PERU — With the 2019 season here, the Peru football program features some significant changes, but its tradition remains the same.
Pat Keleher is now the head coach of the Indians, and there are lights at the Apple Bowl.
“I am very excited for a lot of reasons,” Keleher said. “I am back home. I am back where it all started. Truthfully, I am back with my closest friends and mentors that I coached with for so many years.”
After coaching Plattsburgh High for the last five years, Keleher is back on the Peru sidelines for the first time since the mid-2000s, when he served as an assistant for Larry Ewald for more than a decade.
Keleher replaced Ryon O’Connell, who spent the past four seasons as the Indians’ head coach.
Going from Plattsburgh to Peru was not an easy decision for Keleher, but he said everyone involved in the transition process made it easy.
“The process couldn’t have been more professional on both schools’ parts,” Keleher said. “When Peru reached out to me about my interest in coming back, it was very professional.
“With the way Plattsburgh High handled it, it was just fantastic. Plattsburgh was great. Everyone there reached out to me and told me to go do my thing. They were all happy for me.”
One may think they went through a time machine when they look at the current Peru staff that features Keleher at the helm with Larry Ewald and Jack Daly as two of his assistants.
Keleher’s son, Brandon, is also an assistant and rounds out the varsity staff.
The Indians feature a 33-player roster, including 13 seniors, 16 juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen.
“We have some very strong senior leaders, starting with Austin Carpenter,” Keleher said. “Austin has done a tremendous job taking on that role of being a senior leader. He’s a third-year varsity player, and he’s just a great kid.
“There was some caution on the kids’ part when I showed up in June. They didn’t know me, and they didn’t know the history. All the kids got to know me throughout the summer, but Austin bought in from the first day. That helped everything else fall into place.”
Carpenter as well as Ian Joy and Austin Varno are expected to power the receiving core, while Gavin Padron and Kasen Brennan will lead the way in the backfield.
Zach O’Connell, a freshman, will be taking over quarterback duties, replacing his brother, Ryley, who ended his Peru career with 5,729 yards and 60 touchdown passes.
“We are going to be capable of a lot as an offense,” Carpenter said.
“I am excited to work with Zach. He’s got some fire to him. He will need a few weeks to get adjusted to things, but once he gets settled in, he will start to light it up. He’s fast and can move.”
Keleher said the Indians have experience and confidence at the skill positions but are young at offensive line, acknowledging it will take some time for Peru’s line to mesh.
With a freshman at quarterback, Keleher stressed how the Indians’ upperclassmen need to take control.
“This is all new to Zach, and the game has to slow down a bit for him,” Keleher said. “We don’t want to put the game on his shoulders. We want to let our other dynamic athletes take control.”
Defensively, Xavier LaFountain, Dylan Brown and Ryan Heaney will be counted on to provide skill and leadership inside on the line.
Padron, Joy and Zack Swyers will pace the Indians’ linebacker crew, and Brennan, Carpenter and Varno should play significant roles in the secondary.
“We just need to come together as a team,” said Padron, who enters the season as a junior.
“I know what it’s like to be a freshman and sophomore on a team. We need to integrate and work with each other more. We have been doing that this preseason, and it’s going to benefit us down the road.”
In addition to the general excitement each new season brings, Peru playing its home games on Friday nights under the lights has brought a new energy.
Carpenter, Padron and Brennan all expressed their excitement about the new lights that will shine down on the Apple Bowl, but they also said the team’s pregame routines and preparation will have to change.
“It’ going to be very different than past years,” Brennan said. “Waking up Saturday morning and having a routine was great, so things will be a little different now, but we can adjust.
“We are all excited to have our first game under the lights. It’ll bring more people at night, and it’s definitely brought a lot of excitement.”
The Indians have to wait until Week 3 for their home opener, beginning their season at 7 p.m. today on the road against Ticonderoga and traveling to play Moriah in Week 2.
Since Keleher has taken over, he has made sure his entire team realizes the pride Peru football possesses.
When Keleher was named the Indians’ coach, he held a meeting shortly after that stressed his beliefs.
“I had one specific message I conveyed to the kids in that meeting,” Keleher said.
“I told them, ‘The tradition doesn’t carry you. You have to carry the tradition.’
“This program started in 1959, and there are 60 years worth of eyes looking down on these players, saying, ‘Hey, what do you have for us? What are you going to do for our program?’
“The fact you are wearing a blue jersey that says Peru does not mean anything. You have to go out there, and you have to earn it.”
Email Joey LaFranca: