Even before it became his program, Tony Crough often looked at Hays High and saw unrealized potential for a football powerhouse.

“I’ve always felt this was a sleeping giant,” Crough said. “Coach (Ryan) Cornelsen had it going there (from 2009 to 2013), and then it fell off again a little bit. Even when I was a kid we just always looked at Hays and thought, ‘Man, why is that not just a great football town?’

“I don’t know the answers to why it’s not, but we’re really working on it. We think it’s a sleeping giant and we’re going to try to wake it up.’ ”

That metaphor has caught on in practice for the Indians, who are looking to end a streak of three straight losing seasons.

“He’s been big about waking the giant up in Hays with football and changing the culture, and he’s definitely doing it,” Hays High senior quarterback Palmer Hutchison said. “It’s fun to see.”

A Garden City native and former Fort Hays State linebacker, Crough was hired as Hays High head coach last winter after spending last season as defensive coordinator at Hutchinson Community College.

Crough was the head coach at Great Bend for two seasons, going 10-9 from 2014-15. He spent the next year as the head coach at Andover, guiding the Trojans to a 6-4 mark.

He replaces Randall Rath, who went 7-20 in three seasons as Indians’ head coach.

“I’ve always been intrigued by this job,” he said. “I grew up in Garden City playing Hays High. I went to Fort Hays and have always really loved Hays. My wife’s from Hays and her family’s been here since 1892 or something like that. We love this community and then I’ve just always thought it was a place we can win.”

“There’s always big, good-looking kids here. And for whatever reason — there’s been some good years — but it’s never really been able to stack on itself. I believe it can.”

One early sign of optimism has been the Indians’ numbers.

“We have about 83 or 84 on our roster,” he said. “That’s the big thing: We’ve got some bodies out here, which is great. It’s going to allow us to fill three teams and do some things that haven’t been done in the recent past.

“Second, is the enthusiasm and the excitement of these kids. They’re excited to be out here. They’re having fun. Those are the two most important things: get kids out and get them excited.”

The buzz around the program was evident by a strong turnout at the Indians’ scrimmage this past Friday at Lewis Field Stadium.

“It’s just new and different,” Crough said. “Anytime something new and different everyone’s excited. You can definitely see the excitement on both sides of the ball, and they’ll be more to come. Hopefully we can give everybody something to be proud of.”

The Indians, the smallest school in Class 5A, will have to navigate through a difficult non-conference schedule that starts with a road game at Junction City and also includes Wichita South, Buhler and Salina Central.

“You never want to shy away from competition, but the way (the playoff system) is set up now, it’s all based on wins and losses,” Crough said. “It’s really kind of hard. If you load your schedule with cupcakes, you might have a better chance at a high seed in the playoffs. But at the same time, you want to win some quality games so you can be ready to go for the playoffs.

“At this point, we’re not real worried about all that. We’ve got so much to focus on ourselves.”

Crough thinks the Western Athletic Conference will be strong this year.

“Garden City and Great Bend, they look really sharp,” he said. “Dodge is going to be way better and Liberal keeps getting way better. I’m sure most people are picking us to finish last at this point. And that’s OK. We like where we’re at.

“It’s a tough conference, but if you win those 6A games it also helps you succeed in the conference. You know, I’m here because I always thought that Hays could be a powerful team in the WAC.”