They won’t all win state titles, and some won’t even win their league. But for sheer interest value here’s my pick of the most compelling area football teams to watch in 2012.
I’m continuing this year on a path I chose in 2011…one from which I don’t expect to depart for the rest of the time I’m doing this.
That is, I quit predicting how many games teams would win last year. They’re kids, after all. There’s enough pressure on them on and off the field. And from the standpoint of those who coach, coaching kids means you never know when one of them’s going to come in on Monday and tell you he’s moving with Mom…out of the district. My point is, high school football is just that unpredictable, even for teams that seemingly have a stacked deck.
What I did do last year, and what I’ll do for you again now, is give you my picks of eleven teams in the area, Dayton to Lima, that for one reason or another will be compelling to watch this year, at least for me…be it for talent, returning experience, old coach, new coach, or teams that just look cool. Why eleven? It’s football. Figure it out.
The criteria? Well, some talent to be sure. But there’s more to high school football than just the available inventory. Sometimes it’s what you do with that talent and “how” you do it. To wit:
1) Trotwood…Obviously loaded from last year’s D-II undefeated championship team, and experienced for the fact of playing in the last two D-II championship games. Too talented for anyone to slip up on in 2012 (Mike McCray, Israel Green, Cam Burrows, et.al.), but ripe for the unexpected to happen…something to go wrong. Vital that Mo Douglass and the Rams replace D-II player of the year Mike Simpson at quarterback, and former Chaminade coach Andy Helms has been hired to mentor the position. That’s interesting enough, because Helms probably got something less than a fair shake when he left Chaminade two years ago. It is high school, you know, and oh, the rumors, when people talk about…Trotwood!
2) Tippecanoe…Now I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for the Red Devils because of Charlie Burgbacher, who may be the best coach in the state of Ohio never to win a state title during his years at Portsmouth, Covington, and Tipp, 36 in coaching overall. They were 9-2 last year, including another disappointing first-round playoff loss, and they did it with a roster that was too young to drive, and most too young to shave. A “lot” of sophomores! They’re all back to challenge Division IV state finalist Springfield Shawnee for the league title. Athletes to watch: Ben Hughes, Cameron Johnson, Nick Fisher, and Jake Hall, among others. All of them still growing, still learning, and still improving. And how much can you improve on 9-2 without doing something pretty special? Which is what makes Tipp “compelling”, it seems, year after year after year.
3) Coldwater…What a shock, eh? Well, consider that in Coldwater, the Division V state runners-up from a year ago, they take nothing for granted. While the rest of the region assumes that the Cavaliers will be back in Massillon come December, coach Chip Otten will smile and remind you that they have to get through their league first. “That’s the goal,” he said recently. “If we win our league we’ll make the playoffs.” And then…who knows? They’re loaded with Austin Bruns at quarterback and Jacob Siefring in the backfield, well complemented by a big, experienced senior class. They’re a favorite, no doubt to compete for their third state title, but the intrigue comes when they play Marion, Delphos, St. Henry, Versailles, Minster and Anna. In Coldwater they’re talking about the journey…not the destination.
4) Piqua…What, you say? A team that went 6-4 last year, graduated heavily in key positions (running back and defense), and has struggled in recent years to follow their 2006 Division II state title? Remember what I said in the open about what you do with what you’ve got? No team, and I mean no team, is better coached and better prepared on a per-week basis than what Bill Nees and his staff does with the Indians. They came within a drive, a play, and a few seconds of knocking off Trotwood last year, in Trotwood, outplaying the state champion Rams for the first 46 minutes of that game. They’re going to miss Jon Dembski, the hard-nosed running back who came back from a broken leg to play lights out and symbolize Bill Nees and Piqua in his senior year. The trick is…are there any Jon Dembskis year? And for the sake of being compelling, the Indians have lost five straight to rival Troy. Need I say more?
5) Bethel…Bethel? Yes, Bethel, and the return of former Covington coach Kevin Finfrock to the sidelines after a five-year absence from coaching. No one I’ve met in twenty years of covering local football symbolizes a winner’s mentality more than Finfrock. No one is more a pied piper for football. Armed presently with just 29 healthy athletes, you can count on it…he will build the Bethel program in quick order to challenge the likes of Covington and Miami East, the acknowledged kingpins of the Cross County Conference. Compelling? Bethel plays Covington in week three of the season, at Covington, where feelings are still raw over his dismissal five years ago. But more, with good health count on “Finny’s” 29 players to deliver a winning campaign to set the stage for better times ahead at, yes, Bethel.
6) Chamindade Julienne…Why? Well, the Eagles have athletes, and that’s the name of the game. You win with people, Woody Hayes used to say. Specifically, they have Darrien Howard, a bruising, talented linebacker/rush end that’s committed to play college football at West Virginia…and Brandon Payne, a First Team All Southwest District player from a year ago at running back. And more, they have one of the classiest people you’ll find in second-year coach Marcus Colvin, who guided the Eagles to a 9-4 mark and three games deep into the playoffs a year ago, beating top-ranked Waynesville in the district final. They’re accustomed to playing top competition, they open with Troy, and they have every reason in the world to build on last year’s success. Good team. Well-coached. Compelling to see if they can take the next step…while they have those athletes.
7) Marion Local…The defending Division VI champs (five times, if you’re counting) lost a ton of talent and experience from last year’s 13-2 team. What remains to be seen now is how coach Tim Goodwin will rebuild, and how quickly. The league favorite is Coldwater, but Marion at some point of the season will either be in the hunt or play the part of spoiler. Behind 6’6″ quarterback Adam Bertke, the compelling part of 2012 at Marion is to see how quickly they can return to prominence in the murderous Midwest Athletic Conference. They may not win, but they’ll play a role.
8) Miami East…Now come on, you say. That’s two teams from the Cross County Conference, a league that we’ve criticized in the past for playing recreational football. But the compelling part of Max Current’s Vikings is that they have athletes, and they compete. And year after year they’re fearless to butt heads with perennial favorite Covington. In a league where some tout Covington junior A.J. Oullette as the best pound-for-pound football player and running back going, others point to another junior, Mike Fellers of the Vikings, as one just as capable of changing the outcome of a game. He rushed for 600 yards last year, scored 11 touchdowns, had 6 interceptions, kicked 3 field goals and hit all ten of his point after attempts. And, he has help. Max Current’s been there for 14 years as coach, and I’m a little partial in writing about his commitment to his kids and high school football. I always follow the Vikings, and I’ll be following them again this year.
9) Northmont…Pooh-pooh this pick all you want. The Thunderbolts are not favored to win the Central Division of the GWOC (Wayne and Centerville are), but I love Lance Schneider’s career there as head coach for his ability to develop talent and maintain high numbers in his program…from his own hallways. They also have really cool uniforms. I used to love their old “Gang Green” slogan, from which they’ve moved on, and hopefully they’ll move on to better things than last year’s 4-6 mark. It’s been a while since they’ve been good, and the compelling part is…how much longer until they are? Northmont football is fun to watch, and I swear…until the good days return a “cool” coach and “cool” uniforms, with a few good players, is reason enough to watch.
10) Alter…Look, they’re very good. They’re always good. They’ve got great talent all over the place. They’re well-coached by Ed Domsitz, who ranks among my favorite Haratio Algiers stories of all time. What was it, 20 years ago when he couldn’t even park his car correctly at Northmont? And now he’s won multiple titles at Alter, keeps reloading year after year, and the Knights just throw the down the gauntlet to any and all who challenge in the Greater Catholic League. I know there are those out there who cry “recruiting”, and separatism where public and private schools vie for the same title. But if ever there’s a “build it and they will come” model, is it not Alter…at least in Dayton? And I say this knowing some will say…“No”. Well then, get better!
11) Troy…The Trojans were hit hard by graduation last spring and truthfully only a die-hard loyalist expects them to beat out Trotwood for the GWOC North title. But the compelling part of Troy football in 2012 is the transition to new coach Scott Brewer after 27 seasons and 200-plus wins by his predecessor Steve Nolan, the monarch of modern Trojan football. They’re young and they’re enthusiastic. And, they hit. Brewer spent the past several seasons as Nolan’s defensive coordinator and built the Trojan defense into one of the league’s most formidable outfits. They’ve made a habit of leading the GWOC…all the GWOC…in overall defensive stats. New coaches usually signal change, and Brewer’s promised a gradual transition away from Troy’s traditional Wing-T attack to the “I” formation. Which, by the way, is just another way of pounding the ball with the running game, which Brewer has promised “not” to change. A quarter century and 200 wins is a long time…milestone stuff. Pardon me for this pick if you will, but milestones are compelling. New monarchs, if it happens…even more compelling.