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Union Local High School

Union Local Embracing Expectations

MORRISTOWN — It’s been quite a few years since Union Local had legitimate expectations surrounding its football season.

As Bernie Thompson begins his fifth season at the helm of his alma mater, he’s not shying away from those. He and his team are embracing it.

When you consider Union Local boasts a roster that features 24 returning lettermen, including seven seniors who have earned a monogram each season they’ve been in high school, who can blame them?

“There are expectations floating around Morristown and it’s a fun thing,” Thompson said. “I really believe this could be a special year because we have special kids who have chosen to stick it out and not quit when things weren’t going well early in their careers.”

This senior class finished its freshmen season — with many of the guys playing probably before they were ready — at 0-10. They’ve improved to 2-8 and 5-5 since, setting the stage for them to take the next big step.

“Our guys realize they’re not going to automatically have a good season because they’ve been playing several years,” Thompson said. “Our leadership has been great and our kids have put in the work since last season ended. These seniors want to be successful and they like to work. They’re the type of kids you like to be around each day.”

Thompson and the development of his ‘elite effort’ culture has helped to change the Jets’ flight course.

“Whether it’s on the field, in practice, in the weight room or in the classroom, these kids give everything they have,” Thompson said. “The standard has changed drastically at Union Local. We don’t want to be average. We’ve set a standard and we’re holding the kids to it daily.”

After opening the season with victories in their first four games, the Jets proceeded to lose five of their final six to finish 5-5. Their game with Buckeye Local was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.

Union Local’s season ended with a 35-21 loss on the road to John Glenn in the opening round of the Division IV playoffs.

“I look at 2021 as a turning point for us,” Thompson said. “We knew it was going to take a few years to get things going, and I think we started to see some of the fruits of our hard work. We got hit with some adversity and big injuries in the second half of the season and no one felt sorry for us. I was actually happy with how we finished the season with how we played, even though we lost, against Bellaire, Barnesville and John Glenn.”

Gone from that Jets’ squad are Dakota Hess, who played in last month’s OVAC All-Star Game; Coleman Peck, Aidan Myers, Evan Edwards and Caleb McWhorter.

As the Jets begin the 2022 season against Columbus Crusaders, Thompson believes the pieces are in place for his team to put a “balanced, explosive” offense on the field.

Triggering the Jets’ offense will be senior quarterback Carter Blake (6-2, 185). He’s coming off a season in which he completed 73 of 166 passes for 1,223 yards. He threw 13 touchdowns and was intercepted 14 times. He rushed for 205 yards and 7 touchdowns.

“Carter has what it takes athletically and physically, but his biggest step needs to come on the mental side,” Thompson said. “He can throw it a country mile, but we need him to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. His reads need to be better. We need him to step up and lead us to wins.”

Sophomore Isaiah Tomolonis (6-0, 160) and freshman Colby Carpenter (5-8, 151) are also getting work at quarterback.

The Jets feature two of the best running backs in the area and a third option that Thompson believes will contribute significantly.

Senior standout Hayden McCrate (5-10, 185) will get the call at tailback. He was sensational last season, rushing for 1,239 yards and 11 touchdowns en route to All-Ohio acclaim. He also caught 13 passes for 280 yards.

He’ll be re-joined in the backfield by senior Jaksan Price (5-10, 206). He had already scored three touchdowns and rushed for 126 when he suffered a season-ending broken leg in last season’s opener at Monroe Central.

“Hayden is really special and Jaksan was our number one running back going into last season,” Thompson pointed out. “Both kids are stronger and faster. They also root for each other and just want to win.”

Senior Brody Myers, who carried the ball just 23 times last season, is expected to take on a bigger role as the Jets employ a “ground and pound” offense.

Other running backs looking to work into the rotation are juniors Matt Keller (5-8, 140), Levi James (5-7, 140), freshmen Landon Woods (5-7, 140), Ryder Gainer (5-8, 130) and Gage Davis (5-7, 185).

The ground game will allow the Jets to buy themselves some time as they break in a relatively young group of receivers.

The top returnee on the perimeter is junior Gannon Kerns (5-9, 162), who is coming off a solid campaign in which he caught 21 passes for 276 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, he’s been slowed in the preseason as he continues to battle back from a knee injury sustained late last season.

Three sophomores — Billy Schumacher (5-9, 141), Dre Saunders (5-8, 140) and Tomolonis — are expected to see valuable playing time at receiver, too.

Senior Clay Akers (5-7, 141) is in the mix for quality action along with junior Coltyn Carpenter (5-8, 140).

Other receivers listed on the roster are seniors Ethan Blinco (5-8, 180), Logan Boone (5-8, 155), James Ault (5-10, 160), junior Dalton Henderson (5-10, 150), freshmen Conner Smith (5-10, 160), Bobby Boone (5-9, 145), Max Duncan (5-8, 140) and Landon Beadling (5-7, 135).

“We could really be receiver by committee,” Thompson said. “Several of these kids could work their way into the rotation.”

At tight end, senior Dylan Higgenbotham (6-2, 190) returns. Other tight end candidates include: junior Coye Fillipovich (5-8, 142), sophomores Kayden Cross (5-8, 155), Logan Hess (5-10, 185), Peyton Causby (6-0, 170), freshmen Levi Lucas (5-8, 145) and Logan Porter (5-11, 155).

As good as the Jets’ backfield is, the key to Union Local’s success lies in the trenches. The Jets’ offensive line is big and experienced.

“It starts up front for us,” Thompson said. “No matter the level of football, if you want a successful team, you need to have a good offensive line. We have good size and our guys have been working extremely hard in the weight room.”

The Jets’ line is led by junior Johnny Sabinski (6-1, 255), who returns at right guard. He earned All-Ohio in the shot put during the spring.

Senior Carson Causby (5-10, 209) is slated to hold down the left guard job, while junior Alex Beaver (5-9, 225) is slated to serve as the left tackle.

Several battles have been ongoing during camp. At center, junior Jake Toohey (5-9, 180), junior Evan White (5-9, 228) and sophomore Daniel Goodson (5-10, 184) have been competing for the job.

At right tackle, White and senior Tyler Graham (6-1, 284) have been battling there.

Senior Vin Roach (6-0, 225) and sophomore Mason Porter (5-10, 255) are also in the mix for significant action.

“We have some depth up front,” Thompson said. “We hope to be in a situation where we have a handful of kids who can plug in and play.”

Other offensive linemen candidates are senior Logan Cole (5-9, 260), junior Carson Lucas (5-6, 265), sophomores Bryler Vogt (5-8, 207), Steven Martin (5-9, 259), Austin Taylor (5-8, 250), Brice Pitner (5-10, 273), Nick Grob (5-9, 240), Caleb Cole (5-8, 150), freshmen Logan McGinnis (5-9, 180), Gaston Pann (5-7, 165), Timmy Neer (5-6, 170), Cole Biery (5-8, 229), Landon Deese (5-10, 272) and Brady Hunt (5-10, 256).

“We hope to be very balanced on offense,” Thompson said. “We’re going with ground and pound, but it’s a 2022 version of it. I’ve always tried to mold myself into doing what’s best for our team based on personnel. We have great running backs and potentially a very good offensive line, so we’ll be as creative as possible.”

Defensively, the Jets also boast a lot of experience. Included is the return of eight of their top 10 tacklers from a season ago.

All told, the Jets surrendered 29 points a game last season.

“Our defense is going to be our culture … elite effort,” Thompson said. “We want to fly to the ball and then tackle someone. We’ve not done the best job in the past of tackling. We can see our defense taking the next step, but we have to be able to take the fight to the opposing offenses. We have to get off the field on third down and not let our opponents dictate what we do.”

Sabinski and Carson Lucas are vying for the nose guard job, while Causby, Beaver, Roach and White are all expected to rotate at defensive tackle.

The Jets’ biggest question on defense is at linebacker. Higgenbotham returns there after leading UL in tackles a season ago. The likes of Toohey, Peyton Causby, Logan Hess and Goodwin are battling for the inside linebacker spots.

“We have some young guys who are aggressive and really it could be by committee at that spot,” Thompson said.

Price and McCrate are guys who serve as “security blankets” according to their coach.

Blake and Myers are back at safeties, while Blinco, Akers and Carpenter all saw quality time at corner last season.

The Jets dealt with a myriad of injuries last season, including Price’s aforementioned injury which occurred in the opener.

Thompson realizes injuries are simply unpredictable as to when or if they’ll occur, but he and his coaching staff have worked this offseason, especially in pre-season camp, to make sure younger players are getting as much work as possible to be as ready as possible.

“We learned a lot about injuries last year and anytime you have to deal with an injury, you just hope to be able to replace him as best you can,” Thompson said. “We have some guys who are going to be tough to replace if we lose them, but we’ve worked to prepare our younger guys because you simply never know.”

The Jets have 54 players on the roster, which is almost double from where they were just a few years ago.

Knowing there are three phases to the game, the Jets have spent time focusing on plenty of special teams, too.

Blake is expected to handle the punting and kicking duties, especially early in the season until another option develops.

“Carter can be one of the best punters in the Ohio Valley, but we need to continue to work to find a kicker,” Thompson said.

When Thompson talks about his special teams, he’s not just talking about the actual kicking duties. The Jets plan to be a little bit more aggressive in the return game.

“I am excited about out return game and really believe it could be special,” Thompson said. “We’ll use McCrate back there in various ways. I’ve been conservative in the return game in the past, but we’re really looking to open things up some.”

The Jets have three new opponents on the slate for 2022 and boast a schedule that includes six home games.

“We’re excited about the number of home games we have,” Thompson said. “It’s a good schedule that will challenge us, and I believe the first half will prepare us for the gauntlet we face in the second half of the season. Those early season games should make a difference for our guys.”

Gone from last season’s schedule are Pittsburgh Westinghouse, Magnolia and Monroe Central, which had been a staple as the Jets’ season opener for the last decade or so.

Along with Friday’s opener against the Columbus Crusaders, the Jets also have a road trip to Weir and a home encounter with Cambridge on the slate. Those games are back-to-back in Weeks six and seven, respectively.

“We struggled to find a Week one opponent, so we don’t know a whole lot about the Crusaders, but we’re just thankful to be playing rather than having an open week,” Thompson admitted.

Thompson is very excited about his coaching staff, which returns basically intact from a season ago.

Vaughn Butler, who has been coaching longer than Thompson has been alive, according to the head coach, is back as the defensive coordinator.

Former Bellaire standout Anthony Rocchio is the offensive coordinator.

The balance of the staff includes: Tyler Grant (linebackers), Ryan Kutcher (line), Joe Toohey (line), Ryan Carpenter (line), Josh Luyster (running backs, defensive backs) and Jimmy Hess (wide receivers, defensive backs).

“Our staff is really cohesive and I am very excited about these guys,” Thompson said.