Matsakis is making progress at Defiance

WHEELING – He arrived on the Defiance College campus Aug. 7 of last year. A month later Manny Matsakis was leading the Yellow Jackets’ football team in its first game of the season.

Suffice to say, the Shadyside native had to hit the ground running at a school that enjoyed only one winning season in the last 12. To no one’s surprise, Defiance encountered a rough campaign, going 1-9.

It was the ultimate stacked deck against success.

A year later, thanks to the passionate efforts of Matsakis, much has changed with the longtime grid punching bag.

Defiance begins official football practice this week. Optimism is steadily creeping into the Yellow Jacket program.

Matsakis doesn’t shy away from major rebuilding projects. Rather, he embraces them.

“Last year we had 64 players. Now we will have 105,” Matsakis said. “We will still be young as we only have seven seniors. About 80 percent of our roster will be newcomers. But that is not a bad thing. It will enable us to establish a new culture.”

While the Yellow Jackets garnered just a single win in 2018, the squad did exhibit steady progress. After losing its first eight games, Defiance captured its initial win by trouncing Earlham, 28-10. Moreover, the Yellow Jackets were competitive in four other contests with the outcomes decided in the fourth quarter.

“We improved as we went along. That was our plan. With the late start we got, we knew wins would be hard to come by,” Matsakis said. “But we got better every game. But we just got worn down due to a lack of bodies.

“It was an interesting first season,” he added. “This is a great place with a great opportunity to turn around a program.”

A year ago, Matsakis had no time to recruit. He made the most of opportunity this time around.

“We recruited all across the country. We now have players from 17 states on our roster,” Matsakis said. “My staff did a tremendous job recruiting, especially Chris Shank. He is the son of Muskingum University Athletic Director Larry Shank (and former West Liberty head football coach).

“I also hired a new staff. I retained only one assistant,” he continued “We also now have our own football office complex. Last year we had very little space for our program. Now we have our own building with 10 or 12 rooms and a war room. The support from the administration has been tremendous.”

While significant improvement has already been realized in just one year’s time, Matsakis knows his Defiance program is still a workin- progress.

“We are looking to become two-deep on defense. A lack of depth really hurt us last year on that side of the ball. Also, we have added much more speed to our offense,” he added. “We are still not where we want to be, but give us another year and we will be selling this stadium out.

“We are located in a great spot. We are in football country and Defiance is the only college in a five-county area,” he added. “We have great alumni support. The fundraising has skyrocketed since last year. We are going to be good.”

Matsakis has put in stints at the University of Wyoming, Emporia State University, Kansas State University and Hofstra University. At every step of the way, Matsakis has been cast with a program down on its luck.

Kansas State was the ultimate in grid reconstruction efforts. The Wildcats earned the dubious distinction of being the worst D-I football program in the nation.

Bill Snyder took the K-State reins, and — with the help of Matsakis as his special teams coordinator and tight ends coach — turned the Wildcats into a formidable Big 8 (now Big 12) force.

Matsakis then landed his first head coaching job at Emporia State. His four-year stay saw the Hornets go from mediocre to one of the best D-II programs in the nation. Former Buckeye Local great Chet Pobolish was one of Emporia’s key figures.

His Emporia State reclamation work earned him the offensive coordinator’s job at Wyoming. In one year, he elevated the worst offense in the Mountain West to the top-rated one.

Matsakis then hooked on at Texas Tech with two offensive gurus. Mike Leach — the Godfather of the Air Raid offense — was the Red Raiders head coach while current WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen was offensive coordinator.

Defiance kicks off its 2019 season Sept. 6 at Albion (Mich.)

BUBBA’S BITS

RISING WHEELING Park senior all-stater Alex Vargo recently attended the NCAA College Basketball Academy from July 25-28. The academy was held on the campus of the University of Illinois. It consisted of drills, games, and life skills classroom sessions. Fellow all-stater Kaden Metheny from University attended the same academy, as well. Vargo is coming off a junior season where he averaged 19.2 ppg and 9.2 rpg. He holds scholarship offers from Division I schools Oakland (MI) and VMI. MEC power Fairmont State has also offered a scholarship.

BO MCCONNAUGHY is as good a baseball man as you will find. Bo recently announced his retirement as Wheeling Central’s baseball boss. Bo came out of retirement to help his alma mater when it was in need of a head baseball coach three years ago. Just like he did at West Liberty for 30 years, Bo put a winner on the field. We wish him well in his coaching retirement.

IT’S GREAT to see George Vargo returning as the Weirton Madonna boys’ basketball coach. He has had to overcome some severe health issues. Vargo is one of the best coaches in the business and one of the nicest guys, as well.

JOE NIEKRO was inducted last week into the Houston Astros Hall of Fame. The Bridgeport High grad compiled a 144-116 record with the Astros. Niekro pitched for seven MLB teams, amassing 221 career wins. He and brother Phil teamed for 539 mound victories, the most ever for a brother tandem in MLB history. He remains the winningest pitcher in Astros’ history.

THIS PAST week was one filled with many trips to various football media day missions. One of my treks was to Beallsville. The Blue Devils are small in grid numbers (15) but boast great facilities. The Delmas Moore Field House christened last fall is a state-of-the-art facility. Now the school has added a spacious and much-needed press box along with new seating. Two years ago, a large video scoreboard was installed. The Blue Devil Nation is as passionate as there is.

GARY WATT has been named the new OVAC soccer commissioner. He recently stepped down as St. Clairsville head boys’ soccer coach.

FORMER SHADYSIDE High grid standout Tom Keane was named assistant grid coach at Alderson Broaddus University this past spring. He spent last season at UMass. Now his wife, Katrice, has been named head swimming coach at Alderson Broaddus. She swam collegiately at Alabama.

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