In its first two games of the season, the Wellston (0-2) football team has endured a rough ride. How fitting, or unfitting then, it is that some Roughriders are coming to town. As in the West Jefferson Roughriders (2-0) on Friday night.
Paul Boggs has a preview of this week three match up.
WELLSTON — In its first two games of the season, the Wellston High School football team has endured a rough ride.
How fitting, or unfitting then, it is that some Roughriders are coming to town.
As in the West Jefferson Roughriders on Friday night.
The 2-0 Roughriders, coached by former Wellston quarterback and assistant coach Shawn Buescher, make the long haul to Wellston to face the Golden Rockets at C.H. Jones Field.
Unlike the three previous seasons, this year’s young Rockets enter week three at 0-2, and have struggled mightily in their first two outings.
Wellston lost at Jackson 56-6 in the opener, followed up last week by a 61-20 fly-by by the host Minford Falcons.
Of the 117 points the Rockets have allowed, 104 have been surrendered by the Wellston defense. Both Jackson and Minford have returned a Cody Wilkett interception for a touchdown.
Conversely, the Blue and Gold have totaled just 26 points in two games, 20 of which have been posted by the offensive unit.
Junior running back Matt Lockard has scored 20 points of his own, including a pair of short touchdown runs and a 65-yard interception return against the Falcons. He has also ran in a two-point conversion, as Wilkett has the other six points for Wellston.
Outside of that, though, there has been little going right for the Rockets this season. Defense has been the biggest problem, as the Rockets have allowed back-to-back 360-plus yard rushing games.
The Falcons scored 55 offensive points last week, running 63 times for a whopping 356 yards. Against the Jackson Ironmen, Wellston was the victim of 49 points — and an even greater 440 rushing yards.
Even more alarming for the Rockets this week — West Jefferson has scored 41 and 42 points in its respective victories.
Hence, after giving up over 360 yards on the ground in two straight weeks, the Wellston defense needs to do a 180.
“When your first-team defense gives up over 100 points, I don’t care who you are playing, it’s just unacceptable,” said first-year Wellston coach Jason Mantell. “We’re not a good defensive team right now, but we’re a better defensive team than what we’re showing. And we have to become a better team.”
For Mantell, he hopes that begins this week against Buescher’s bunch.
The Roughriders, since Buescher took over the team six seasons ago, has been a program in building.
West Jefferson has four state championships to its name, but fell on hard times in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade. The Roughriders experienced their own rough ride of multiple losing seasons.
But Buescher has steadily built the program into a winner, including last season’s 12-1 overall record, the championship of the Mid-State League Cardinal Division and the top seed in the Division V, Region 19 playoffs.
“I think he’s one of the better coaches in central Ohio, maybe in the state,” said Mantell. “You’re talking about a guy who took an 0-10 program five years ago and they were in the regional finals last year. The guy has done a fantastic job. He walked into a young program and turned it around. He deserves all of the credit in the world for that.”
In an e-mail response to questions, Buescher described the lengthy building process.
“We have come a long way in six years both on and off the field,” he wrote. “When we started, our program was as downtrodden as you could imagine. We are now in a situation where we were the Mid-State League Cardinal Division champions and the Division V, Region 19 runner-up. Our program is 14-1 over the course of the last 15 games. We are also riding a 14-game regular-season winning streak. We have sent eight student-athletes on to play college football at the Division III level. Our players are committed to being successful in the classroom, community and playing field.”
Last season, the Roughriders rode a perfect 12-0 campaign until they were defeated in the Region 19 final by second-seeded Amanda-Clearcreek (21-14).
In a web of connections, Amanda-Clearcreek is coached by Ron Hinton, uncle of former Wellston head coach Heath Hinton. Mantell was an assistant on Hinton’s staff during the 2004 season.
Along the way to the Region 19 final, West Jefferson won over Wellston 48-14 at Kile Field. The Rockets went on to finish 7-4, and qualified for the Division IV, Region 15 playoffs.
But, a year later, the Rockets are in a rebuilding stage, starting several sophomores on both sides of the ball.
West Jefferson, meanwhile, is trying to maintain its momentum. The Roughriders rallied to defeat Mechanicsburg in the season opener (41-37), then manhandled Madison Plains 42-6 a week ago.
Still, despite the 14-game regular-season winning streak, Buescher admits that his team “has many areas to improve upon.”
“We weren’t happy with the way we played against Mechanicsburg. We had some mental and technique breakdowns early in the football game which cost us dearly. We were able to settle down and overcome a 30-14 deficit at the half to get a 41-37 victory,” he wrote. “I think this shows how much our kids believe they can win in any situation.”
Especially last week. Buescher wrote that West Jefferson won without starting signal-caller Andrew Pearson, as Pearson suffered a collapsed lung in the Mechanicsburg match. The coach added that Pearson “is lost for the foreseeable future.”
But, no Pearson — no problem.
Backup quarterback D.J. Mendenhall made the start and guided the Roughriders to the rout of Madison Plains.
“The Madison Plains game was important for us because we were missing two starters on each side of the ball,” wrote Buescher. “I was proud of the way our kids handled this adversity and came out and executed very well. I felt like we improved from week one to week two.”
Now they’ll aim to execute in week three. West Jefferson features a high-octane spread offense with I-formation concepts.
For Wellston, it’s quite the contrast from the Pro-I Ironmen and the wing-T Falcons. West Jefferson also features wide line splits with its offensive linemen.
“They run the triple option from their spread, they are very quarterback-oriented,” said Mantell of the Roughriders. “They are not going to sling the ball 25 times. They are going to throw it a pretty decent amount, but they keep you honest. They like to run quarterback isos, and the fullback and tailback run the ball mostly on isos and traps.”
Mantell said that the defensive gameplan is to “slow down” the Roughriders.
“We need to slow them down. West Jeff is not an offense you’re going to stop. Nobody is going to stop them,” said Mantell. “We just have to find a way to slow down their stars, and they have several. We have to try and contain the quarterback, the defensive line has to get penetration and our linebackers have to stay and read their keys. We have to read the guards and really control the triple option. We’re going to stay in our base 50, but we’re going to move the defensive line around a little bit.”
To slow the Roughriders down, Mantell explained, also means to maintain possession of the football.
The Rockets will need to do a better job of that, having been bitten by the turnover bug this season. Wellston, now running its own spread offense, has committed a total of seven turnovers, including four interceptions.
“Our offense has to hold on to the ball a little bit more,” admitted Mantell. “We have the capability of making some big plays, but we’d like to grind it out a little bit.”
Mantell described the Roughriders’ defense as “fantastic” and “really, really blitz-oriented.”
“They fly to the football, they do blitz a lot, and they are very aggressive,” he said. “They will run past a ballcarrier occasionally, so hopefully, we can use their aggressiveness against them. If we can take advantage, grind it out, put together some three-and-four first-down drives, then we give ourselves a chance.”
A chance that few observers are giving the Rockets.
“We know we’re the underdog, and we’re going to be the underdog in almost every game this season,” said Mantell. “And that’s fine with us, we’re not angry about that. The only time it’s going to bother us is if we play to that underdog status — and we have for two weeks. It’s unacceptable, and we as players and coaches all have room to make improvements.”
Given both teams’ starts to the season, Friday’s affair appears to be a mismatch on paper. But, the games are played on the field.
“For us to beat them, we’re going to have play an error-free game and force them to make mistakes,” said Mantell. “If we don’t force them into mistakes, we’re going to be in trouble. We have to pick off a pass, we have to cause a fumble, we have to force some three-and-outs. We need to notch a win in any way shape or form that we can.”
Buescher said his club is not taking the underdog Rockets lightly.
“Our players and coaches respect every opponent we face,” he wrote. “We know that we have to continue to get better each and every week. Our kids will be focused! We have many young men who have been in big games. They know what it takes to prepare for a football game.”
But, for Buescher, it’s not just any football game. In fact, it’s a homecoming for the former Wellston quarterback and assistant coach. Buescher played for the Golden Rockets from 1988 to 1990 before graduating from Westfall in 1992.
“I have been glad to see the success that the Wellston football program has had over the last few years. It will be a unique experience to be at the stadium from the opposing sideline,” he explained. “It is a game that I am greatly looking forward to coaching.”
Bill Fyffe was Buescher’s head coach at Wellston before Paul Blankenship guided the program from 1991 to 1994.
“I have a lot of fond memories of playing and coaching at Wellston,” he wrote. “I was extremely fortunate to play for such a quality individual as Bill Fyffe. He is a tremendous human being who cared deeply about his players. I also can’t say enough about the opportunity Paul Blankenship gave me to start coaching football. I learned many valuable lessons from him. Many of the program activities we do at West Jeff were things I learned from Paul.”
Mantell said he would like to follow Buescher’s model at West Jefferson.
“He walked into a similar situation there as I walked into here with a bunch of young kids,” said the new Wellston boss. “He took his lumps in the beginning, then they started turning the corner. His community was very patient, supportive and understood. Our situation is a lot like his was five years ago. Young, but room to grow.”
The growing process for the young Rockets continues on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.
Friday’s West Jefferson-Wellston game marks this year’s “Coal Bowl” contest, held in conjunction with the annual Wellston Coal Festival.
Tribute to Walton
Prior to Friday night’s game, the Wellston football program and the Wellston Big “W” Football Club will honor the memory of the late Robert “Bob” Walton.
Walton, the familiar “Voice of the Rockets” for over 20 years, passed away July 13 after a lengthy battle with cancer.