After a winless season on the field, and a one-win campaign on paper, the Golden Rockets return all but three starters and are aiming for significant improvement. Just how much improvement remains to be seen, but with 10 offensive starters and nine defensive starters returning, there is the optimism that Wellston will definitely be better than it was a year ago.
WELLSTON — When on a launch pad, a rocket literally has nowhere to go but up.
The same holds true for this year’s Wellston High School football team, which is nicknamed the Golden Rockets.
After a winless season on the field, and a one-win campaign on paper, the Golden Rockets return all but three starters and are aiming for significant improvement.
Just how much improvement remains to be seen, but with 10 offensive starters and nine defensive starters returning, there is the optimism that Wellston will definitely be better than it was a year ago.
Second-year head coach Jason Mantell agreed with the assessment that his Golden Rockets can go nowhere but up.
“It’s absolutely a fair assessment,” said Mantell. “When you look at a program, it’s a huge disappointment to lose nine or 10 games in a season. In hindsight, though, you have to look at things more realistically than you did going in. Going into last season, we put the kids in the best situation to win every game. The kids gave their best effort to win every game. But when you look back at a season like last year, realistically, when we walked onto the field from a physical and experience standpoint, we were outmatched every week. That’s not an insult to the coaches or the players, those are just the facts of last season. Our kids took a beating a lot of times, but we have to use that as motivation this year. We need to use that as a building block that we’re not going to get bossed around anymore. We’re not 14-and-15-year-old kids anymore, we’re mature young men who can play this game.”
A year after advancing to its second playoff berth in school history, the Rockets rebuilt last season by fielding only five seniors and starting as many as 10 sophomores at times.
“We’re not using it as an excuse, it’s just a fact,” said Mantell. “You have who you have. We were so young and a lot of our kids weren’t physically mature and ready to play varsity football.”
On the field, and against a difficult schedule which included four playoff teams, Wellston was outscored 458-117, including 188-64 in Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division play.
The Rockets scored 20 points just three times while allowing at least 43 in all but two close losses.
Wellston’s closest contest last season was a heartbreaking 24-21 overtime loss at Alexander, which secured just the Spartans’ second TVC-Ohio win in 55 all-time games.
“We learned that with the schedule we played, starting nine sophomores and a freshmen sometimes, when literally every kid on the field is an underclassman, that is not conducive to success,” said Mantell. “There were a lot of games where we got down two or three scores and that was a big letdown for us. That’s not unusual for a young team. It’s not acceptable, but it’s not unusual.”
It didn’t help that key injuries were added to the insult.
The Rockets received some good news, though, once the season concluded.
A 43-3 setback to Nelsonville-York was reversed as the Buckeyes were forced to forfeit the win due to using an ineligible player.
Truth be told, it was a bright spot in a season which saw few with a young and inexperienced varsity squad.
Mantell said a key to avoiding such an issue again is to “keep the numbers up in each class.”
This year’s returning Rockets feature seven seniors, all of whom gained valuable varsity experience last year.
“Fortunately, all seven have game experience and five of them are returning starters,” said Mantell.
The highly-touted junior class sports 10, while there are 11 in both the sophomore and freshman groups.
“We need to keep our numbers in double digits in every class,” said Mantell. “Numbers aren’t everything, but we only had one four-year player last year. We have to keep kids in the program.”
Of the seven seniors, two are three-year starters and returning all-TVC-Ohio players — running back Matt Lockard and lineman Kevin King.
The standout Lockard is a two-time all-league and all-district honoree, and was a Division IV first-team all-district all-purpose selection last season.
He pretty much did everything for the Blue and Gold, including rushing (194 carries for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns), receiving (11 receptions for 122 yards), passing (35-for-70 for 365 yards), returning (25 returns for 625 yards), placekicking (10 PATs, six touchbacks, one field goal and 50 yards per average on kickoffs), punting (34 yards per average on punts), defending (82 tackles with three interceptions and three forced fumbles) and scoring (93 total points and 13 total touchdowns).
“Matt led us in about every category there is,” said Mantell. “He did everything for us, but we don’t want to have to put him in that position again. He’s obviously going to be a key for us, and he’ll probably touch the ball as much or more than anybody, but we don’t want him to have to carry the ball 25 times or more a game. Against Vinton County, he must have carried the ball 40 times.”
While Lockard spent the second half of last season at quarterback, he returns to tailback for the third straight season while moving from linebacker to free safety on defense.
The Rockets are moving away from the jet-option spread and 5-3 defensive front to more of a multiple-set offense and 5-2 look.
“I think people thought just because we spread the field, we threw the ball 35 times a game. I think we threw the ball over 20 times maybe once or twice the whole season,” said Mantell. “We spread the field to try and create gaps and openings for our skilled kids last year. We were run-favored as opposed to pass last year, by a whole lot. I think we threw the ball 12-to-15 times on average per game. You probably won’t see us throw quite as much this year. This year, we have incorporated a little bit of the wing-T, misdirection, off-tackle, power, just getting back to the basics with a few contemporary wrinkles.”
King, a two-year starter at center, will once again anchor the offensive line this season at right tackle.
He is also a two-year starting tackle on defense, the long snapper on special teams, and excels at kick coverage on punts.
Mantell said King is on some college programs’ watch list.
“Kevin King is definitely a college prospect and there is no question about that,” said Mantell. “He has been to a few camps and some different schools have come to look at him. The kid is six-foot-three and 295 pounds and he’s one of the strongest kids I’ve ever coached. But he’s so athletic, and that’s what people underestimate about him. He can just do a lot of things. In my opinion, he’s been as good a lineman as we’ve had since he was a sophomore. I think Kevin’s ability last year went unnoticed. He’ll be the key up front for us.”
And, better blocking and tackling will be a key for an improved season.
Wellston struggled mightily last year along the lines.
“The two key things when it comes to football are blocking and tackling,” said Mantell. “If we don’t block and tackle better this season, we’ll struggle again. Our line is going to be the difference. That’s where we’re unproven. Kevin King is the only proven kid we have up front.”
Taking over at center is senior Benny Grey, as junior Caleb Smith and senior Corey McLain return as guards.
Last season, all three battled injuries at different stages of the schedule.
Sophomore Jeremiah Kerr is being counted on to take over at left tackle, as projected starter and junior Josh Jones may miss the entire season due to a ruptured appendix.
Defensively, King and Grey are the tackles with McLain in the middle at nose guard.
Kerr and junior Ryan Darnell are the defensive ends with junior Chris Osborne rotating in on both sides of the ball as well.
Osborne was a part-time starter last season.
Another projected two-way starting lineman, senior Joel Eisnaugle, transferred to Oak Hill.
In addition to a year of experience, Mantell said this season’s squad is bigger, faster and stronger.
“I coach in three different programs in a ninth-month span, and these kids have made the biggest improvement as far as overall strength, size and speed,” he said. “I’ve even had people comment on that, and that’s a testament to these kids’ work ethic and wanting to be successful. The majority of our kids were in the weight room or playing another sport. We’re physically more mature.”
While Lockard and Grey also wrestle, and Lockard plays baseball as well, most of the skilled position players are two-or-three-sport participants, including Darnell, fellow juniors Cody Wilkett, Derek Seymour, Jeff Matteson and Ryan Wagener; seniors Chris Howison and Matt Kelley and freshmen Austin Osborne, Ty McNelly and Jaylen Prater.
McNelly and Prater transferred to Wellston from rivals Jackson and Vinton County respectively.
Wilkett and Seymour, both healthy, are the returning quarterback and fullback respectively, with Darnell down at tight end, Matteson and Wagener returning at receiver and Howison and Prater filling in as slot backs.
Howison, Prater, Seymour and Kelley consist the linebacking corps with Wilkett, Wagener and Matteson manning the corners again.
Austin Osborne provides depth at safety with McNelly and sophomore Brad Miller backing up Wilkett.
Howison (32 carries for 330 yards and three touchdowns and 103 tackles with two sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries) and Matteson (30 receptions for 406 yards and 42 tackles with five pass breakups) made Honorable Mention all-district last season.
Lockard will also return to handle the punting and placekicking chores.
“I will put our skilled kids up against anyone on our schedule,” said Mantell. “That’s not a question mark for us. And we believe we have to get them the ball, no matter how we do it. We have four, five, six kids that at any point, can go the distance. I think every skilled kid we put on the field has the opportunity to score at any time they touch the ball. Matt Lockard is going to be in multiple positions this year and not just standing in the I-formation. We have so many kids who can do so many things, I think we limit them or even cheat them by saying ‘this is the offense we run.’ As a group, our skilled kids are as talented as anyone we’ll see all season.”
The mental toughness, though, is an area of continued improvement, Mantell explained.
“It’s more of want to than can or can’t,” he said. “We can — they could last year. Could we physically match up every week last year? No. Can we this year? Absolutely. We should physically match up and then some. We should be able to lean on people and move people. It’s a matter of wanting to do it and getting it done. This year, we have the luxury of people ready, waiting and willing to take over positions. It’s more about earning the right to play where last year we didn’t have as many position battles as we do this year. We’ve worked on a lot of mental toughness throughout the offseason and over the summer. It’s not all about size and strength.”
One of the lessons the Rockets have learned, according to Mantell, is handling losing.
“I don’t look at last year as just a complete loss,” said Mantell. “I think you learn way more from failure than you ever do from success. When things are successful, everything is great. When you lose, you find out who is really with you and who is not. We found that out last year. It wasn’t our year last year, but we didn’t have kids jump ship, bail out or quit the team. A lot of schools have run into that, but we didn’t. That says a lot about our kids. It was disappointing, but I think we learned a whole lot last year.”
As for this season, the Golden Rockets can take a page from Belpre’s book, as the Golden Eagles turned a 2-8 season two years ago into a TVC-Ohio championship and a playoff berth last fall.
Based on the 2006 record, preseason expectations were low for last year’s Belpre bunch.
Wellston enters this season in a similar situation.
And, like those Eagles, these Rockets have nowhere to go but up.
“If anyone predicts a season record, it’s crazy,” said Mantell. “It’s impossible, really. You can’t account for injuries or odd happenings during games. Our kids want to be successful and we’ll put them in a position to be successful.”
Most of Mantell’s coaching staff is the same, with the notable exception that Les DeLong opted not to return.
DeLong, who doubles as the wrestling coach at Wellston, had been on the staff for the previous four seasons, including the last three as defensive coordinator.
This year, Mantell’s brother Brian takes over the defense.
Jason Mantell is also the offensive coordinator.
This is Brian Mantell’s fifth season at Wellston.
Also returning are assistants Don Thompson and Joe Briggs.
Former Wellston standout Chris Hutchison also returns to the Rocket staff after a season away.