Wellston ready to shift into higher gear


Wellston Rockets

After a year of rebuilding, followed by a year of
improving, the Wellston football team is ready to shift into a
higher gear, according to third-year Golden Rocket head coach
Jason Mantell. The Rockets — with 11 letterwinners and 17 returning starters
— appear ready to challenge for a Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division
championship and a Division IV, Region 15 playoff berth.

WELLSTON — After a year of rebuilding, followed by a year of
improving, the Wellston High School football team is ready to shift into a
higher gear.

That is according to third-year Golden Rocket head coach
Jason Mantell, whose Rockets — with 11 letterwinners and 17 returning starters
— appear ready to challenge for a Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division
championship and a Division IV, Region 15 playoff berth.

Anything less than at least a serious challenge will be
disappointing to Mantell and the revived Rockets.

“When I took over, I remember saying that we wanted to
challenge for the conference title and challenge for the playoffs more years
than not. I still feel that way,” said Mantell. “I didn’t come in arrogant, I
came in confident that we can do those things. This year, and I think if you
ask those 41 kids, if we’re walking into week 10 and the conference
championship isn’t on the line for us, then that will be disappointing. If we walk
into week 10 and we’re not at least in the discussion for the playoffs, then
that will be disappointing. The bottom line is we have to execute. If we don’t
execute, then we’re going to struggle.”

Unfortunately for the Rockets, they have struggled for much
of the past two seasons.

In a cycle that saw them nosedive to 15 consecutive
on-the-field losses, which began with a shutout in the Region 15 quarterfinals
three years ago, the Rockets rebounded last season with three straight
Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division victories.

Truth be told, other Wellston wins were out there, as the
Rockets were regularly in every game for the first seven weeks of the season.

Wellston was tied with Minford until the final minutes, held
a second-half lead at Waverly, and suffered a heartbreaking 34-28
double-overtime defeat to the eventual TVC-Ohio champion Nelsonville-York.

Both Minford and Nelsonville-York advanced to the Division
V, Region 19 playoffs.

“We were improved, we went 4-6 and 4-2 in the conference
(TVC-Ohio), but still couldn’t get over that hump last year,” said Mantell.
“When you lose so many consecutive games, kids start doubting themselves. But
last year when we played in close games with Jackson until late, Minford,
Waverly and then Nelsonville-York, the kids started believing that they can
win. I just think it comes in a belief in a tough game. Once you believe you
can win, then it comes down to execution. And we have started slowly in too
many games and have been playing catch-up. You can’t fall behind two touchdowns
to two playoff teams like Minford and Nelsonville-York. It’s hard to play from
behind with our style.”

Wellston finished 4-6 last season, giving way to greater
optimism with the majority of its nucleus returning.

Nine starters return on offense and eight on defense, with
several of the skilled positions and linemen coming back as three-year

Among those three-year senior starters are
quarterback/cornerback Cody Wilkett, wing back/linebacker Ryan Darnell and wide
receiver/cornerback Jeff Matteson.

All were all-TVC-Ohio choices last season, and Matteson is a
two-time Division IV all-Southeast District Honorable Mention selection.

Two-year starters include sophomore running back/linebacker
Jaylen Prater, senior right tackle Chris Osborne, senior left guard and
defensive end Caleb Smith and sophomore safety/wide receiver Austin Osborne.

Prater posted all-district Honorable Mention honors, as did

“We have some kids with some notoriety,” said Mantell.

With Wilkett, Matteson, Smith and Chris Osborne all
returning to their offensive positions, Prater is moving from fullback to
tailback with junior letterman Brad Miller taking over at fullback and Darnell
switching over to wingback.

Sophomore Trenton Jayjohn, who returns to the Rockets after
a season at archrival Jackson, will also see some carries.

Austin Osborne is the second wide receiver to Matteson,
while junior Jeremiah Kerr converts from tackle to tight end.

“We have a lot of options this year,” said Mantell. “That’s
what we haven’t had in the past. We have a lot of big backs — Jaylen (Prater)
is 215 (pounds), Brad (Miller) is 200 and Trenton (Jayjohn) is 195. Cody is our
smallest back at six-foot-tall and 190. And we’re faster as a team this year.
Jaylen is a legitimate 4.6 (40-yard-dash) kid, Brad Miller runs a
sub-five-second 40, and Cody Wilkett had a nice track season and got his speed
to where it needs to be. We’re pleased with our size, our speed and our
athletic ability of our retuning skilled kids.”

There are two three-year starters which the Rockets must
replace, though, including two-time all-Southeast District first-team
all-purpose player Matt Lockard.

Lockard — also a three-time all-TVC-Ohio honoree — led the
Rockets for the past two seasons in scoring, rushing and return yardage, and
did all of the placekicking as well some receiving and occasional passing.

He was also a top tackler on the team.

Wellston also graduated three-year starting center Kevin
King, an all-TVC-Ohio lineman as a junior and an all-district Honorable Mention
selection as a senior.

Lockard and King were the last true player links to the 2006
squad, which went 7-4, was runner-up in the TVC-Ohio to Nelsonville-York, and
qualified for the Region 15 playoffs.

This year’s seniors were just freshmen then, and serious
talk of a league championship and playoffs was realistically non-existent among
the Wellston ranks for the past two years.

Not this season, though.

“We graduated two accomplished three-year starters in Matt
(Lockard) and Kevin (King). They are huge losses, and I don’t want to downplay
the talent level or the loss of those two kids, but we do have a lot coming
back,” said Mantell. “People know they can’t just focus on a Matt Lockard all
the time.”

The coach added that he would like to diversify the Rocket

Lockard logged, by far, the majority of the Blue and Gold’s
points — whether it was rushing, returning or adding extra points or field

“We’re going to formation people a little bit more than we
did last year. We’re going to be a little more multiple, and we might throw the
ball a little more too,” said Mantell. “Not throw 25 or 30 times a game, but a
little bit more than say 10. And I don’t know that we’re going to have anyone
carry the ball as much as Matt did. Jaylen is going to get more carries, Brad
Miller is going to get more carries, Ryan Darnell is going to run the ball some
this year. As far as replacing the points, it’s going to be by committee.”

Miller spot-played for Lockard and Prater last season in the

Senior Derrick Loudermilk, who started the last two games of
last season, takes over for King at center.

Rounding out the offensive line are junior Steve Carper at
right guard and senior left tackles Aaron Marquis and Marty Jarvis.

Carper missed all of last season with a knee injury.

And injuries have caused inconsistency along the Rockets’
line for the past two years.

“We feel good about who we have up front, we just need some
consistency and cohesiveness,” said Mantell. “Lack of size and strength are not
a problem. It’s going to be about getting the rhythm down and using the right
guys in the right spots.”

That’s especially true with the Rockets altering from a 50
base defense to a multiple 4-3 front.

This season, Mantell explained that fewer Rockets will play
ironman football.

“In the past, our front three, four, five guys have also
been our starting offensive line. That’s hurt us. But that is not the case this
year,” he said. “There is going to be some point this year where no one on the
line is going both ways.”

Mantell mentioned “a solid rotation” of defenders, featuring
Chris Osborne, Marquis, Jarvis and junior Zach Waulk at tackles and Smith at
defensive end.

“We’re going to go about six-or-seven deep up front,” said
Mantell. “That’s assuming they can all get the job done.”

Prater, who was one of only 15 sophomore linebackers
throughout the country which were invited to the Ultimate 100 Rivals.com Top
Prospect Camp in July, anchors the defense along with Darnell.

Both are outside linebackers as Darnell is being moved from
defensive end.

Loudermilk, Jayjohn, junior Ricky Parsons and sophomore
Grant Thompson are all battling for the inside linebacker spot.

Matteson, who had seven interceptions last season at
cornerback, returns along with Wilkett (strong) and Austin Osborne (free) at
the safeties.

Senior Seth Weikert is battling sophomore Ernest Brown for
the other corner position.

Both are returning this season after not playing a year ago.

While Mantell maintains the Rockets “can score points”,
defense “is our key.”

“We have 90-percent of our kids back from last year, and
we’re capable of scoring,” he said. “But defensively, we’ve given up way too
many big plays and those are backbreakers. We didn’t give up sustained drives,
but teams burned us for too many long plays. I think we’re a better defensive
unit, but we have to prove that during the season. If our defense plays the way
we’re capable of, I think we can win a lot of games.”

Matteson returns as the team’s punter, and is battling
Thompson to take over the placekicking position vacated by Lockard.

While there are holes to fill due to graduation, and some
players are being switched in spots, Mantell is happy with the 41 which are
listed on the Rocket roster.

“It’s (41) not even close to the most kids we’ve ever had
here, but we have the right 41 kids I think,” he said. “We have kids who want
to be here, we have kids who will step up and play scout team.”

The Rockets’ schedule remains the same from a year ago, with
the exception that Fairfield Christian replaces Gallipolis.

Mantell admits that despite the brighter outlook, “the first
four games are very difficult and three of the first four are on the road.”

Those three are at Jackson, Minford and Nelsonville-York, as
the Nelsonville-York matchup opens TVC-Ohio action.

The Buckeyes are viewed as the preseason favorite to once
again capture the Ohio Division championship.

Wellston does host Belpre, Athens and Meigs in league play.

“It’s a rough schedule, but it is our schedule,” said
Mantell. “But if we’re going to make a run and make the playoffs, then we have
to play schedules like this.”

For Mantell said “the upside” is indeed there, and the
Rockets are quite capable of shifting into a higher gear this season.

It comes down to execution, he said.

“If we stay focused, and we execute, I think our upside is
good. It’s not enough to talk about it, read it on the Internet or read it in
the newspaper. We still have to go out and execute,” said Mantell.

Wellston opens the season on Saturday night at Jackson.


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