By: Timothy Kays
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
The days are getting shorter, and the nights are growing longer and colder. The leaves on the trees are exploding in a dazzling palate of colors, then falling earthward to cast those colors upon a chill northwest wind. It is autumn in Northwest Ohio, and with that comes the annual Friday night festivities we have come to know and love as local high school football games. It is tradition, one held as fiercely and fondly as the local high school colors that are flown. There are other games played though, just not under the lights of Friday nights. There are the Junior Varsity games, and in some locales, the Freshman and Junior High games. Then there are the fifth and sixth grade games on Saturday mornings. Those are the contests about which few know. To those who are unaware of those games and the teams competing in those games, this is your wakeup call.
Four villages in our Northwest Ohio area have these teams…Edon, Hilltop, Montpelier and Wauseon. Edon, Hilltop, and Montpelier have aligned to become the three members of a new league, one for which, as of yet, there is no official name. Troy Roth of Montpelier is acting as commissioner of this new league.
This can be referred to easily as an ‘instructional league’ where elementary school kids get their first taste of the football experience. The playbooks are very basic, but one thing is an absolute fact. Like their elder brothers who get all the glamour under the Friday night lights, these kids are also putting every fiber of their being into the contest. They are learning the team concept of the game. They are pushing themselves to physical levels that they never knew that they ever had, and doing it just as fast as their still growing legs will carry them. Seating at the fifth and sixth grade games is hardly at a premium. It is primarily family and a few friends in the stands cheering on these young gridders. Effort, exertion and dedication, the same qualities that the Varsity must possess, these pint-sized players are putting on display…just without the recognition.
Hopefully, this will become an injustice that is soon relegated to the dustbin of history.
The Edon Bombers fifth and sixth grade team takes the field under the tutelage of Head Coach John Gallehue. This is his second year with the team, and his first year at the helm. “I took over for Jeff Shaffter, who started the program back in 2003,” he said. “We have had great years, losing in the championship game four years ago in triple overtime. We have had some really lean years. The first year we did not win a game and did not score a single point. Overall, we would be really close to even. The first three years were tough as we were playing in the Bryan/Napoleon league, and won four games total in three years.” The Bombers went undefeated this year. As Coach Gallehue said, “We had 25 kids come out, and had a pretty successful season. We went 3-0, only playing three games because we got into the new league this year. The GMC schools wanted to start their own league, so Hilltop, Montpelier, and Edon decided to form our own little league to keep the learning process going.” Looking into the future of the league and the program, he said, “We would like to add another team or two if possible. Next year, we will play a six week / four game schedule, being as we only have three teams as of now.”
Dr. Jamison Grime is on his first tour of duty as the Head Coach of the Montpelier Locomotives fifth and sixth grade team. Montpelier Athletic Director, Joe Brigle, stepped in as an assistant. “I helped whenever I could,” he said. In discussing the history of the program, Joe said, “I was the head coach, and we started back in 2004. The intent of the program was to teach the kids the fundamentals of the game of football. Put the pads on; learn the formations; where to line up in a huddle…just basic stuff that fifth and sixth grade kids should learn. We didn’t that first season, because we didn’t play a game. We had six to eight weeks of practice. They practiced two nights a week. They may have scrimmaged each other at the end of the season, but that’s where this was. In fact the first two years, that’s what we did. Eventually we got into the GMC league to start playing games.”
As far as the 2014 campaign went, Joe said, “Well, we had the three teams, so you play everybody twice. We also played Evergreen, so we actually played five games. We kinda scaled it back this year. In years past, fifth and sixth grade was as long as the junior high season from beginning to end. I think this year the idea was to scale back a little bit. The philosophy of Dr. Grime and I is to make sure that at the end of the day, every kid has a positive experience. Wins and losses are not at the top of the wish list for us. Sure, you want to win games, but we want the kids to have fun, and we want the fifth graders to be back out as sixth graders, and the sixth graders to come out for junior high and continue playing.”
Looking forward, Joe said, “I think that you’re going to see the same things as this year. It was a cold day when we played our last game, but I think that every kid walked away with a good experience. Every kid got to play, offense and defense. Some of them played multiple positions. They had a good time. We didn’t go overboard on practices. I think that ultimately, that’s what you want. You want those numbers to ultimately go from one level to the next. Ultimately, we want to have between ten and fifteen seniors per year, and that hasn’t been the case. This year is one of our biggest classes of seniors (twelve), and next year, given that everybody sticks with it, will probably be the biggest senior class that we’ve had in fifty years. I think that you just have to use this as a tool for kids to get their feet wet in football. Football is such a different sport; not every kid can put on the pads, go out into the backyard and practice. There’s so many other components that you have to take into consideration to practice the game. You can take a football and throw it, but you can’t practice tackling. Basketball…you can do that stuff individually. Baseball…you can grab a friend, and there are skills that you can work on. Football…it’s a little different.”
Shawn Blaisdell is the man in charge of the fifth and sixth grade program at Hilltop. “I was the head coach this season after taking two years off as a coach. I have been our team president for eight years and head coach six of those years, and I plan on coaching again next season.”
The Hilltop program has a history of success. As Shawn said, “Our program has had success over the years. Our current freshman and eighth grade class played in the league championship game a few years ago. The kids under them have not had quite the success in the win/loss column, but have shown improvement and the willingness to work. This past season we were 1-5…not the results we like, but I saw a vast improvement in each game. We won our last game 48-18 at Antwerp in a split team game playing quarters against Antwerp and Continental. This was the first season in five years that we changed offense from the single wing to the spread. It was a learning curve that may have been more of a challenge to me as a coach than our kids.”
Coach Blaisdell sees a bright future for the program in Hilltop. “Our program is in a great place right now. We have a nice working relationship with the junior high program coached by Nathan Massie and Andy Schlosser. We are putting the pieces together with our junior high to create continuity for the kids as they progress through junior high into varsity football. I see great things for Hilltop football over the next several seasons. Our fifth and sixth grade team will return many starters next year. This season we had 22 kids on the roster, but only eight were sixth graders. Looking at our varsity program, I see a lot of young talent pressed to action early due to low upper class numbers and injuries. This has caused the cancellation of many JV games, and the chance for those young guys to get quality playing time. However, I think Hilltop football is going to turn things around in the next couple seasons with a strong freshman and sophomore class.
Around fifteen and a half years ago, Rick Stidham and three friends sat down, put their minds together, and laid out the groundwork for what would eventually become the fifth and sixth grade football program in Wauseon. It took a year and a half to get it up and running, but the program has been running strong ever since. Now in his fourteenth year as a commissioner/coach of the four-team Wauseon program, Rick defined its purpose, as well as its definition of ‘success’.
“It depends upon how you want to view that,” Rick said when talking about the success of the program. “Our goal in what we’re trying to achieve with these kids is to teach them the basic fundamentals of the game. Things as simple as how does your equipment go in putting your uniform together. How do the knee pads go in? How do the thigh pads go in? Those are some of the simple, basic steps that, in speaking with some of the seventh grade coaches, we’ve put the kids three weeks ahead in just being able to get dressed on their own, the simple three-point stance, and the understanding of what cadences are. We don’t measure wins and losses. We don’t keep score. Obviously the kids know who did score and who didn’t score.”
“Our goal is to teach them blocking assignments, defensive assignments, the A-gap, the B-gap and how your blocking scheme goes,” he continued. “On defense, they learn how their position is played properly. On offense it’s teaching a lineman how to get in the correct stance, and how to pull. It’s teaching the receivers their routes, whether they’re running a post, or a short out route. You can see their success in them being able to come to the line of scrimmage as a unit, to get down in the correct positioning, and to get off the ball all at the same time. Little things like that are huge in going up to the next level.” Like the other programs in the other schools, the number one product of the Wauseon fifth and sixth grade program is simple…development from the basics.
What of the competition though for the 65 kids that came out for the fifth and sixth grade football program in 2014 ? Rick explained that the four teams, Red, White, Grey and Black, play each other; there is no interscholastic competition. This keeps the fundamental goals and objects of the program intact, without the need for changes to the basics of the program in order to accommodate things like keeping score. Why play only each other, and why do each of the four teams’ uniforms say Wauseon on them? It teaches a unity that is not immediately visible, but becomes obvious in the long run. “It helps out in the continuing focus that in three years, you are all going to be one. All of you are going to playing on the same team, and there will be 50 or 60 more of you together. It’s not about a team name, it’s about team work. We tell our kids, ‘You guys are a brotherhood.’
The Wauseon program has had great continuity insofar as kids sticking with the program from level to level, all the way up to the Varsity ranks. Evidence of this continuity can be seen in the success that the Varsity program has been enjoying, including a recent 61-0 beatdown of NWOAL powerhouse, Bryan. Going back even further, you can see how the progression from the fifth and sixth grade program has paid even bigger dividends. When you see the name of former University of Michigan lineman and Sugar Bowl Champion Elliott Mealer amongst the alumni, the program has an indelible mark of legitimacy.
With that kind of success, are there any changes coming up for the fifth and sixth grade program? Don’t hold your breath waiting for it, suggested Rick. “I don’t see anything else happening,” he said. “There’s been questions about competition. Obviously there’s a lot of other youth football leagues around, and a lot of them are interested in traveling back and forth, but they’re really focused on winning. Don’t get me wrong…everybody likes to win, but we’re really focused on teaching basic fundamentals of the game, how to play together as a team, and team structure.”
Although he sees no changes in the near future, he says that when a newer generation steps up to take over for him and his three fellow commissioners, change may come with them. “I’m 53,” he said with a laugh. “It’s time for some younger people to get in there, because the game itself is changing. Everybody is now in a spread offense and a wing-T offense, throwing the ball a lot more. Me? I’m from the old school of three yards and a cloud of dust.” Evoke a quote from the legendary Woody Hayes, and you probably run the risk of dating yourself.
Seven teams from four different school districts. The names may be different, but the goals for their fifth and sixth grade football programs are essentially the same…learning the fundamentals, and growing in knowledge and skills as the kids advance through the ranks. Sure, watching ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds running around in little pads, little helmets and little uniforms is awkward, but look at the big picture the same way that these coaches are, and you may see something different.
In 2003, the Ohio State Buckeyes took the NCAAF National Championship under Coach Jim Tressel, and you’d think that was the hot ticket in Ohio sports. Sure, getting tickets to see the undefeated Buckeyes at the Horseshoe was tough, but there was one even tougher. It wasn’t the Cleveland Browns or the Indians. It wasn’t the Columbus Blue Jackets or the Crew, and it wasn’t the Cincinnati Reds. The toughest ticket didn’t belong to a professional or collegiate sports team, it belonged to a high school team, namely the Irish of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. Seems that people wanted to see a kid that they believed was a future star, and they paid good money to do just that while the kid was developing his craft in high school. That kid was named LeBron James.
Who knows? Somewhere in the mix of these fifth and sixth grade teams in Northwest Ohio, there may be a young Peyton Manning…still trying to learn how to put on thigh pads. Maybe you ought to catch a few games in your area, so that when a new NFL superstar emerges from Northwest Ohio, you can tell your kids that back in the day, you can remember watching him when…
Timothy Kays can be reached at email@example.com