Union Local using 2019 as motivation
MORRISTOWN — It’s not often that an athletic team that went winless the year prior gets a t-shirt or any type of memento to formally recognize that season.
Union Local suffered through one of the toughest seasons in school history last season, dropping all 10 games, including eight setbacks that were by 21 points or more.
Still, however, head coach Bernie Thompson made his way to an area clothing store and ordered each member of his team a t-shirt that read, ‘0-10’ on the front. But, it wasn’t meant to be any type of reward.
“We made (2019) a rallying cry during the offseason,” Thompson said. “We had signs about 0-10 plastered all over our weight room, got the t-shirts and made sure our guys remembered it. As much as I don’t like to or want to think about it, we took the stance that the guys need to learn from it. We embraced it.”
Thompson realizes that some people have looked at him funny when he came up with the idea for the t-shirts.
“I know people thought I was weird, but it served as a motivational tool for our kids,” Thompson said.
With the season opener against Monroe Central just a few days away, Thompson believes his team will bounce back.
“We had the best off-season program that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” the third-year mentor said. “We had a great offseason in the weight room and we’ve learned from the things that happened to us last year.”
The work in the weightroom can be recognized by any Jets’ fan who buys a program or looks at the official roster. A year ago, Union Local had just two players who weighed in at better than 200 pounds. Currently, the Jets have 14 players at the 200-pound mark or better.
“We knew one of the ways we had to fix what happened (in 2019) was by getting bigger, faster and stronger,” Thompson relayed. “We were just overmatched physically in several games last season because we were simply a lot smaller. Injuries took a toll on us and we had young guys who just weren’t ready to play at the varsity level yet.”
As he prepares for this season, the Jets are still youthful, but they’re certainly more experienced. And they have more depth, too. It’s not often that an 0-10 team sees an increase in numbers. There are currently 54 players on the UL roster, which is nearly 20-player increase.
Thompson is especially pleased with the numbers and the off-season program when you consider the fact that spring sports didn’t occur and weight room facilities were closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s an adversity that’s affected everyone, but we stressed to the kids that we had to continue to go about our business the right way,” Thompson said. “We obviously didn’t break any rules, but we had accountability group messages, seniors did a great job of leading us, kids did workouts the best they could at home, we had ZOOM meetings, group texts and calls. We just wanted to make sure our guys stayed connected. I honestly believe (COVID-19) has made us closer now because we don’t take a thing for granted. We, like everyone else, had something taken away from us for three months and we used that urgency these kids had because of that to our advantage.”
Union Local plans to implement as balanced of an offense as possible. Thompson and offensive coordinator Anthony Rocchio plan to utilize the myriad of weapons they have quite often.
“I am excited for our offense,” Thompson said. “We’ve made some adjustments in terms of our play calling approach and our personnel. We have weapons and athletes all over the field, so we’re excited to get those guys the ball.”
The quarterback position was one that was in a state of flux most of last season because of injuries. Union Local had four players throw at least 10 passes.
Thompson expects to turn the offense over to sophomore Carter Blake (6-1, 165). He completed 48-of-113 passes for 580 yards and 6 touchdowns last season.
He’s been pushed in camp by junior Kade Kiser (6-0, 200). Freshman Levi James (5-7, 140) is the other quarterback listed.
“Carter got his feet wet last year, and now he understands things much better,” Thompson said. “The experience he gained is so vital to his growth. He’s an athlete and we’re going to allow him some freedom.”
Union Local is very high on its stable of running backs. Understandably so when you consider sophomore Jaksan Price (5-10, 215) returns after a rookie campaign in which he rushed 147 times for 627 yards and 3 touchdowns.
“Jaksan was really one of our few bright spots last year,” Thompson offered. “He’s a big, physical runner. We’re comfortable with the ball in his hands.”
Sophomore Hayden McCrate, who transferred from Barnesville, is expected to play a big role for the Jets, too. He can line up at fullback or shift to the tailback, especially since he’s one of the fastest players on the team.
Senior Bryan Neidert (5-11, 165) is another speedy back, who will see time this season. Seniors Brady Crum (5-9, 160), Cody McRobie (6-0, 190), Nick Gozdan (6-3, 210), Xavier Vanhorn (6-1, 185)juniors Gavin Pouerie (5-5, 140), Ayden Smolira (6-0, 170), sophomore Brody Meyers (5-9, 160), freshmen Isaac Degenova (5-9, 140) and Matt Keller (5-5, 150) supply depth.
One of the Jets’ deepest positions is at wide receiver where no fewer than 12 players are listed on the roster.
Junior Caleb McWhorter (5-7, 160) is the leading returning wide out. He hauled in 26 passes for 322 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. Senior Carter Loase (6-0, 140) is another speedster who Thompson believes can stretch the field.
Sophomore Tre Rex (6-3, 155) is a rangy target that Thompson plans to employee frequently in the passing game. Versatile junior Cayden Williams (5-11, 180) is a transfer from Bridgeport where he had an impressive campaign as a running back. He’ll shift to the outside for the Jets.
Other receivers working into the mix are senior K.J. Keener (5-11, 160), junior Sawyer Moore (5-9, 160), sophomore Ethan Blinko (5-7, 150), sophomores Clay Aikers (5-7, 130), Dominik Burghy (5-7, 150), freshmen Trenton Heath (5-9, 130), Drake Ault (5-6, 130), Gannon Kerns (5-9, 170), Coltyn Carpenter (5-5, 115), Jake Toohey (5-9, 170) and Josh Harris (5-5, 130)
Union Local is also fond of its tight end groups. Junior Dakota Hess (5-11, 200), who saw time at a bevy of offensive positions last season before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury, will get the first call at end.
He’s backed up by sophomores Dylan Higgenbotham (6-2, 175), Preston Curry (6-2, 185) and Coy Fillapovich (5-7, 160).
“I think a big thing for our offense is going to be maturity,” Thompson said. “We have guys, who now for the first time, understand their role and what we’re asking them to do. I think there were a lot of times last year where they were trying to do too much because they were so young.”
As is the case with most high school offenses, line play will be crucial for the Jets. It was an issue last season, but the aforementioned growth in terms of height and physicality should prove to be beneficial.
“We struggled up front last year,” Thompson said. “I think we’re using a better formula up front and we have more depth.”
Senior David Burghy (6-0, 200) will anchor the line at center, while senior Claude Romshak (5-10, 175) is penciled in at a tackle spot. The other tackle is expected to be sophomore Carson Causby (5-10, 195).
A battle has transpired during August for the guard spots. Vying for those jobs were junior Coleman Peck (5-9, 210), sophomore Brock Kinney (6-1, 375), sophomore Tre Underwood (5-8, 195) and freshman Johnny Sabinski (6-0, 235).
Other linemen pushing for action and providing depth are seniors Austin McAfee (5-10, 212), David Coe (6-0, 200), Jonathan Porter (5-10, 175), juniors Josh Neidert (5-10, 160), Evan Edwards (5-9, 190), sophomores Tyler Graham (6-0, 250), Tre Underwood (5-8, 195), Logan Cole (5-9, 260), freshmen Bradley Stratton (6-1, 220), Evan White (5-8, 200), Alex Beaver (5-9, 195), Carson Lucas (5-6, 250) and Aidan Lucas (5-8, 170). Freshman Cole Bell is also a lineman on the roster, but he’s listed on injured reserve.
“Overall, offensively, we need to sustain drives,” Thompson said. “We struggled to get first downs last year and it really killed our defense. We want to be creative to get our best players the ball, but we don’t want to overthink things either, so we’re trying to find that balance.”
The Jets should have strength in the kicking game with senior Parker Skedel (5-9, 150 returning. Hess will serve as the punter.
“I am excited about our special teams because we have guys not starting on offense or defense who could contribute on special teams,” Thompson said. “It’s exciting to see the young guys wanting to make an impact.”
Defensively, Thompson knows his team must improve. The Jets yielded 40.1 points a game last season.
“I am excited about our defense and I think it will be night-and-day different from last year,” Thompson said. “We’re a year older and I think we’ll be in the right spots a lot more this year. We’ll still work out of our 4-4.”
The Jets defensive strength is at linebacker where Hess leads the way. Higgenbothan, Smolira and Crum will also see time there.
Up front, Burghy and McRobie are ticketed to start at defensive tackle. Price, Curry, Romshak and McCrate will all see time at defensive end.
In the secondary, Loase will roam at free safety, while Moore is set to play strong safety. The corners are both returning starters in Neidhart and McWhorter.
Though the Jets are still youthful in spots, Thompson doesn’t want to hear any excuses about age or experience.
“We were through last season for a reason and we know more about ourselves, and that includes me,” Thompson said. “We’re playing to win games. It’s definitely about the scoreboard this year. Kids called upon to play are expected to play at a high level. We feel as if we have the personnel to win some games, but we have to continue to do the right things. If you consistently work hard, things are bound to go your way.”
Union Local’s schedule looks slightly different with Meadowbrook and Cambridge coming off the slate. They were replaced by a lengthy road trip to Ashtabula to take on St. John St. Paul and they visit Magnolia the following week.
“I am excited about the schedule,” Thompson said. “It’s a little bit different and we’re ready for the change. We play three Saturday games, which is a bit unique for us. This schedule fits us much better.”
The Jets coaching staff returns basically intact. Along with Rocchio, Vaughn Butler is the defensive coordinator, while Ryan Kutcher, Joe Toohey, Tyler Grant, Jimmy Hess and Josh Luyster are also on the varsity staff.
The junior high staff includes Eric Kerns, Tony Gregor, Travis James, Ryan Carpenter, Doug Stephens and Braden Lucas.