You hear the call at every stadium in Major League Baseball. “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” the vendors shout.
That familiar call will have a new twist at Lorain County high school football games this fall: You may not be able to tell the coaches without a program.
A slew of head coaching changes filled the offseason and makes for an intriguing backdrop to the season that kicks off tonight. Some big names switched schools, while famous programs made headline-grabbing hires.
Many of the changes seemed impossible just a year ago.
Kevin Fell moves from Amherst to Elyria. Mark Solis moves from Twinsburg to Lorain. Two longtime defensive coordinators – Chad DiFranco and Mike Polevacik – start new adventures at Amherst and Elyria Catholic, respectively. And Ben Ohlemacher, the athletic director at Vermilion, takes on the extra duties of coaching the Sailors.
If that isn’t busy enough, Brookside makes two switches – one coming Wednesday.
Dick Kerschbaum ended a six-year hiatus to take over at Brookside. As athletic director he felt that was the best move for a program that has lacked stability.
Unfortunately, Kerschbaum had some medical issues in the last week and decided to step down. He will be replaced by Thom Lesiecki, who’s made stops at Lorain Catholic and New London.
Got all that straight?
A common thread among all of the coaches on the carousel is having fun and competing. That’s what has kept them in the game.
Another is the tangled web of the coaching fraternity.
Familiar faces in Week 1
“I knew I could take this job without moving,” Fell said of the switch from Amherst to Elyria. “I knew Jim Slagle (defensive coach) would come with me.
“It’s always good to have another guy who’s been in the same system so you don’t have to teach everybody everything. He’s been with me 20 of the past 23 or 24 years. He was a head coach at Lakewood when I was at Wapakoneta.
“Transition’s been smooth. The kids are responding to something new. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Fell has been around the block a time or two – he’s in his 33rd year as a head coach. What keeps him going? What has prevented the burnout you see cut other careers short?
“As long as I don’t look in the mirror, I don’t feel any different than I did when I was 35,” Fell said. “I never moved that fast in the first place so I can’t slow down any. Still like to work. I have no hobbies. Football’s my job, my hobby. If I don’t coach football, I’ve got nothing to do.”
Ironically, the first game for Fell as Pioneers coach is at Amherst, where his former defensive coordinator, Chad DiFranco, has taken over. DiFranco’s brother, Troy, is Midview’s basketball coach and his father – the late Bob DiFranco – once coached at North Ridgeville, as did Kerschbaum.
“I talk with Kevin all the time but, quite honestly, not about football or the fact we’re playing each other on opening night,” DiFranco said. “We went through weight training and the camp mode. We’re just trying to get better.”
DiFranco comes from a well-respected coaching tree, including his family. He’s played for and coached under a number of good ones, including present North Ridgeville and former Amherst coach Jeff Riesen, former Amherst coach Keith Grabowski and, of course, Fell the past four years at Amherst.
“I’m excited about the opportunity,” DiFranco said. “I’ve been with some pretty good coaches. I started playing for Bill Albright over at Midview. I assisted with Jason Ward at Columbia. Jeff Riesen, Keith Grabowski and Kevin Fell all had different styles. I’ve learned something from all of them.
“Jeff was very organized. Grabowski (now the offensive coordinator at Baldwin-Wallace) developed leaders on the team. I could see him one day being a successful college coach. Kevin was even-keeled and showed us we could be a two-platoon team. The funny thing is Amherst succeeded under each of them. I guess my personality is somewhere in between all three.”
Kerschbaum, who basically had to come back this year to fill a need at Brookside, hadn’t been a head coach since 2004 when he “retired” from Elyria. He has 29 years under his belt, including stints with North Ridgeville, Lakewood, Mentor and Elyria.
The job at Brookside has been a revolving door, and Kerschbaum figured he was the best choice to stabilize the situation. If you count Kerschbaum, Lesiecki will be the fifth coach in five years.
“We didn’t have a lot of choices,” Kerschbaum said earlier this month. “I felt bad for Keenan (Leichty, who was forced to give up the job due to personal reasons). Kind of a bad situation for him. I told (Brookside administrators) I’d do it but I didn’t want the title of interim coach. I’m not sure if this will be a one-year deal or 10.
“If I’m having fun, I’ll stay. Who knows?”
The fun couldn’t overcome the health concerns for a man who had heart troubles in the past.
“I’m not as young as I used to be,” Kerschbaum said Wednesday. “I’ve had some health issues.
“I really feel badly about the timing. It’s a tough situation, but Thom will take over. I thought I could do it. I really feel for the kids, but at least we have someone capable of taking over.”
Lesiecki thinks it will be a smooth transition because the staff is solid and he plans to use the same schemes Kerschbaum installed.
“The most important thing in this is family,” Lesiecki said. “Not only the family for the team but also Dick’s family. (The kids) are all pulling for him and want to win one for Dick on Friday.”
Like Kerschbaum, Ohlemacher didn’t expect to be a football coach when he became the athletic director at Vermilion. But Frank Horvath called it quits following last season and Ohlemacher began the search to replace him.
“I never thought when I came here that I’d be out here coaching, but after we had an extensive search a lot of people kept asking me if I might be interested,” he said. “You know, it’s been fun. I love it.”
Ohlemacher is from Sandusky and played for the Blue Streaks under Larry Cook, another legend. He later coached with Cook at Sandusky.
“I’m a young guy but pretty old school,” said Ohlemacher. “You’ve got to block down, kick out and put a face on people. We have to out-execute our opponent.”
It’s pretty much the same formula Ralph Mayer had success with at Vermilion. Mayer was the coach from 1983-97 before being promoted to AD in 1998, but he returned to the sidelines in 2002 and held both roles for a few years.
Ohlemacher’s biggest challenge is getting the Sailors out of the losing rut. Vermilion was 0-10 a year ago and 1-9 in 2009.
“We want our team to be hard-nosed and tough.” Ohlemacher said. “If nothing else, we want our opponent to know they have to play four quarters. And if they leave Vermilion with a victory, so be it but we want them to know they’ve been in a dogfight.”
A return, a big challenge
Solis returns to Lorain County soil to revive football in the county’s biggest school system. Lorain is in its second year of consolidation and won just two games last year.
“They want a winning football program,” said Solis. “I think the city wants one. People are itching. We’ve had a lot of people watching and some of the kids were saying, ‘We’ve never seen this many people here just to watch a practice.’
“I think there’s a buzz in town. I think the word’s out there about some of the things we’re doing positively. It’s a new era here. We’re the ninth-biggest school in the state.”
Solis begins his 13th year as a head coach. He led Elyria to its only postseason appearance in 2005 and quickly turned around Twinsburg’s fortunes. He’s never been one to mince words, and perhaps that’s the reason Twinsburg let him go following a playoff finish a year ago.
“I was just going to stay and teach at Twinsburg,” he said about learning his coaching contract would not be renewed. “I can’t say enough about the administration here. I didn’t want to just come to Lorain because I had to be a head coach. I was probably going to be an assistant for a couple guys on the East Side of Cleveland. At the end of the day, I kind of painted a picture of what I wanted and they didn’t say it was impossible.”
Solis’ wife, Julie, remains Twinsburg’s girls basketball coach. Her team won the state title a year ago.
“There’s talent here,” Solis said of Lorain. “We’ve got to get them disciplined. We’ve got to get them coached up.
“They have to learn to play together. They have to learn to trust each other. They have to learn to play physical. If we can do those things, we’ve got a chance to be a successful program hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Inherit the wins
It’s a completely different story for Polevacik at Elyria Catholic. He takes over from Ben Malbasa after a record-setting playoff run a year ago in a 10-2 season. Malbasa took the Benedictine job.
“Expectations are high because of the success of last year,” Polevacik said. “We want to be at that level year in and year out. I can’t tell you how excited I am. I love this place. I love what this place is about.”
Polevacik isn’t intimidated by the task at hand. His pedigree has him ready for the challenge.
“Not to be arrogant or cocky, but I may be the most unfazed first-year head coach ever,” he said. “(Ben) Malbasa let me do so much.
“He gave me such a big piece of the pie to work with. I’m not out of my comfort zone. He really trusted me and leaned on me. I’ve been a coordinator for years. I was at St. Ed’s. I coached in the state championship game, a Final Four game, big-time football. This is it for me. It’s what I live for. I loved working for Ben but I knew my shot would come. I’m sure happy it’s here.”
Elyria Catholic’s schedule is loaded with local rivals now that it has joined the West Shore Conference. Even the non-conference schedule brings goose bumps to Polevacik.
“I expect Week 1 (Clearview) and Week 3 with E-high (Elyria) to be packed,” he said. “Those are great matchups. Both those games last year were super-exciting and entertaining.
“(In the league) all the schools we play are bigger. Week in and week out, we’ve got to be ready. We’re playing bigger schools week in and week out and the only Catholic school we’ve got is the defending state champs (Bishop Hartley).”
There you have it. Get your programs early.
Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEW faces in six places
Coach 2011 school 2010 school
Kevin Fell Elyria Amherst
Mike Polevacik EC EC
Mark Solis Lorain Twinsburg
Thom Lesiecki Brookside West. Reserve
Chad DiFranco Amherst Amherst
Ben Ohlemacher Vermilion Vermilion
232-111-2 in 32 seasons
Delphos Jefferson (1978-87): 88-17-2, including state title in ’86 and state runner-up in ’85 and ’87.
Sidney (1988-89): 15-8
Lakewood (1990-2004): 88-58
Wapakoneta (2004-06): 16-16
Amherst (2007-10): 28-13
32-68 in 10 seasons
Lorain Catholic (1997-2002): 19-41
New London (2003-06): 13-27
92-37 in 13 seasons
Crestview (1998-2003): 40-11
Elyria (2004-06): 20-12
Twinsburg (2007-10): 32-14
Amherst, first time as head coach
Vermilion, first time as head coach
Elyria Catholic, first time as head coach
they said it
“As long as I don’t look in the mirror, I don’t feel any different than I did when I was 35. I never moved that fast in the first place so I can’t slow down any.”
Kevin Fell, Elyria coach
“There’s talent here. We’ve got to get them disciplined. We’ve got to get them coached up.
“They have to learn to play together. They have to learn to trust each other. They have to learn to play physical.”
Mark Solis, Lorain coach
“Not to be arrogant or cocky, but I may be the most unfazed first-year head coach ever. (Ben) Malbasa let me do so much.”
Elyria Catholic coach