Chiefs look for success behind senior leadership, experience
By CRAIG DUNN Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
LOGAN — To make a pointed observation about his 2015 Logan Chieftains, head coach Billy Burke called upon the words of a pretty darn good coach who knows a thing or two about football talent.
“I read a quote from Urban Meyer several years ago along the lines of ‘you can get by with winning about half of your games on talent,’ ” Burke says, and “ ‘with a little hard work, you’ll win a couple more games. But when you have great leadership, that’s when you can start talking about championships.’
“That’s where we are,” Burke continued. “I’m happy with our leadership. The expectation is a championship of some sort; whether that’s a league title (or) a good playoff run… you never know.”
Seeing as how many of them will be starting on one side of the ball and/or the other, what those seniors do will be vital if the Purple & White expect to contend for a Southeastern Ohio Athletic League crown and/or make a run at a post-season Division II playoff berth.
“The hardest part with a young man is to get him to become a vocal leader,” said Burke, entering his third season as head coach. “Lots of guys claim they are leaders by example. You don’t always know if they are setting the right example, but you sure take notice when a guy steps up and says something.
“I call leadership saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said and doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done,” he continued. “Our kids have done a great job setting a tone. They have high expectations of each other. I think our younger guys have fallen into place, so to say, of following the example that’s been established by our older guys.”
There are 56 players in grades 10 through 12 (19 seniors, 13 juniors and 24 sophomores) — up 25 percent from a year ago — and 31 freshmen.
“We’ve got good senior numbers, our junior class has picked up, and (we have) strong sophomore and freshman classes,” Burke stated. “Our numbers for the program are good and probably a reflection of our leadership as a team. If our senior leaders are doing the right thing, guys want to be a part of that and hopefully this turns out to be a special experience for those guys.”
It all comes back to those seniors — the “older guys” — and for good reason.
Among those “older guys” are quarterback Lane Little and fellow senior Isaiah Smith, who were a lethal combination in the passing game last fall.
While it seems like Little has been around forever, he’s actually only started 10 games behind center his first two seasons on the varsity.
Little was injured in the first game of his sophomore season at Lancaster and missed the remainder of the season. Last year, he was suspended for the final regular-season game at Warren after being ejected from the week-nine game against Gallia Academy following a personal-foul penalty.
He still put up some great numbers, completing 55 percent (107-of-195) of his passes for 1,438 yards, 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He threw a combined eight TD aerials in season-opening losses to Lancaster (43-42 in double-overtime) and Teays Valley (44-40), passing for 583 yards in so doing.
Smith — who, like Little, is expected to do a little bit of everything this season for the Chiefs — was the team’s second-leading receiver (37 receptions for 544 yards and a team-high seven TDs) behind only the graduated Chance Cox (41-513-5).
And another of those “older guys,” three-year letterman Bryce McBride, looks to become just the sixth four-year letterman in the history of Logan Chieftain football and the first since Bob “Big Daddy” Stewart in 1964.
McBride’s outstanding 2014 season — a team-best 782 rushing yards on just 91 carries (8.6 yards per carry) and 10 TDs — was cut short early in that week-nine game against Gallipolis when he suffered an ACL injury that sidelined him from all athletics for the remainder of the school year.
In Logan’s final scrimmage last Friday night against Sheridan, he broke one of his typical long touchdown runs, a vintage a 68-yard scoring jaunt after cutting an inside handoff down the left side.
On Saturday, Little, McBride and Smith were voted full-time team captains by their teammates.
“Each year the dynamic of the team is different and usually it’s a reflection of the dynamic of the seniors,” Burke pointed out. “I didn’t know that group two years ago (Burke’s first year as head coach) as well as I know this group.”
This group, as he found out on the team’s annual whitewater rafting trip in West Virginia last spring, has a sense of togetherness.
“Those guys really enjoyed each other’s company (on the trip) and it’s made coming to practice every single day a lot easier… and, quite frankly, pretty fun for me, too,” Burke noted. “I wouldn’t describe myself as easing up, but at the same time I think I’m a little more relaxed because I trust this group to have fun and I know their fun is not sacrificing the work that needs to be done.
“They know what the fine line is,” he continued, “and I have to remember too, this is a game out here and it’s supposed to be fun. The hard work’s not always fun, but if you’re going through it with your buddies, you can get through a lot if you are with people you want to be with. We go through a lot of tough times together and that’s what develops those strong bonds.”
Winning certainly makes the experience much more enjoyable. The Chiefs broke even (5-5) last fall, finishing second in the SEOAL, and came oh-so-close to recording a winning record and making the post-season playoffs.
The aforementioned loss to Lancaster marked the first time in school history the Chiefs lost a game in which they scored at least 35 points (let alone 40), and Teays Valley the very next week marked the second.
Making just two or three additional defensive stops in those first two games might have made the difference between finishing 5-5 and possibly 7-3 or even 8-2.
The Chiefs graduated 14 lettermen, including full-time starters Cox (223 rushing yards, 58 points scored, two interceptions and 56 total tackles), Nathan Cocks (10 pass receptions), Casey Phillips (11 receptions, 68 total tackles), Adam Baker, Keith Martin, Brandon Arnett (72 total tackles, including seven for loss) and Dean Jordan (a team-high 103 total tackles – 35 solo — and 481 rushing yards).
A dozen of Logan’s 13 returning lettermen are seniors: Smith, Little, Tommy Hayden and Josh Rardain are all two-year lettermen while Zach Buckley, Brendan Karns, Eddie Lanning, Domonic Micochero, Brandon Skinner, Colton Stilwell and Corey Wilson all have one.
Two-way junior lineman Kory Henthorne was the only sophomore who lettered in 2014.
The Chiefs are currently without the services of Wilson, who rushed for 161 yards and a 54-yard touchdown run in a reserve role last fall.
“Corey Wilson came down with a shoulder injury that looks like it could put him out for a little bit of time,” Burke noted. “That’s an adjustment we’ll have to make.”
Wilson’s absence is a key loss for a team that’s a bit thin when it comes to running backs and with McBride coming off an injury
“We wish we were a little deeper at running back, but that’s not to say we don’t have guys who can’t do the job,” Burke pointed out, “especially with the offensive line they have in front of them.”
Logan will likely be strong in the trenches. Henthorne is the lone junior on a veteran, senior-dominated offensive line.
“We have good size and good intelligence on the offensive line,” Burke said. “If that holds true, it will be a lot easier on everybody else. We probably have three quality backups (behind the starters), so depth-wise we feel pretty good.”
There have been changes among the coaching staff. Brian Breining is the new offensive coordinator and Burke takes over the defense, and there is more familiarity between the head coach and his assistants.
“With the exception of Greg Thrapp (longtime assistant Nick Maniskas is sidelined due to shoulder surgery), this is a coaching staff that has worked together” for several years, Burke noted. “This is my third year with them. I have expectations of how I want things to be done, but at the same time I want coaches to make decisions. Now that they’ve worked with me longer, the decisions we make can jell and mesh together.”
One of the decisions made as a coaching staff was to incorporate the freshmen into the varsity program. At the recent football-photo day, for example, nearly all of the varsity coaches — including Burke — were in the photo with them.
“We did not want to exclude them and have them stand around while we’re coaching the varsity kids and/or throw them to the wolves because we’re so involved with the varsity,” Burke revealed. “We’ve divided things up and found a real balance to give those freshmen a great quality coaching experience. That will make them better in the long run and we can still do what we need to do to coach the varsity program.
“I want those kids to feel a part of the varsity program,” he added. “We want to encourage more kids to stay with it who might not necessarily stay with it. We’re not matching them up and making them tackle seniors (in practice), but they can line up and set up so we can see a defense and things like that. They’ve done a fabulous job.”
Some of them will dress on Friday nights as what Burke terms “redshirt freshmen.”
“We have some freshmen who are capable of playing JV football and they should be rewarded,” Burke pointed out. They are “guys we think can play some JV from week to week. We’re going to try to keep our dress list on Friday nights to around 60 (players), give or take a couple, so that’s about seven or so red-shirt freshmen who will dress and get the opportunity to be a part of it.
“I like the idea of getting some (freshman) class representatives who gain some of that valuable Friday night experience so, as they get older, they can sort of lead some of their peers and not be awe-struck by the circumstances because they’ve already been there,” he added. “If there are freshmen out there who are good enough to play varsity football, then they’re going to play varsity football (while knowing) there’s some physical maturity that still has to take place.”
With SEOAL membership being just a shadow of what it once was — only Logan, Gallia Academy, Warren and defending champion Jackson comprise the league this fall, and Gallipolis leaves at the end of the current school year — non-conference travel is fast becoming the name of the game.
While the Chiefs won’t have to deal with the nearly 800 round-trip miles the 2014 team made in playing six road games, the second half of the season will see the Purple & White make a first-ever trip to Shadyside — in the far-eastern portion of the state (Belmont County) on the Ohio River — as well as to Columbus to take on perennial state power DeSales.
Six Logan foes (Teays Valley in Division 2, Athens, Jackson and DeSales in D3, Nelsonville-York in D6 and Shadyside in D7) made the playoffs last fall.
“It would be different if we weren’t used to the travel, but we’re accustomed to doing that,” Burke noted. “We are a senior-dominated team and we can handle those road trips in a different environment. A lot of it is going to fall on the shoulders of those seniors. It’s absolutely a business trip, and we’ll treat it as such. It’s up to them to establish that environment.
“I like the idea of getting the opportunity to go different places throughout the state,” he added. “You get to experience what football is like in those regions, and we get to take our act on the road.”
Besides, if the Chiefs make the playoffs for the first time since 2009, they could potentially travel as far northeast as Youngstown in the Region 5 sector. They might as well make the best of it and get a taste of it.
“I told the kids I love winning league championships, and that’s super-important, but at the same time we sort of advertise ourselves a little bit (when playing on the road) if we get an opportunity to play in the playoffs,” Burke said. “That’s what also playing on the road is like and people get to find out a little about Logan football.”
The Chiefs certainly get a chance to find something out about themselves… and, once again, it falls back upon the shoulders of those seniors.
“Not only are they focused, but I think they all generally like each other,” Burke revealed. “The other day I was in Dick’s Sporting Goods (in Lancaster) and I saw two seniors who had five sophomores with them… and I know the only way those sophomores got there was because they rode with the seniors. That kind of speaks volumes about this group. Everybody gets along.
“Therefore, if everybody gets along and likes each other, we’ll probably compete for each other as much as having that individual desire to win,” he added. “The feeling that ‘I don’t want to let down my buddy, a guy who I know is working hard and I respect his hard work. I’ll play a little harder for him, too.’ “
The Logan Daily News continues its comprehensive preview of Logan Chieftain football on Wednesday with a look at the players who will make up the offense, defense and special teams. The season debut of “Chieftain Game Night Countdown,” a weekly preview section, follows on Thursday.