It’s become an annual feature tradition – those area football teams that for one reason or another beg watching for the next ten weeks…and some even beyond. Will they all win? Eventually, but probably not this year, but the intrigue is in the journey, not the destination.
After ten years of Press Pros, and covering the likes of Marion Local, Minster, Coldwater, Loramie and Covington – of profiling those programs across Ohio on the internet – it’s not surprising that we get emails from Lake, Cuyahoga, or Portage County in August asking who in Divisions V, VI, and VII will be a team to beat come playoff time.
And more locally, some will ask, or write, to inquire about area teams in the new Miami Valley League MVL, MAC, or Cross County conferences – alumni mostly, asking the annual question of who’s good, better, or best. It makes for a good column idea, and one I’ve always liked because it provides the chance to write about not just the destination, but the journey teams take to do the unexpected..as Fort Recovery did back in 2014.
I call them teams of intrigue because some have an infusion of young athletic talent (the cycle). Some have new coaches, and the question of whether a new face, and a new personality can be inspiring and create a winning atmosphere. New divisions will create opportunity for some, as competitive balance shuffles the deck. But mostly, it’s the natural phenomena of kids just growing and maturing – boys to men, and how they cope with competition and responsibility.
Again, in 2019, we culled through the list of area teams that we think bear watching watching for at least the next ten weeks – some teams will surprise and delight, and some that are still in the formative phase. It’s an interesting write, and hopefully an interesting read – hopefully, an “I told you so” in a couple of months. And with big turnover at some schools, this year’s list would appear to be one of our most intriguing yet.
Versailles – No one expects the Tigers to win the MAC title in 2019, a team that won just two games a year ago, but the intrigue involving Versailles involves a coaching change and an influx of fresh new faces – what locals call one of the most athletic groups of freshmen and sophomores to come along in years. The coach is Ryan Jones, who for the last three seasons guided an outmanned Troy Christian program to a 22-9 record, and while it didn’t happen against the NFC East, Jones apparently has the unique ability to build and unify, and that’s going to play in a community like Versailles who’s hungry for football success. It’s been sixteen years since this once-proud program won its last state title. I don’t know much about his football yet, but Jones put the Tigers through a tough summer of preparation and it seemed to strike a welcome chord. A hungry program plus a hungry community makes for a team that’s fun to watch – a team of intrigue.
Covington – Covington has been on this list in the past, and the intriguing thing about the Buccaneers in recent years has been their obvious effort to beef up their early schedule to prepare for the post-season. They did that last year, falling 0-3 to St. Henry, Minster and Fort Loramie before winning their final seven games in league play to gain a seven seed in Division VI, Region 24. They got beat by a better Lima Central Catholic in the postseason, but now the Buccs are back with a senior-laden team that dresses 50, and hungry to start better than 0-3. If they can, and if they stay healthy, Covington would appear to have a very good prognosis in a reshuffled Region 24 with teams down the line like Ironton Coal Grove, Country Day, Troy Christian, and Columbus Africentric. Those are just teams at this point, but if you can get through St. Henry (week 1), Minster (week 2), and Loramie (week 4), that’ll pretty much prepare you for anything.
Piqua – I don’t know how good Piqua will be this year by way of record. Since their title winning year in 2006 they’ve averaged about six wins per season. But if you talk to rival coaches in the new MVL (Miami Valley League…the old GWOC North), they’ll tell you that the cycle that favored the Indians back then with Brandon Saine, Justin Hemm, and Phil Collier has come around again, like the comet Kohoutek. Bill Nees, himself, in his 27th year, acknowledges that his Indians have a lot of talent (young talent) in the pipeline, they’ll be athletic, and complement an experienced group of contributors who missed time last year with injury, when the Indians finished, not surprisingly, 6-4. Now in Division II, Region 7, coaches say they’re going to be good. But more, they say they’re going to be EVEN BETTER for the next two years. After 13 years, that’s intriguing.
St. Henry – Like Versailles and Piqua, it’s been a long time since St. Henry rang the bell for a state title in football – 2006 – and the coach then was Jeff Starkey. It was also a time that when the Redskins came out of the locker room it seemed like ant hill emptying. They dressed 80, routinely. But the cycle comes and goes, and in recent years the ‘Skins have dressed in the 50s and they’ve made a habit of finishing just behind Marion, Coldwater, and Minster in terms of post-season success. But now, like with Piqua and Versailles, bigger classes portend bigger and talented athletes at St. Henry, and Brad Luthman’s sophomore and junior class promises to entertain and complement a smallish senior class in 2019. How many will they win? Hard to say this year, but there’s no substitute for experience in football and Luthman has to be licking his chops to see his young football team against enemy fire. And how cool would that be…to see the ant hill empty out, and back-to-the-future football again in St. Henry?
Coldwater – Just up the road five miles from St. Henry they’ve had a lot of people wondering for a couple of years now. How can you routinely graduate twenty or more at Coldwater year after year and stay that competitive? Well, the senior class was down a bit last spring, but still they lost enough of those skill position players to make you wonder about one more year. Then…a month ago Chip Otten shared with me that he kinda’ liked the way things were looking for 2019. Uh-Oh! They’ve got a senior quarterback back for a second year (Jason Hemmelgarn), and an emerging talent in tight end Noah Miller, who at 6’5″ and 220 pounds portends a nightmare for opposing secondarys. It’s still a head scratch to look at the roster and figure it all out, but Otten and his excellent staff have done it for years.
Tipp City – I’m very anxious to see why, in football terms, Matt Burgbacher chose to leave Troy and go back to coach at his alma mater in Tipp City. One thing sure, the Red Devils are not going to be the favorite in the MVL this year, not with what Burgbacher built in Troy still looming, along with Piqua. But he swears the good days are not far off, with talent on hand at the varsity level about to bloom, and a solid feeder nucleus waiting their turn in the wings. They finished 5-5 last year, and lost heart-breakers in two of their last four games…to Sidney (16-14 and Piqua (14-13). One thing certain, no one will work harder to develop the next group of Cole Barhorsts than Burgbacher, and no one is capable of building quicker, as he did in Fort Loramie and Troy. All they need is the tincture of time. In the meantime…!
Fort Loramie – One of the programs I’ve thought about since the end of last November is Fort Loramie, who seemed to get everything they could out of their best season ever, winning twelve games, and three playoff games, before losing to eventual state champion McComb in the state semi-final game, 28-14. As disappointing as that was, you wonder…was that simply the stepping stone to something even bigger in 2019? Second-year coach Spencer Wells believes they can crank it up again because he has his quarterback back (Collin Moore), some returning skill players, and size in his interior lines. In addition, they play in Division VII, Region 28, which except for one notable exception looks to be the most doable region in southwest Ohio. That one notable exception, of course, is Marion Local! So, whatever’s left in the tank for Loramie I’m intrigued to see how far they can go – and can they take that next step to Canton? They start out with Minster, St. Henry, Miami East, and Covington, so…your guess is as good as mine.
Marion Local – What’s intriguing about a school that routinely plays in the state final, you ask? Well, the Flyers lost 18 of 22 starters to graduation last spring, the biggest percentage of starters lost in Tim Goodwin’s history as coach. And, their numbers are down a tick this fall from a couple of small classes coming through. Goodwin would tell you himself, “We might have some trouble scoring against good people.” I believe him – when you lose Nate Bruns, Matt Rethman, Nick Tangeman, Sam Huelsman, and a running back like Nolan Habodasz. Yes, you say, but they’re a machine at Marion Local. They’ll plug someone in and they’ll still win, like they’ve always done. Maybe, or maybe not – not when you lose 18 of 22 and try to replace with players who’ve never played on Friday night before. That challenge, alone, for Goodwin and the Flyers makes them intriguing, because they have gone 5-5 before and still made the playoffs. The trick this year, with Watterson, Anna, St. Henry, Minster, and Coldwater on the schedule…is getting to 5-5.
Anna – I purposely listed Anna last on my list because after tying Marion for the league title last year I figured Rockets fans would be reading, and wrestling with the suspense. The intriguing thing about Anna is that they’ve had good football talent for years. Not great, maybe, but good enough on most years to beat just about any team on any given night – except Marion Local. The Rockets have beaten Marion just once in 14 meetings, back in 2008 on the final week of the season, then lost to them the following week in the first round of the playoffs. They’ve never won the outright title since joining the MAC in 2006 and this year they may just have the goods to finally kick that door down. They return the best running back in the league, Riley Huelskamp, a playmaker at quarterback, Bart Bixler, and enough size, skill, and experience. The question is: with everyone else in a seeming retool mode, can they avoid that one week where the roof caves in? Can they avoid the unpredictable? Can they stay healthy enough to beat back challenges from Coldwater, Marion, Recovery, and St. Henry? Or will someone like New Bremen slip up on them in week 3? Coach Nick Marino spoke confidently in our published profile back in July, but was quick to say, “We don’t want to sound overconfident. You never take anything for granted in the MAC.”
Lehman, or any school with less than 25 boys playing football – Simply put, I was amazed that schools like Lehman, Mississinawa, and Bradford tried to play football last season with 2o boys…or less! The math just doesn’t add up because you need at least a requisite number with which to practice…and you pray – you pray – that you don’t get anyone hurt. Whether declining numbers is a statement about football, or whether it’s declining enrollment for some schools, there comes a point where you wonder if it’s ethical to play a game like football when you don’t have enough boys to play it safely. I’ve always liked Dick Roll (at Lehman) – one of my favorite people. And I admired it when he said last year, “I’m concerned about the numbers, but we’ll play with 21 boys and compete. We’ve done it before.” And yes, they made it two games deep in the playoffs last year. But there’s only so much a body can take when you play both ways for ten weeks and there’s no chance for rest or substitution. And to another argument…I listen to people say they won’t play 8-man football because of tradition and pride. But at the rate it’s going in some districts, soon there’ll be no choice…if you want to play at all.
We’ve left out a few, no doubt deserving, as just in the wings New Bremen is another school that’s building and I believe good enough to be better than 5-5 this year. I guarantee you that Fort Recovery will come out of the West and ruin someone’s night, and maybe more than once. Troy will be watching closely to see if the Danny Gress era picks up where the Burgbacher era left off. And just a few miles south…it’s high time that Lance Schneider gets his shot at redemption, personal and professional. I would expect Miamisburg to be a very good story in 2019. Come back in November and read…”I told you so”!