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High School


New football coaches off to sterling starts

Knights' Hedden leads biggest surprise; Whitmer's Bell, Rogers' Dawson get wins

  • hedden-coach

    Coach Chris Hedden and St. Francis pulled off the first week’s biggest stunner as the Knights rallied to defeat Southview 30-27.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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  • bell-coach

    Coach Jerry Bell guided Whitmer to a season-opening victory over Start. He had been an assistant for the Panthers for 12 years.

    The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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Coach Jerry Bell guided Whitmer to a season-opening victory over Start. He had been an assistant for the Panthers for 12 years.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Last week when the high school football season opened, 17 head coaches made their debuts at their schools among area teams.

Ten of them were victorious, including the three at Toledo schools who were leading teams onto the field as head coaches for the first time.

The most high-profile and unlikely of these three wins came at the Glass Bowl, where St. Francis de Sales, under Chris Hedden, rallied late to edge heavily favored Southview 30-27.

"It was exciting," said Hedden, who played at Tiffin Columbian and Ashland University before becoming a college assistant coach, including eight years at the University of Toledo.

"I've been at UT and I've been a part of some big wins there. To be able to come out and play your first game [as a high school head coach] there, that gave me goose bumps. And, to beat a team like Southview and the tradition they've had and what they've done there with coach [Jim] Mayzes, was great for our players."

At Rogers, Keith Dawson, who had not coached at the high school level for more than a decade, and who had never been a head coach, guided the defending City League champion Rams to a 49-8 romp over Highland Park (Mich.).

"I was really proud of the kids," said Dawson, a 1984 Macomber graduate who has taught in Toledo Public Schools for 23 years. "It was nice to see them take what they were taught and see it work."

And, at Start, 1992 Whitmer graduate Jerry Bell led his alma mater to a lopsided 60-0 triumph over the host Spartans. It was Bell's first game as a head coach after serving 14 seasons as an assistant, including 12 at Whitmer.

"It was a lot of fun," Bell said. "I'm almost speechless. The first time we came out on the field for our quick cals [warmups], you're standing there and you realize your dream has come true.

"Now, that that first game is over, I don't want the winning to stop. It's time to continue what we started."

It may have been a short trip down Bancroft Street from where his last UT post was as offensive coordinator for Rockets head coach Tom Amstutz. But Hedden was coming in cold at St. Francis, a storied program led for many seasons by the City League's all-time winningest coach Dick Cromwell, who retired from coaching after an 11-2 season in 2009.

The Knights had gone 4-6 in 2010 and 3-7 in 2011 under Mike Blochowski, who had been a longtime Cromwell assistant. St. Francis returned very little experience from last year's team, and were playing a Southview team that has won five straight Northern Lakes League titles. The Cougars were a playoff team last season, so few expected St. Francis to win.

"It started last spring," Hedden said of building for the upset. "It was the commitment to the weight room, and what our kids did all summer long. We had 60 to 70 kids there working and pointing to Aug. 24.

"We talked about playing a four-quarter game no matter what happens. In the beginning of the game they jumped on us 12-0, and we easily could've folded the tents. But I think the kids have bought into playing four quarters. If you stick around you give yourself an opportunity to do something special, and we did that Friday night."

Hedden's first step in reversing the momentum of St. Francis football was creating a positive attitude along with a consistent work ethic.


Coach Chris Hedden and St. Francis pulled off the first week’s biggest stunner as the Knights rallied to defeat Southview 30-27.

The Blade/Andy Morrison
Enlarge | Buy This Image

"When I came in I didn't really research [the program's history] beyond knowing the tradition of all the winning they had done in the past," Hedden said. "Coming in cold, I knew what I had to establish with our kids and with our coaching staff to give them an opportunity to compete. That's what I've done.

"I don't feel any pressure. In any job coaching football, at every level, the ultimate goal is to win and get the team to play as hard as they possibly can. If anybody's going to put pressure on me it's going to be myself to make sure I'm doing everything in my power to make sure the kids have a chance to go out and win."

Dawson's last high school post was as an assistant at Start in the 1990s under under Doug Pearson, who is now head coach at St. John's. Current Central Catholic coach Greg Dempsey was also an assistant on that staff.

Dawson wasn't hired to replace Randy Bartz until May, giving him little time to meet with players, hire a staff, and organize the program.

"I had to do a whole lot real quick," Dawson said. "But when you love something, it's always in the back of your mind that, if ever for some reason you're put in that position, you have something ready to put in place.

"The first thing I had to do was wrap my mind around the talent of these kids. I had to look at what we had. I'm familiar with the wing-T and the spread, but I wasn't just going to come in and bring a system and make it work with the kids. I had to observe them and get a handle on what these kids could physically do.

"What helped from my past experience is that you realize that you have to make sure the kids really understand the fundamentals of the game. It doesn't matter how elaborate you want to go [with schemes and strategy], you've got to make sure the kids are doing the fundamentals consistently."

Where Hedden retained only three coaches from the prior staff, and installed six new coaches at the varsity level, it was much different at Whitmer for Bell, who played for the Panthers, and had direct ties to the school's last four head coaches.

"I didn't really have to replace a staff," Bell said. "We've been together since 2006, so that allowed me a smoother transition. We didn't skip a beat as far as what we do. It's just a different person at the helm.

"From 2006 on, with [former coach] Joe Palka's leadership and guidance, we rebuilt this program from the ground up. We changed the attitudes and got the kids to believe in themselves and in the program. We got them to compete at a high level and to expect to win championships. That momentum has continuously built."

Elsewhere, Tim Spiess, whose last head coaching job was at Edgerton for three seasons (1987-89), took the reins at Genoa. The Comets went on the road and pounded Ottawa Hills 58-7.

"It was kind of a bittersweet moment," Spiess said, "because [coach] Chris Hardman of Ottawa Hills has been a good friend of mine for several years. His father and my father-in-law were fraternity brothers at Wittenberg back in the 1940s.

"I've known and respected Chris for a number of years. When the game is in hand you start to reflect on the feelings of your friend across the field. His kids played hard, but we were the better team that night. As we were celebrating, at the same time I was also feeling bad for Chris."

Spiess, 50, has simply traded jobs with highly successful coach Mike Vicars, who compiled a 56-7 record in five seasons with the Comets, winning four league titles and earning five playoff berths (2007-11). Spiess, a 1980 Liberty Center graduate, had been Genoa's defensive coordinator under Vicars, a 1981 Liberty Center alum.

Vicars remains on staff as offensive coordinator.

"Two things made the transition easy," Spiess said. "One, Mike is still on board, so no terminology or job responsibility in practice changed. The second thing is just knowing the kids so well.

"The biggest change is the paperwork and the business side of it. Once upon a time high school coaches just coached football. Now, you're more of a business manager. As a head football coach you're probably in charge of more equipment and more money than any of the other programs, and the gate receipts from football games usually help fund your nonrevenue sports."

Spiess, who still commutes with his three sons to Genoa from their home in Swanton, knew the time was right for him to transition back to being a head coach.

"I spent over 20 years of my career trying to do my best to make sure the head coach's job in the program was easier, and that he was able to be a better coach by having me around," Spiess said. "Now, my oldest son is a junior, and my other boys are in sixth and seventh grade.

"If I was ever going to be a head coach again, this was going to be the time to do it. Not only do I get to coach my sons, but I get to coach my sons' friends. The community of Genoa has embraced us as a family from the very first day. It's a very special community, and a very special time in the school's history."

Longtime head coach Bob Olwin debuted with his latest team, Lake, using the spread-offense scheme to guide the Flyers to a 55-23 road win last week at Swanton.

It was the most points scored by a Lake team in a decade.

Elmwood, also saw a successful head coaching debut, as Brian Cooper led the Royals to a 32-0 victory over Gibsonburg.

First-year Evergreen coach Myles Holiday led the Vikings to a 20-14 road win at Otsego.

Other successful debuts were Bryan Dudash of Danbury as the Lakers won 62-20 over Elyria Open Door Christian, and Pat Gehrisch of Arcadia, whose Redskins downed Lakota 41-20.

Jason Mensing, another head coaching veteran, made his debut at Whiteford, leading his Bobacts to a 26-22 win over Blissfield.

Contact Steve Junga at: 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.

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