After all, with new faces, a new head coach and new offensive and defensive schemes, a new era is dawning at C.H. Jones Field.
Last season, with the leadership of 13 seniors and third-year head coach Heath Hinton, the Golden Rockets soared to the heights of their second state playoff appearance in school history — and second in three years.
However, entering this season, the Rockets are refueling — and taking on a whole new look.
For starters, there are only two of those returning on both sides of the ball. Gone are the 13 seniors, most of which played two ways, including second-team all-Ohio Division IV selection Jacob Walburn.
Walburn, who amassed a team-high 111 tackles, also accounted for 1,556 all-purpose yards and 20 total touchdowns.
Hinton has also moved on, as he is now the head coach at Marion Harding High School. Hinton guided the Golden Rockets to their first playoff berth three years ago, and posted a 19-13 record in his three seasons at Wellston.
Taking over for Hinton is Jason Mantell, an assistant on the coaching staff three years ago. Mantell left Wellston to begin the program at Manchester, but decided to return to the Blue and Gold when Hinton headed north.
Compared to when Mantell was at Wellston for Hinton’s first season, the new boss felt the “overall state of the program has improved.” Mantell, who is Walburn’s brother-in-law, has been able to see Wellston play the past two seasons, because Manchester did not have a varsity team.
“I think Heath (Hinton) set the base, and what I want to do is take that above and beyond what he was able to accomplish,” said Mantell. “We didn’t win a league title when Heath was here, but I think making the playoffs two out of three years is as, if not more, important than winning a league title.”
The major exception, Mantell said, was indeed winning a Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division championship.
The first season of TVC football was in 1969, but the Rockets’ only league titles came in back-to-back seasons of 2001 and 2002. However, Wellston has only been in the league for 25 football seasons, and endured a pay-to-play campaign in 1991.
“ I think the program has improved immensely under Heath, but I would like to start winning some league titles,” said Mantell. “That’s something we have not done enough of. We’ve come in second a lot, but for only two league titles in over 20 years, I think that’s disappointing. I think we have the ability to win more league titles than years we don’t win. Will it happen? That’s why they hired me to try and do that.”
Mantell discussed his own transition back to Wellston, as well as the one in which his football team is undergoing.
“I think the transition has been great,” he said. “With only two starters back, you would think that experience wouldn’t be. For me, though, I had kids (at Manchester) that had never played before. The big change is that I’m walking in with kids that have played since they were in second or third grade as opposed to kids that had only played one or two years. One of the easiest things is that the kids have picked up the offense and defense extremely well. I’m surprised that we’ve had minimal questions. I thought we were going to have to rep out a lot of things over and over. That hasn’t been the case. We’ve done things enough to know what we are doing.”
Mantell said that, despite the graduation of 13 seniors, the “numbers are slightly up from last year” to 45 players in grades nine through 12.
“Even though we lost 13 seniors and only have six back this year, the number of kids who are ready to play football at the varsity level are up this year by five.” he said. “It’s extremely difficult to replace 13 seniors when you have 13 of what I consider to be upperclassmen — juniors and seniors. Only two of those kids, both juniors, have experience. We have maybe four or five kids on our roster who have played what I consider a significant down in multiple games. Most of these kids, the most meaningful game that they have played in has maybe been a reserve game or a freshman game.”
The six seniors include Nathan Butcher, Keifer Colmer, Andrew Montgomery, Clint Patrick, Tim Scarberry and Brody Speraw.
In addition to Walburn, who was a three-time first-team Division IV all-district defensive back, also lost are all-district first-teamers Cody Rainey (offensive lineman) and Tyler Gill (linebacker). Scott Baldwin and Chris Thompson made all-district Honorable Mention, as Baldwin, Gill, Thompson and Walburn were all-TVC-Ohio choices.
Baldwin and Walburn were two-time all-league honorees, as Walburn was the two-time Defensive MVP in the Ohio. Baldwin was also the team’s punter and Walburn the primary kickoff and punt returner.
“Many of the kids that we lost, including a two-time league MVP (Walburn), started for three years and lettered for four,” said Mantell. “You can’t say, ‘Hey, we’re going to replace them.’ We’re going to try to fill in the best we can with the young kids we have. It will be difficult, but I think we’re capable.”
While Walburn was the top returnee last season, junior Matt Lockard holds that title this season.
“I won’t say Matt played second fiddle to Jake (Walburn), but was kind of secondary to Jake in awards and things like that,” said Mantell. “Now it’s time for Matt to step into Jake’s role.”
Lockard, who played tailback last season, was the second-leading ballcarrier (92) and rusher (650 yards) behind the fullback Baldwin (117 carries for 755 yards).
He finished with 15 touchdowns, including 10 rushing, and was second on the team in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (197). Half of those eight catches went for scores. In an important 16-12 win at Meigs on Sept. 29, Lockard scored all 16 of the Golden Rockets’ points. As a linebacker, Lockard was fourth on the team in tackles with 43.
As a result, he was all-TVC-Ohio and Special Mention all-district as a sophomore. Lockard was also — and will continue to be — the placekicker and a key kick returner.
“As far as Matt, I don’t think there is a better football player in the TVC-Ohio and I don’t think there is a better back in our general area,” said a direct Mantell. “I’m not saying he’s the best player in our whole area, but I don’t think there’s a better skill player than him in the area.”
This season, while Lockard will remain at outside linebacker in the Rockets’ new 5-3 scheme, he takes over for Walburn as the playmaker in the new jet-option spread offense.
Look for Wellston to feature four-or-five wide receiver sets, with sophomore quarterback Cody Wilkett operating out of the shotgun and finding Lockard as much as possible.
“If I can put the ball in Matt’s hands 40 or 50 times a game, I’ll take that gamble every week,” said Mantell. “Last year, he was complementary to Jake. This year, hopefully we’ll have some kids step up and be Matt’s — and I guess it’s an old cliche — Robin to his Batman.”
The spread marks a shift in the traditional offensive philosophy at Wellston, as the Golden Rockets are regarded as a running team. The predominant formation is “a double twins look with a single back in the shotgun.”
“If people expect us to spread the ball and throw 40 times a game, it’s not going to happen,” said Mantell. “Will we throw more than we have, maybe ever? Yes, we are going to throw the ball. We’d love for our quarterback to be a 1,000/1000-kid, rushing and passing. It’s been an easy transition for the kids, really. I thought that was a bad thing at first, but when you see them do it, they haven’t had an issue. Offensively, the terminology is minimal, we can line up in several formations and we’re running a lot more plays than under Coach Hinton.”
Snapping the ball to Wilkett is junior Kevin King, who returns as the starting center, a defensive tackle and both the long and short snapper on special teams.
“I think Kevin is as good as an offensive lineman as there is,” said Mantell. “He’s six-foot-three, 290 pounds, and he’s very athletic. He plays basketball, and when I have good linemen, I always ask if they can dribble or shoot a basketball and run the floor. If they can do that, then that’s a good athlete. Especially for as big as he is. He’s a real quiet kid, so we’re trying to get him to a peak level of intensity. He gives us 100-percent every play, but what Kevin needs is that mean streak in him. Defensively, I thought he made some great plays, we just need more consistency out of him.”
While King and Lockard are both household names, the remainder of the Rocket roster isn’t. That roster is, however, top-heavy with 18 sophomores.
“We have a fantastic sophomore class — 18 kids,” said Mantell. “I really believe that we have the best JV team in the southern part of the state if we were able to play our sophomores. We’re not going to do that. I can see us starting as many as seven sophomores on either side of the ball.”
Among those sophomore starters will be Ryan Darnell and Derrick Seymour in the offensive and defensive backfields. Seymour is a transfer from Vinton County.
Another sophomore — Jeff Matteson — fills in as, as Mantell explained, “the primary target at wide receiver.” He will also start at free safety.
With the exception of Lockard, Wellston graduated four of its top five pass catchers — Matt Eberts, Jimmy Littlejohn, Teddy Johnston and Seth Mullins. The foursome combined for 34 of the team’s 44 receptions last season, as Lockard hauled in eight and Baldwin the other two.
Among the seven returning letterwinners is junior tackle Joel Eisnaugle. Eisnaugle is the most experienced returning Rocket aside from King and Lockard. The senior Patrick, another letterwinner, will likely start along the line as well. Corey McClain, a junior, is also battling for a tackle spot.
“We have a lot of kids who people don’t know about,” said Mantell. “They’ve played behind two-way seniors. So we’re unproven. We have a lot of young kids which are inexperienced at the varsity level.”
Like the offense, the defense is also different this season. Hinton held firm to a 4-4 base, but Mantell brings over a five-man front that can be inverted into a 3-5. The new coach also believes in blitzing, and “moving our kids around and coming from everywhere.”
“We involve everyone on defense,” said Mantell. “Our linebackers are going to be very active, we will show a lot of false blitzes, we want to be able to drop into coverage, we want to be able to rotate our defensive line…”
Regarding the Rockets’ schedule, Mantell believes that “this is as tough, if not the toughest, a schedule as we’ve ever played, especially non-conference.”
Wellston opens the season — as always — against archrival Jackson, which has defeated the Rockets 16 straight times. Sandwiched in between tough road trips to Minford and Rock Hill are back-to-back home dates with West Jefferson and Akron Manchester.
“The first five games, there isn’t a team that we can walk into and say ‘at least we’re more experienced than them’ or ‘we’re better across the board than them,’” said Mantell.
The Rockets then begin TVC-Ohio play with three straight home shows against Meigs, Belpre and four-time defending division champion Nelsonville-York. The Blue and Gold close out the regular season at Alexander and archrival Vinton County.
“It’s going to be a difficult 10 games, but we can make it easier on ourselves if we out-execute everyone,” said Mantell. “We have to minimize turnovers and maximize creating turnovers.”
And thus, maximize the experience level — or relaunching, refueling the program.
“Inexperience is overrated in some situations,” said Mantell. “It’s as important as you make it, and we don’t make it important. We have what we have and our team is what it is.”
While the starters — and the head coach — are new, the coaching staff at Wellston remains intact.
Mantell, who will double as the offensive coordinator, is reunited with his brother — assistant coach Brian Mantell. Brian Mantell will coordinate the special teams while Les Delong returns for his third season as the defensive coordinator.
Joe Briggs and Jason Shepherd return to the staff as ends coach and lines coach respectively. Don Thompson will mentor the running backs and outside linebackers.
DeLong, Thompson and Brian Mantell were assistants to Hinton for all three of his seasons.