Five weeks after winning the most improbable state title in recent OHSAA football history, the coach of the Ft. Recovery Indians takes time to appreciate the accomplishment and look forward.
It’s Monday evening and the coaches of the Division VII state champion Ft. Recovery Indians showed up for suds and sustenance. Press Pros sponsor Bob Mescher has long been an eager host of such back-room meetings of the minds, and once again the food, the hospitality, and the quaintness of the Keyhole, in Newport, was the perfect backdrop for reflection.
Favorite Mescher joke, by the way, about his days as a high school football player: “I was the best player in my class. Of course I was home-schooled, but so what?”
Since my first meeting with Brent Niekamp early in the 2015 football season, his career path has become an interesting side note to area football; his words a trusted resource for relevance and fact. In short, if you want to know the truth about grass roots high school football, he’s the man to ask.
You might ask why, when others have won more, are more profiled, and are more readily accessible?
Well for one, five years ago no one even knew that he or Ft. Recovery football existed. As recently as a decade ago they were considering abandoning it altogether at the western-most affiliate of the football powerful MAC.
And talk about your slow starts, in his first two seasons of coaching he and his staff (naming them now is a world-class trivia question) compiled a record of 2-18. It took him five years to even reach .500. And trust it, none of the early wins came against Marion, Coldwater, St. Henry and Versailles.
They began to emerge in 2012, and last year finished with a tidy 7-3 record, awarded with their first-ever playoff appearance. Still, as he set out to reprise that effort this past season, Niekamp’s career record was a mere 33-69 for eleven seasons.
As the wins mounted in September, October, people began to take notice. The only losses came to defending state champions Minster and Marion Local on back-to-back weeks, seven and eight. They edged St. Henry, 8-7, in week nine, and confidently set down Versailles in season’s final week to finish 8-2. The ‘pens’ and the ‘laptops’ began to show up, asking the age-old questions.
“Exactly where is Ft. Loramie?” (My favorite from one totally unprepared and confused scribe from the state tournament.) “They won girls basketball last year, didn’t they?”
“How have you done it?”
“When did you start getting good?”
And here’s where the relevance of Brent Niekamp kicks in – the part you absolutely must appreciate compared to the pent-up frustration and issues of recognition from other coaching colleagues.
“We started getting better when we started getting better players,” he said succinctly in his rich baritone voice, during the post-game press conference after the Indians took down Mogadore, a three-time state champion, for the Division VII title.
In the tradition of MAC coaching icons Al Hetrick, Tim Goodwin, Tim Boeckman and Todd Schulte, that was all he had to say. All that was needed. The best answers are the most obvious.
He smiled Monday at the irony of it all, the proverbial rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger model of ascension to respect through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty.
“It was a whirlwind,” he said, recounting the five weeks of the playoffs and the enthusiasm it created in the school and community.
“I have to say this for our principal, Jeff Hobbs. He made it fun for the kids. He really knows how to make a pep rally special. He’d have the football team go over to the elementary school and the little kids would line the halls. The players would walk between them and just reach out to touch hands. You could see the look in their eyes…of how much that meant. How special it was. I never experienced anything like that when I played at Ft. Recovery.”
One would assume that Niekamp had a lot to do with the emotional preparation of his team, facing the daunting challenge of appearing in the state finals for the first time ever, and against a seasoned opponent. To the experienced eye, only Coldwater and Marion Local, among finalist teams, appeared as relaxed as the neophyte Indians in the face of such obvious stress.
Niekamp barely cracked a smile during his two hours on the Ohio Stadium sideline, and those who were watching his team for the first time marveled at his first-time composure and the confident personality with which his kids played.
“I really think they were more nervous at the beginning of the year than they were during the playoffs,” he shared. “Really, they’re a pretty goofy bunch of kids. And when I looked at the other teams that we played during the playoffs, only McComb concerned me as a team that we’d have trouble matching up with. They were much bigger, and they were good.”
But McComb (the state semi-finals, 35-14), and ultimately Mogadore, were hardly ready for the offensive identity discovered and perfected throughout the second half of the season by the Indians, quarterback Caleb Martin, and a talent core of skill position players…Wes Wenning, Will Homan, Kyle Schroer, et. al.
“We really discovered our passing game midway through the year against New Bremen,” said Niekamp. “Wet, slick night, but we ended up throwing the ball a lot and from that point on it became a big part of who we were.
“When I looked at tape of some of the playoff teams I saw defenses that I knew weren’t a good matchup for our offense . Those teams had not seen us, didn’t know us, and really weren’t prepared for a team like us that threw because we could, not because we had to (385 yards passing against Mogadore, 458 total yards). When you play against the kind of schedule that we do in the MAC it’s such a great advantage. Our kids came out loose and confident, and of course we got to a great start.”
Lest anyone wonder if the 2015 Ft. Loramie, er, Ft. Recovery was a one-hit wonder, Niekamp smiles at the notion as he considers what the future might hold. As the dust clears from his whirlwind season and to brighter beyond, he’s not guaranteeing another state title, but in poker terms it’s not surprising that he’s pretty comfortable with the hand he’s holding.
“I think we’ll be pretty good next year,” he assures. “We have Marty (Caleb Martin) back at quarterback. We have Will Homan (who gave teams fits during the playoffs) back at running back. Our whole offensive line comes back. And we have a couple of very physical leaders back on our defense.”
And his staff looks to the future with hope, as more and more legacy players show up in the program. They’re hopeful that roster numbers will reflect the recent surge of appreciation for football.
“We’re just now getting players into the program whose dads played here,” added assistant Tyler Wuebker. “Hopefully, more dads will encourage their kids to follow in their footsteps.”
And just as important, more top athletes from other sports in Recovery might choose, as well, to play football.
“You know, there was only one player who actually played in the final football game that played in the state baseball finals last spring,” noted Niekamp, banking on success becoming a compelling argument for increased participation in the future.
“I wish I had played football,” said basketball and baseball player, Chase Bruns, recently. “It drove me crazy last fall just sitting there, watching from the stands.”
They all got up to leave with plenty of time to get home for Monday’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson, with thanks to the host, the cook, and for an area football environment that makes their accomplishment of 2015 relevant for all time.
With his own title in his pocket, Brent Niekamp was content to just watch…now, more than ever before, appreciative of the process.