Graduation Takes Heavy Toll on Union Local
By SETH STASKEY
MORRISTOWN — Someone may have to pinch Bernie Thompson.
The personable, 25-year old has actually been pinching himself basically every day since March when he hired as the football coach at his alma mater, Union Local.
“It’s still a little surreal,” Thompson said early in camp. “I found myself, at times, sitting around and thinking, ‘wow! I am the head coach (at Union Local)'”
The reality of the matter, however, comes to fruition Friday night when Monroe Central comes calling for the season opener.
“To be able to coach a game you love and are passionate about in your hometown is a blessing,” Thompson said. “I know it’s unique to be a head coach at 25 years old and I definitely do not take anything for granted, especially being in a position of leadership.”
Thompson takes over for Bruce Stiles, who put the finishing touches — at least for now — on an impressive coaching career that saw him lead the Jets to the OVAC Class 3A title and a home playoff game last fall. He capped things last month when he led Ohio to a 21-14 victory in the OVAC All-Star Game.
“I’ve learned so much from the different people I’ve been around in this game,” Thompson said.
“From playing for Mark Cisar here at UL to Rick Shepet at Waynesburg and then having the opportunity to coach under Coach Stiles has provided me with so much of a foundation.”
While the Jets soared to impressive heights in 2017, graduation also took a toll. And Thompson is aware of that, too.
“This team will never make an excuse,” Thompson said. “We’ve came in since Day 1 and competed at everything we’ve done. We’re going to play the hand we’re dealt and attack everything full throttle. We are going to be a young team and that’s exciting.”
From last season’s 7-4 squad, which claimed the first OVAC football title in school history and hosted a playoff game against Columbus Academy, Stiles wasn’t the lone defection.
Included on the graduation list are All-Ohioans Braden Lucas and Cody Ray as well as Lucas Donley and Ben Howell. All four represented the Jets in last month’s OVAC Rudy Mumley All-Star Game.
Others to collect their diploma in May were Luke Menges, Ty Kildow, Zach Greene, Zane Thompson, Hank Myers, Kade Clark, Dalton Latham, Braden Robinson, Nate Kinney and Brandon Taylor.
“We definitely lost a great group of not only football players, but kids,” Thompson said. “These guys served as great role models for our younger kids.”
With so many new faces in so many places, the one word Thompson stressed more than once was “patience.”
“I would tell the fans and the public to bear with us,” Thompson said. “We have some kids who are going to be doing something or playing as much as they are for the first time in their lives. There will be growing pains and adjustments. I am sure there are going to be mistakes made, too. We will learn from those and work as hard as we can to represent Union Local the right way by doing things the right way. Good things will happen, so we just ask people stick with us.”
Thompson has been around sports — and specifically football — long enough to know the cliche about a team wanting to get better each day. He not only knows it, but he subscribes to it, too.
“Every rep is important,” Thompson said. “We’re being realists. We’re going to be playing a lot of young kids, so we have to work to make sure they improve each day. We’re looking at it as a ladder and we have to continually climb up notches and we can’t afford setbacks.”
Not only are the Jets green in on-field experience, but they’re also literally young. The roster features 37 players, 24 of whom are either freshmen or sophomores.
“We knew we wouldn’t have a big senior class,” Thompson said. “We have a solid junior class and a lot of freshmen and sophomores. This isn’t a one-term deal. we’re building a culture.”
Because of having the influence of so many different schools of thought in his football background, Thompson isn’t about to paint himself into a corner and firmly identify his team as either a run-first or pass-first club. “We’re going to play to our strengths,” Thompson said. “We have to use, to our advantage, what suits us the best and also what the defense is doing to us. We’d like to do our best to dictate to the defense.”
One area where the Jets boast experience is at the most important position, quarterback.
Senior Cal Kildow (5-foot-7, 135) is coming off a solid junior campaign in which he passed for 1,212 yards and seven touchdowns. He also ran for 305 yards and five touchdowns.
“Cal’s had a great offseason. He’s put some weight on, gotten stronger and he’s really taken it upon himself to become a leader for this team and help these younger guys,” Thompson said.
Kildow is backed up by sophomore Jimmy Johnson (6-0, 155) and freshman Kade Kiser (6-0, 165).
After Kildow, Thompson was excited about his running back options.
“I really think our running backs are one of the strengths of this team,” Thompson said.
Junior Josef Bailey (5-5, 160) is the expected starter at tailback, while hard-nosed senior Nathan Bomboris (5-10, 215) is penciled in at fullback. He’s the second-leading returning rusher with 118 yards on 19 carries.
“Nathan is one of the guys we’ll lean on,” Thompson said “He’s a veteran and an athletic kid who can move.”
Bailey is backed by up sophomore Brady Crum (5-7, 155) and freshman Caleb McWhorter (5-6, 155), who Thompson said, “is the fastest guy on the team.”
When the Jets go to the air, Kildow will lean heavily on junior Hunter McCort (5-10, 160). Thompson, who was a standout receiver in his playing days, is also high on junior Jordan Duke (5-10, 160), junior Cody Morrison (5-10, 165), who is out for the team for the first time.
Sophomore Bryan Neidert (5-8, 150) is another who can contribute despite having no experience.
Other vying for action include: junior Zach Bateman (6-1, 160), sophomore Carter Loase (5-9, 135), sophomore Cody McRoby (5-8, 145), freshmen Nathaniel Gibson (5-9, 130), Sawyer Moore (5-7, 140) and Ayden Smolira (6-0, 165).
Leading the depth chart at tight end is junior Matt Bateman (6-1, 160). Pushing for playing time are sophomore Jonathan Porter (5-8, 170), junior Kane Kildow (5-6, 130), freshmen Dakota Hess (5-11, 175), Josh Neidert (5-8, 150) and Aiden Myers (5-10, 175).
“I really like the depth at receiver and tight end,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of young guys there who have really competed well. And age doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of whoever steps up and what guys make plays.”
One area where Thompson is going to need his team to grow up fairly quickly is along the offensive line. Quite frankly, the Jets’ line was decimated by graduation.
“The offensive line is by far our biggest question mark,” Thompson said. “We have no starters back and all of the kids we are looking at have no experience at all.”
On top of the experience issue, the Jets boast only three players on the roster, one of whom is Bomboris, weighing more than 200 pounds.
“I am not really worried about their size because though they’re not big guys in terms of weight, they’re strong kids,” Thompson said. “The thing that concerns is me learning how to play and the level of aggression with which they play.”
Junior Hayden Hilt (6-0, 245) saw minimal action and is the lone player up front who has even stepped foot on a varsity field. He will be at guard and serve as the line leader.
Sophomore Claude Romshak (5-8, 170) will anchor the line at center. Senior Blake Showalter (5-10, 190) is set to man the other guard spot. The tackles are ticketed to be senior Devin Kalinowski (5-11, 185) and senior Stuart White (6-3, 180).
Sophomores David Burghy (5-9, 175) and Dylan Usenick (6-1, 185) are two of the top backups in the line.
Others working along the line are junior Zayne Cheatem (6-4, 320), sophomore Collin Matusik (5-10, 190), freshmen Cody Street (5-7, 160), Coleman Peck (5-7, 160), Evan Edwards (5-8, 180), Gage McEndree (5-5, 130) and Dakota Wells (5-6, 140).
The defensive side of the ball will be a similar look to years past, schematically. Mike Menges is back to spearhead the unit, which will be a 4-3 base.
“We’re excited about our defense and I think this will be a strength of our team,” Thompson said. “I am an offensive guy, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing our defense.”
As many guys as the Jets can get to the ball at a time would be a welcome sight for Thompson.
“We want to attack, attack, attack,” Thompson pointed out. “We’re not going to be the biggest or fastest team around, but defense is more about willpower.
Along the defensive line will be White and Romshak at the ends, while Hilt and Kalinowski will man the tackles. Burghy and Bomboris will also see quality action.
At the linebacker spots, Showalter, Bailey and Crum will get the first crack, but Thompson didn’t close the door on utilizing Hess, Porter, Smolira or Myers there, too.
“All of those guys will attack the ball,” Thompson said.
Cal Kildow is expected to roam at free safety, while McCort and Duke are expected to serve as the corners. Morrison will provide depth as will Zach Bateman and Kane Kildow.
“In a perfect world, we’d love to keep Cal off the field on defense, but ultimately, we will play the best 11 kids,” Thompson explained.
Duke and Matt Bateman are slated to handle the placekicking and punting chores, respectively.
When he was hired, Thompson had pinpointed a couple of games in the early portion of the schedule. The first was the season opener against Monroe Central and then in Week 3 against Martins Ferry.
And, quite frankly, that wasn’t because he thought they were some kind of easy victory. He was looking forward to matching wits with the likes of Jay Circosta and Dave Bruney before they retired this summer.
The lone new opponent on the Jets’ schedule is a trip to Warren Local in Vincent on Sept. 21. That game replaced Edison.
“The schedule is going to be exciting,” Thompson said. “It’s exciting to start off the season against so many new coaches, but it’s also difficult, too. I am looking forward to facing these guys.”
Thompson calls the second half of the schedule, which includes the likes of St. Clairsville, Weir, Barnesville and Bellaire, “a grind.”
“It’s tough game week in and week out,” Thompson said.
With such a young team in many spots, Thompson put extra value on the Jets’ scrimmages and calls Friday night’s date with Monroe, “huge.”
“We’ve been training this offseason to win week one,” Thompson said “(A win) would really set the tone. I believe we’ll all learn a lot about ourselves (on Friday) in what I expect to be a beautiful night in Morristown.”
Of everything he’s tried to get done to prepare for the season, Thompson is maybe most excited about the coaching staff that he has in place.
“Putting together a good staff is important, but putting together the right staff is just as important,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a great mixture of younger guys and guys who’ve been around. It’s a staff that I know I can trust, will be reliable and hard working. I just have so much respect for these guys and I don’t mean that just as coaches. I mean that as mentors, friends and just human beings. I am only as good as the coaching staff.”
Along with Menges and Rocchio spearheading the defensive and offensive units, respectively, the remainder of the varsity staff includes: John Kutcher, Ryan Kutcher, Vaughn Butler and Tyler Grant.