Kerns Back at Home Coaching Buckeye Trail
By RICK THORP
OLD WASHINGTON — Sitting at his desk inside the Buckeye Trail coaches’ office at the Baker Activity Complex, Donnie Kerns couldn’t help but smile.
A 2000 graduate of the Guernsey County school, Kerns has a vested interest in the success of the program. He played there under Coach Bill Starr, and he’s coached there for most of the last decade sans stints at Meadowbrook and Barnesville.
”I’ve always wanted to be a head coach,” he said. ”And I’ve always had the dream of being the Buckeye Trail head coach.”
When Bill Hartmeyer stepped away as Warriors coach following a two-season tenure, it was a no-brainer for Kerns to put in for the job. He immediately polished up his cover letter and resume and had it ready for district brass to see.
Once hired, which was early in the year, Kerns hit the ground running, quickly implementing a rigorous offseason conditioning program he believes was somewhat lacking in recent seasons.
”I’m not going to say the transition has been difficult, but we did kind of want to change the mindset,” Kerns said. ”For as long as I’ve been here it hasn’t been bad, but the weight program wasn’t a priority for the kids.”
That’s improved, Kerns said proudly.
”We’ve kind of changed that,” he said. ”We said ‘you need to be here.’ We’ve kind of got the parents on board … ‘make sure your kids are here.’ And all summer we’ve had about 40 or so kids here.”
That’s about 95 percent of the team.
”They’ve put in a lot of work this summer,” Kerns said.
Jeff Beros, who also serves as Trail’s ultra-successful volleyball coach, oversaw the effort.
”It’s been great,” Kerns said. ”I can honestly say it’s been the best in all the years I’ve been coaching … everywhere I’ve been. This is the best group of kids I’ve had, as far as dedication.”
Kerns has reciprocated the effort he’s received from his players, spending all summer trying to put a plan in place to help rebuild a program that won three games last season. Seven of the Warriors’ losses came by 10 points or less. Kerns hopes the extra conditioning will be the factor that helps get over the hump. That, along with a change in philosophy.
”I did want to, I guess, put my own stamp in the program,” he said.
The first thing Kerns wanted to do was get away from the wing-T and move to a more traditional offense.
”We’re going to run a lot of formations at you and we’re going to get our athletes in space,” he said.
Kerns believes Buckeye Trail does, and has had plenty of athletes. Now it’s time to showcase their talents and abilities.
”That’s the one thing about Buckeye Trail, we’ve always had athletes. We were just never really strong or in great shape. Those are two things we’re going to do.”
Of the 40 or so players on the roster, 13 are seniors. Then there’s a freshman group Kerns and staff are raving about.
”The excitement level has been great,” he said. ”The community is fired up.”
Another reason this campaign is special for the Warriors, is it’s their last in the Pioneer Valley Conference (PVC). They move to the Inter-Valley Conference in 2017.
”We’re really going to miss it,” Kerns said, noting the school’s been able to retain PVC foe Caldwell on its schedule.
”We want to go out with a bang, but we know the conference is going to be pretty strong again. Our schedule as a whole is going to be really good. Fort Frye, Caldwell and Monroe Central. You can never count out (Monroe Central) Coach (Jay) Circosta.
”We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Warriors open the season Friday night at home against Ridgewood. The Generals replace Cameron but there are no other changes to the schedule.
”I would put our first five games up against anyone around here in (Ohio) Division 7,” Kerns said. ”Our first five games are as tough as you’re going to get.”
Trail visits Caldwell, Frontier and Barnesville in Weeks 2-4, respectively, before returning home for three straight against Meadowbrook, Shenandoah and Fort Frye. The campaign concludes with a non-conference road test at West Muskingum, a home date vs. River and a road game at Monroe Central.
”I guess they can’t accuse us of ducking anyone,” Kerns said.
In the Warriors’ slim loss to the Seminoles to end last season, Troy Pontius filled the role at quarterback after watching Levi Gadd do so for most of the season.
Pontius, a 5-foot-9, 174-pound senior, will likely get the start Friday, and Kerns is eager to see what he can do with a full season under center.
”He makes our offense go,” Kerns said. ”He does what I like to coach.
”He’s slippery and he’s hard to get a hold of. He runs the offense well. He does a lot of nice things. When the lights come on on Friday nights, he’s going to make plays.”
Kerns praised Pontius as a talented all-around athlete who has a penchant for making those around him better.
”During my Barnesville days, Nick Saffield always had an athlete at quarterback,” Kerns recalled. ”I just kind of like having that kid that can pull the ball, run with the ball and be comfortable.”
Pontius will be backed up by senior T.J. Grafton (5-9, 161) and freshmen Zach Grafton (5-10, 148) and Trey McGilton (5-7 129).
Pontius isn’t the only backfield weapon the Warriors hope to unleash. Kerns is also high on junior Austin Snodgrass (5-8, 164).
”He’s our bell cow,” Kerns said. ”He’s a kid that will get the ball 15 to 20 times a game. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year.
”Then we have (senior) Carter Streiff (5-8, 179). He had a big year his sophomore year, but the injury bug bit him last year.
”When these kids were sophomores and freshmen, we started them in our wing-T set as running backs and wingbacks. Now we’ve kind of put one of those at quarterback, one at H-back and one at tailback.”
Kerns is also looking for contributions in the backfield from juniors Matt Stimpert (5-8, 164) and Chandler Hixon (6-0, 201).
”Matt got hit by the injury bug last year and Chandler is a hard-nosed kid who played a lot of defense for us last year and runs really hard,” Kerns said.
Others who could provide help in the running game include juniors Chase Stillion (5-10, 166), Austin Grey (5-8, 174) and Vincent Poland (5-9, 146), sophomores Logan McVicker (5-7, 141), Blaze Roe (5-5, 169) and Seth Hughes (5-8, 156), and freshman Jack Parry (5-11, 179).
Stillion will mostly see time at receiver as will Streiff. Others in the mix include seniors Gerrad Williams (5-11, 147) and Kiel Berger (5-3, 130), sophomore Tyler King (6-1, 164) and Grafton.
Seniors Austin Scott (5-10, 153) and Zach Matthews (5-6, 167) will also be looking for playing time at receiver, along with freshman Tyler Croft.
Tight end hopefuls include junior Geno CizMadia (6-0, 193), sophomores Brandon Rominger (6-0, 181) and Josh St. Clair (5-10, 176), and freshman Josh Greene (6-0, 189).
”Receiver is another position I’m really high on,” Kerns said.
The offensive line returns three starters, along with a player who started at tight end two years ago.
Junior Kirkland Davis (6-0, 221) returns to anchor the unit at center. He’s joined by senior Kyle Wilson (5-10, 271) at a guard spot and senior Jacob Sudduth (6-0, 293) at a tackle. Senior Bryson Ogden (6-0, 186) will man the other guard position.
”That other tackle spot is open,” Kerns said. ”Battling there are sophomores Joey Bridgeman (5-11, 306) and Xavier Herman (5-10, 223).
”Then we have a nice freshman in Carson Paden (6-0, 214). That freshman class will be something special.”
Adding depth to the unit will be freshmen Gage Reed (6-2, 257) and Dylan Berry (6-2, 257), along with seniors Parker Simonson (5-10, 201), Tommy O’Meara (5-11, 323) and Kody Lowery (5-10, 263).
Junior Kevin Rossiter (5-10, 267) could also see time in the trenches.
Defensively Kerns said he’ll be flexible in his schemes, depending on what the opposition presents each week
In any case, the line looks solid with the return of CizMadia, who registered 11 sacks last year, Wilson, and Ogden. Hixon is a candidate there, too, along with Rominger, St. Clair, Greene, Bridgeman, Rossiter, Paden, Simonson, O’Meara, Lowery, Herman, Reed and Berry.
”Speed along the line is critical,” Kerns said. ”So we made up the philosophy that if you can’t play fast you’re not going to play for us. You don’t have to be fast, but you have to play fast.”
Davis played along the front last fall, but will help head the linebackers this season. He’ll be joined there by T.J. Grafton. Other candidates there are Stimpert, Berger, King, Matthews, McVicker, Roe, Parry and Poland.
Pontius and Stillion will be counted on at corner, with Williams coming in to give them a blow. Zach Grafton and Hickman could also see time there, along with Scott and Croft.
Streiff will man a safety position. McGilton, Snodgrass and Grey will also be vying for time.
Kerns is assisted by Kevin Spiker (offensive coordinator), Gene CizMadia (defensive coordinator), Daryl Davis, Mike Neuhart, Dave Deal, Terry Parry, Rick Stillion and Brian Jackson.
”We’re excited about the year,” Kerns said.