on offense and his mission is to right the Cougars’ ship. In the preseason, the coach said he felt re-energized and didn’t put a number on how many seasons he might have left on the sidelines.
“I don’t want to just walk away,” he said.
West Sound football: Everything you need to know for the 2023 season
Central Kitsap’s rebuild might be more than a one-year endeavor. The Cougars graduated 18 seniors in 2022 and plenty of sophmores and freshmen saw playing time. One of those sophomores was returning starting quarterback Riley Kolda, who passed for 837 yards, 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last fall. Keel said fans should see a stronger, more confident version of Kolda this fall. Kolda’s top receiving targets from last year, seniors Tristan Hall (419 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Charles Guy, also return.
Defensively, sophomore linebackers Timothy Sousou and Uriah Stringfield are names to watch. They finished second and third on the team in tackles as freshmen. They’ll also get carries at running back.
With a relatively young squad, Kolda said two keys for the Cougars this year are clear: “Everyone being on the same page and holding each other accountable.”
With four postseason berths available in the South Sound Conference, Keel can’t say if Central Kitsap will be a playoff-caliber team in 2023. But he isn’t expecting a repeat of last fall, either.
“We have a nucleus of guys who don’t like what happened last year,” said Keel, whose team opens the season with nonleague games against Mariner and Bothell before opening league play in Week 3 at home against Yelm. “I think we’re at the point now where it’s, ‘Let’s have a better record than we did last year.'”
Week 1, Sept. 1: at Mariner (7 p.m.)
Week 2, Sept. 9: at Bothell (7 p.m.)
Week 3, Sept. 15: Yelm (7 p.m.)
Week 4, Sept. 21: at Timberline (7 p.m.)
Week 5, Sept. 28: Capital (7 p.m.)
Week 6, Oct. 6: at Peninsula (7 p.m.)
Week 7, Oct. 13: River Ridge (7 p.m.)
Week 8, Oct. 20: at Gig Harbor (7 p.m.)
Week 9, Oct. 27: North Thurston (7 p.m.)
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Football 2023: Central Kitsap’s Keel opts for rebuild over retirement