There was much talk at Sunday’s Northwest Ohio Athletic League football preseason coaches meeting held in Wauseon that the strength of the league would lie in its teams from Henry County. It is a notion that makes perfect sense, being that Patrick Henry is the defending league champion and Liberty Center is a team who many see as the favorite.
The voting told a similar story, as LC was picked first with five first place votes, followed by Wauseon, Patrick Henry, Archbold, Bryan, Swanton, Delta and Evergreen. The Tigers were also the preseason favorite in 2016.
For Fulton County, Wauseon will look to get back on track after going 4-6 last season. The Indians were back-to-back NWOAL champs in 2014 and 2015.
Head coach Travis Cooper highlighted the fact that he returns many players off last year’s team. But given the fact they weren’t as successful, he is hoping the necessary improvements have been made.
“I think our depth is gonna be a major concern this year,” said Cooper. “Even with our injuries that we’ve had thus far, we are gonna be counting on some kids that we didn’t think we were going to be counting on. That’s one of our big concerns.”
However, they have nine starters back on offense and eight on defense which is encouraging. Cooper is also pleased that he has his entire coaching staff back once again.
Archbold, one of the other local teams picked near the top, has a strength in numbers.
“This year, we return 16 seniors, so we are gonna rely on them. That’s huge,” said Blue Streak head coach David Dominique to the other NWOAL coaches.
In total, the Blue Streaks have 28 returning letter winners. Eight are back on offense, and seven on the defensive side of the ball.
“The big thing for us (is) staying healthy. We’ve got to stay healthy because we do not have much depth,” explained Dominique.
His other aspirations for the season are to have his players adopt a better mentality. He says they need to be more mentally and physically tough this season. A more experienced roster with senior leadership should help with that.
Another area team with improved numbers is the Delta Panthers.
With just 34 kids last season, they are up to 47 for the 2017 campaign. Seventeen letter winners are returning, including 11 seniors.
Delta coach Jeff Wolford says his players are buying into what the coaches are preaching, and enjoying each other’s company in the process.
“I am seeing bonding for the first time. Kids liking each other,” said Wolford. “Last year was not fun going to practice. (We) had some issues. This year, the kids have been great. And we’ve got some new coaches that are doing phenomenal and are really pushing (the players).”
The energy at practice has improved, he added.
There will be two new coaches stomping the sidelines in Eastern Fulton County.
After two straight playoff appearances and a league championship in 2015 under veteran coach Mike Vicars, Swanton now will have Randy Kerns leading them.
He took some time at the beginning of his presentation to acknowledge how greatful he is to be able to coach in the NWOAL.
“This is part of why I came to this league. The quality (of competition) we have right here in this room,” said Kerns. “Knowing that playoff teams come from this league every year.
“I can’t wait to test myself and our kids.”
While addressing the state of his team, he said they will be smaller this year than in recent years. Another weakness is the loss of key contributors to graduation and via transfer.
“But we do got some key returners,” said Kerns. “I think everybody knows (running back) Michael Lawniczak is a pretty good player. (And) Lukas Reiner, Gage Pachlhofer, Xavier Williams have been starters for a year plus. We’ve got a large senior class. We’ve got more kids coming out – a lot of wrestlers came out this year. For whatever reason, but I’ll take them.”
A coach more familiar to the league having graduated from Wauseon, but new to being a head coach in it is Evergreen first-year mentor Aaron Schmidt. He hopes to get them back on track after going winless in 2016.
The Vikings have 42 players out for Schmidt’s inaugural season, which may seem small, but it is a number the coach is pleased with.
“We’ve got a good solid core of kids,” he said.
Six seniors return for the Vikings. And of the 42 total, they have 10 returning starters on both sides of the ball.
Now it is just about changing the culture, which includes putting an emphasis on toughness. They hope they do not experience another 0-10 season anytime soon.
“Really one of the biggest things that we’re focusing on is instilling a toughness, working hard, and getting (the players) in better shape,” said Schmidt. “I think the kids realize that we aren’t that deep. So we have to make sure that we are in really good shape so we can have a lot of kids playing on both sides of the football.”
Schmidt is one of three new coaches in the league alongside Kerns and Casey Mohler, who takes over for Rex Lingruen at Liberty Center.
Reach Max Householder at 419-335-2010