MARTINS FERRY — Justin Kropka’s career in coaching football has come full circle, and he couldn’t be any happier.
A 1994 Purple Rider graduate and former player, Kropka has returned to the Dave Bruney Football Complex to lead his alma mater after stops at Harrison Central, Wheeling University and John Marshall.
Kropka replaces another Martins Ferry grad, Chas Yoder, who stepped aside after last season and a four-year career.
“It’s crazy. I never thought I’d coach here again,” Kropka said. “Four years ago when Dave (Bruney) stepped down, I didn’t apply. For those people who know me, I was always a little cautious about coaching in my hometown because there’s a lot of bad that comes with that, but once Chas (Yoder) took an administrative job, I put more thought into it.”
He said Yoder’s decision what a class act he is.
“That’s been underplayed a whole lot. We, as coaches, always say family first, but there’s a guy that truly puts family ahead of football,” Kropka stressed. “Chas was a Purple Rider to the core and he had to make a decision between staying in coaching, which I think he would have liked to have done, or take a principal’s job and put his family in a better position.”
So, why four years later?
Coach Justin Kropka discusses the upcoming campaign
“It was a lot of things, really. My son is coming up through the ranks. The first thing I did when I received the call to see if I was interested in becoming the next head coach, and I really didn’t know if I’d even get the call, I called him and asked him if he’d like to stay at Martins Ferry, and he said ‘yes.’ So, that obviously swayed my decision a little bit.
“I also knew that the program was in a rebuilding mode and the numbers were really down. Part of the reason is that the town’s population is way down. We’re not a Division III or IV school like we were, we’re Division VI school. We’re a small school,” he stressed. “Who would have ever thought that Barnesville and Union Local would be bigger than Martins Ferry? I knew what a rebuild it was going to be and I also knew that this was a way I could pay back.
“Everything that has happened in my life, as far as football goes, started right here. What type of hypocite would I be when it got hard, and this is as tough as it’s been at Martins Ferry in 50 years, to say no because it’s going to be hard. This is my opportunity to pay back this school and this town for what they have given me. How can you say no to that.”
The numbers game is improving, though.
“I looked at the Bellaire film and saw that we dressed 26 players, and 12 of those were seniors so there was a lot of work to do to get the numbers back to where they used to be,” he said. “I literally went door-to-door. We’ve got eight seniors out and I don’t think half of them have played football before. But we are getting our numbers back up. I had 17 kids at the first meeting and didn’t even know if we would be able to have a season, but we are up to 45 and I am thrilled with that. That’s a hats off to our seniors because they did a little in-house recruiting of their own and that brought some positivity to the program, which was much-needed.
“We were coming off a rough season last year and then you add in a new coach and there was some negativity swirling around, but the seniors took it upon themselves to change that,” he continued. “We’ve had so much positivity. However, we’re still taking baby steps and we’re still miles and miles away from where I want us to be. The seeds we are planting now will play off down the road.
“In my fifth year I’ll know if we’ve been successful in achieving what I wanted us to,” Kropka said. “In my fifth year at Harrison Central, we made the playoffs for the first time. You’ve got to get the guys all the way through the program to where you want it. I’ve done this rebuilding thing once. At 46, you’re not supposed to do this again. You’re supposed to take an easier job, but, like I said, if it wasn’t at Martins Ferry, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
How tough was it to leave John Marshall?
“That was the hardest coaching decision I’ve ever made because you talk about a group of kids that bought in, they really bought in,” Kropka noted. “For the first time in my career, I thought going into this season we had a shot at winning a (Class AAA) state title with the talent and experience we had coming back. I really wish I could have finished that job, but I didn’t. With Coach (Mark) Cisar staying there, I know the program is in good hands.
“If anywhere else would’ve opened up, I would’ve said no. Only Martins Ferry. I remember being 13 years old and coming down here for my first eighth grade practice, and now I look around and say, ‘oh boy.’ My career has come full circle.”
Offensively, the Purple Riders will run multiple sets.
“I been fortunate to have had 2,000-yard passers in my career. I’ve had 2,000-yard rushers, so our offense is set for whatever we are dealt. We’re not fancy. We do a lot of things in a variety of ways,” he said. “Our schemes don’t change but we can get a defense into a lot of different formations.”
Sophomore Ayden Ludolph (5-9, 170) returns at quarterback after a so-so freshman campaign.
“Ayden was thrown into the fire really quick last season,” Kropka noted. “He did a decent job and has really imrpoved for this year.”
He’s backed up by junior Baron Lucey (5-9, 165) who has impressed Kropka.
“I’ve been really happy with Baron. He’s looked really good and I think we can win with him in there if needed.”
Ludolph passed for 698 yards on 56-134. He threw four touchdowns but was picked off 11 times. He also ran 63 times for 293 yards and a score.
Senior George Hulsey (5-9, 180) is a returner at tailback after running for 592 and seven touchdowns a year ago on 145 carries. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry.
“George is going to be our workhorse once again,” Kropka noted. “He’s a big, strong kid with good speed.”
Others expected to get carries are senior Jackson Carte (6-0, 180), sophomore Tev’n Williams (5-10, 180) and freshman Cy Booth (5-9, 180). Also in the mix are juniors Kaden Archer (5-8, 165) and Shayden Fogle (5-8, 180); sophomore Jase Mahoney (5-7, 145); and freshmen Luca Shane (5-9, 150) and Cole Kennedy (5-9, 160).
The wide receivers are where the Purple Riders are the most experienced.
“Our wide receiving group is one area on the team that I can say we have some depth,” Kropka admitted. “We can probably go 6-7 guys, if you count the tight ends, that can help us. We’re pretty pleased there.”
Lucey will line up as a wideout when not at quarterback. He will be joined by seniors Dylan Ward (5-8, 140), Matthew Fox (6-3, 175), Dominick Shrodes (5-8, 155), Braydon Maine (6-3, 165), Connor Probst (6-0, 170) and Johnathan Rossano (5-8, 155), and freshmen Malaki Miller (5-7, 140), David Proctor (5-6, 130), Gavin Mulvey (5-7, 135) and Chuckie Thompson (5-1, 110).
Williams can also move outside to wide receiver.
Lucey hauled in 19 passes for 274 yards and a pair of touchdowns a year ago, while Carte was on the receiving end of 15 aerials for 111 and a score.
The tight ends are senior Landyn Hores (6-4, 215); sophomore Alex Reese (6-5, 215); and freshmen Santino DeArdo (6-1, 230) and Nate Wasemann (5-11, 175).
Hores landed 21 receptions for 265 stripes last fall, averaging 12.6 yards per catch.
Reese, who lettered in basketball as a freshman, has also impressed the head coach, both with his size and skills.
“When his playing career is done. I think he will have some options as where he wants to play in college,” Kropka said. “The last kid I had a talk like that with was Kobe Mitchell and he’s playing Division I basketball at Akron.”
The offensive line is where the Purple Riders took a hit due to graduation.
Senior Alex Finsley (5-10, 200) moves over from guard to center this year.
“He’s a small kid, but he’s a tough kid,” Kropka said. “He’s a wrestler and good athlete.”
The right guard will be senior Ethan Horvath (5-10, 200) with Fogle as his backup. Senior Johnny McFarland (5-10, 180) will be the left guard. The tackles are senior Laine Baker (6-1, 230) and junior Travis Trout (5-10, 260) with senior Matthew Collette (5-10, 240) also in the mix.
Freshmen Tayson Palmer (5-10, 185) and Ethan Palmer (5-8, 170) will see time.
“We go from senior to freshman at quite a few positions,” Kropka lamented.
Also listed as linemen are sophomores Braxton Norton (5-10, 250) and Haiden Merrill (5-4, 155); and freshmen Kaden Holmes (5-8, 145), Jaxson Leonard (5-7, 160), Carter Stenger (5-10, 185), Austin Violet (5-7, 170), Michael Goff (5-10, 215), Tyler Robinson (5-10, 160) and Demitrous Ray (5-9, 275).
Defensively, Martins Ferry will employ a 4-4 look.
The ends will be Reese, Finsley, Horvath and McFarland, with Holmes, DeArdo and Wasemann also listed.
Collette, Baker and Ethan Palmer will rotate at the tackles. Other interior linemen are Trout, Tayson Palmer, Stenger, Merrill, Violet, Goff, Robinson, Norton and Ray.
Hulsey and Hores will man the inside linebacker spots. Fox, Carte, Archer, Rossano, Fogle and Booth will rotate on the outside. Their backups are Mahoney, Shane and Kennedy.
The corners are Williams, Ward and Shrodes, with Lucey, Rossano and Probst at the safeties. Others listed in the secondary are Ludolph, Miller, Proctor, Mulvey, Thompson and Turner.
Probst and Maine will share the kicking duties, with Williams and Finsley handling the punting. Ward will be the holder.
The coaching staff has changed, as well. Bryan Mays, a former Cadiz head coach, and holdover Gregg Bahen give Kropka some experience.
“I’m not the most accomplished coach on the staff with Bryan and Gregg who both played for state championships in their days. They bring a lot of experience,” Kropka said. “We have a lot of Ferry grads back on the staff. We want to make the connection from young to old again. That’s what made Martins Ferry unique back in the day.”
Kropka is a fourth generation Purple Rider.
“My grandfather played here. My dad played here. My uncle played here. I played here and my son is in junior high.”
The Purple Riders have added a strength coach in Josh Pyles and trainer Pete Messer.
“Josh and Pete kind of came as a package deal,” Kropka explained. “Pete was my trainer at Harrison Central for 10 years. Both are class individuals and high-quality guys.”
It will be home sweet home for Martins Ferry to begin the season as Shadyside, Leetonia and Union Local all visit the riverfront facility before the Purple Riders hit the road in week 4 at St. Clairsville.
“We open up with three home games and I think that is critical for us,” he said. “We’re not a young team per se, but we’re an inexperienced team. It was important for us to get those three games at home.”
Following the trip to St. Clairsville, the Purple Riders remain on the road with games at Weir and Cambridge before returning home to host Indian Creek. Away games at Wheeling Central and Lancaster Fisher Catholic precede the annual season-ending clash with Bellaire.
“That’s got to be one of tougher D-VI schedules in the state with five straight games against D-IV schools. We need to adjust our future schedules to who we are and not who we were.”
Lost to graduation were Peyton Hores, Jesse Nagel, Zak Dobson, Zeke Bruney, Colton Redinger, Colton Larkins, Jaizen Miles, Quamari Locke, Davian Ray, Kolton Goddard and J.T. Hill.