A fresh start, a clean slate and maybe a little chip on their shoulders. That’s what four Lorain County high schools have in mind as another high school football season kicked off Thursday with the first day of practice.
Brookside, Elyria, Midview and Wellington combined to win only five games a year ago with the Pioneers going winless for the first time in school history. Wellington (1-9) has a second-year coach while Elyria (0-10) and Brookside (2-8) have new coaches on board to try to turn things around.
Midview is in a different situation. They have a veteran coach in D.J. Shaw who wants to orchestrate a reversal of a one-year glitch in an otherwise extremely successful program. The Middies were Southwestern Conference and playoff contenders in Shaw’s first four seasons.
Shaw took the reins at Midview in 2014 following a successful and long stint by Bill Albright. Shaw is a Keystone and Ashland College graduate who spent five years as an assistant under Albright grooming for the head coaching job.
Success seemed easy for Shaw. Midview went 10-0 in his first two regular seasons and rolled into the playoffs as the top seed in the region. The Middies won two playoff games the first year before being derailed by Nordonia.
In 2015, Midview won its first playoff game before losing to Glenville.
“Going back to those first two years and even a couple years when I was an assistant on Coach Albright’s staff, we had great kids, great numbers and great talent,” Shaw said. “At a public school, it’s kind of hard to say but you don’t recruit kids. You get the talent that you get and you do the best with what you’ve got. I told the kids, the last time we were 2-8 was 1994. Even though some of the kids were a part of last year’s 2-8 team, we have a really good football program and a really good school and a really good community. There’s nothing to be ashamed of with that.”
There’s definitely a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality for the Middies, who lost just once during the regular season in 2016 and twice in 2017 before last year’s struggles. The Middies lost a couple of heartbreakers early to North Ridgeville and North Olmsted that might have changed things.
“This is a new team this year,” said senior right tackle and nose tackle Daniel Bucknavich, a Cleveland State wrestling recruit. “We’re going to prove everybody wrong about what they think about us. We lost some close games last year — one by just one point. We’re not going to let that happen again.”
“We want to get back to where we were,” said Tyshawn Nelson, a senior tailback and defensive end. “We really worked hard in the offseason. We put in a lot of work. We’ve gotten faster, we got stronger. We just want to be better than we were last year.”
“We don’t have to recreate the wheel or anything,” Shaw said. “I think we do things the right way at Midview. We’ve got more kids out this year and hopefully things will change for us.”
“While those two games were tough (North Ridgeville and North Olmsted), we would have been 4-6 instead of 2-8 and 4-6 would have been a huge difference. High school football is such a long offseason. Two and eight was tough to swallow.”
Looking for 600
It’s Devlin Culliver’s job to put Elyria back on track. The Pioneers enter the season with 14 straight losses and with just one win in their last 25 games.
The Pioneers had made three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15 under Kevin Fell before falling on hard times the past couple of seasons. Fell is now at Dresden Tri-Valley and finished 10-2 last year.
So what is Culliver’s game plan to resurrect Elyria, a school that needs just four wins to reach 600 in school history?
“Do your job,” is the first-year coach’s theme and so far, he said, the players are buying in.
“They’re responding exactly how I had hoped they would,” Culliver said. “They want to learn. They want to get better and they want to be a good team. I haven’t had any resistance to me from the overall group. With every team you might have a couple kids who take a little longer to come aboard than the other ones but 99 percent of the kids are on board. They work hard every day.”
Senior linebacker/tailback Michael Knapp likes what he sees so far and is ready to step into a leadership role.
“I like his coaching style,” said Knapp, who is also an outstanding baseball player for the Pioneers. “He’s not going to put up with any crap. Before the season, he came to the auditorium and told us all how the year was going to go and if it doesn’t go that way, he’ll instill it into us.”
“He’s pushing us more than last year,” senior wide receiver Kevin Dukes said. “He’s making us work harder.”
Culliver, like all the other coaches in a similar situation, would like to build off some early success. It’ll be tough with Midview, Bedford and Lorain on the non-conference schedule before the grueling GCC starts.
“We have to come out in our scrimmages the next couple weeks and start on all cylinders,” Culliver said. “It’s a must we win this first game. I don’t know how we’ll pull it off. Midview’s a solid team but we’re going in with a point to prove. That’s our goal.”
Numbers and good health
Wellington and Brookside are hoping for a fresh start in a brand-new league — the Lorain County League, which also includes Black River, Clearview, Columbia, Firelands, Keystone and Oberlin.
Rob Howells is in his second year guiding the Dukes, who haven’t had a winning season since going 7-4 and making the playoffs in 2011. Howells played a lot of young people a year ago and believes the Dukes are on the right path.
“We have 10 returning starters on both sides of the ball,” he said. “We’re still going to be young. A handful of those guys are still sophomores and juniors. It was a new system (last year) for everybody. I’m more of a pro, multiple set, I (formation). They know what I expect and what I’m looking for. I’m really excited based on what we’ve seen so far this summer. Those young guys are a little bigger, faster, stronger and more mature. We’ll see what happens.”
Getting kids out for the sport, especially at the smaller schools, is key.
“Our numbers are up,” Howells said. “We had 37 people at our camp. Last year, my first year, I think we had about 21.”
“We’re going to be way better than we were last year,” said two-way senior lineman Jayson Keenan.
Seniors Ben Higgins and Mason McClellan are seasoned veterans returning to the backfield, Higgins at quarterback and McClellan at tailback.
“I’m very optimistic,” Higgins said. “I believe in this team and I believe in the coaching staff. We have a lot of potential. We just have to execute and do what we’re told and I think we can go a long way.”
Making winning a habit
Scott O’Donnell is the new coach at Brookside, which last had a winning season when it went 6-4 in 2015. But the Cardinals haven’t had much success over the past 15 years and have never made the postseason.
O’Donnell previously coached at Lake Catholic, finishing 25-25 in five seasons.
“There’s two things,” O’Donnell said when asked what the Cards need to do to turn things around. “The numbers and just the culture. I need to work on getting more kids out. That’s a huge challenge. I know from just doing 7-on-7s with the local schools it’s not just a challenge for me, it’s for everybody. Part of that for us at Brookside is winning — winning and building a winning culture will breed more players to play. They’ve had one winning season over the past 15 years.”
O’Donnell knows losing is contagious but so is winning. He’s trying to change the mindset for the Cardinals. And though he’s trying to get more kids out he’s happy to be working with the ones who are playing and he’s depending on his seniors to show the way.
“We’ve been working since January,” senior quarterback Donovan Davis. “Working hard and now it’s all coming together. We have to keep the intensity up. Last year, obviously, we didn’t have what anyone would want but if we keep the intensity up, we’ll have a really good year.”
“We have to be optimistic,” offensive lineman and linebacker Adam Borgmann said. “We have to leave last year behind and focus on this year. We may not have the numbers but we have some pretty good talent and I think we’ll do pretty well.”
O’Donnell believes the first few weeks of the season are crucial but he doesn’t want to look past the opener at Cloverleaf.
“I look at things and I see a lot of promise at Brookside,” he said. “I keep telling myself to be patient. It’s about themselves. It isn’t about anybody else. That mindset of just competing with themselves and winning over their own minds is the first thing I’ve got to change. When we take the field against Cloverleaf, it’s gotta be we expect to win not we hope to win.”