It’s been a tough climb from the basement to the top step of the
Northern Ohio League, but the Galion Tigers have done it in just two
short years. Under Chris Hawkins who inherited a team that had gone
3-47 in the five years before he arrived, the Tigers have accomplished
what many thought unthinkable just a couple of years ago.
GALION – It’s been a tough climb from the basement to the top step of the Northern Ohio League, but the Galion Tigers have done it in just two short years. Under Chris Hawkins who inherited a team that had gone 3-47 in the five years before he arrived, the Tigers have accomplished what many thought unthinkable just a couple of years ago by going 10-0 in 2009 to capture an undisputed NOL title and Region 14’s top seed in the playoffs.
“I’m pleasantly surprised how they handled adversity and how they showed their character,” Hawkins said of his Tigers, who have found a way to win with five wins of eight points or less. “We did that a couple of times, but before, that would have never happened.”
What happened instead in recent years is that Galion would find a way to lose and lose badly. Not anymore. The Tigers won the school’s first league title in football since 1997 with a Week 10 thrashing of Bellevue, 54-33.
The 2009 Tigers have been doing many things that haven’t been seen in this north central Ohio town in a long time.
• This trip to the playoffs is just the fourth in school history and the first since 1989.
• This squad is just the fifth to go undefeated in the 114 years of football history at the school. The last Galion team to accomplish it was the 1985 state champions that posted a 14-0 record.
• The win at Bellevue broke a 12-year losing streak against that NOL rival.
It was just last year that the Tigers broke a 44-game losing streak in the NOL and surprised many in the community and around the league by going 5-5. Yet members of the area sports media picked them for no better than fourth and Galion didn’t garner a single first-place vote in the annual preseason poll.
“The kids learned to compete, man against man and squad against squad,” Hawkins said of the improvement from 1-9 in 2007 to 5-5 in 2008. “Now we had to take the next step and learn to contend. The bottom line is the kids had to buy into it.”
Hawkins took over the job late in the spring of 2007 and found out he had quite the sales job in front of him. The coach who had been successful first at Wynford, and then Willard where he coached NFL quarterback Charlie Frye, conducted a fitness test for players soon after taking over.
What he discovered shocked him.
“Disarray is not too strong a word. It was as low as low could be. I was on the other sidelines and I felt embarrassment for the kids,” said Hawkins, who compared the results of that first fitness test varsity players to junior varsity teams. “We made a commitment to go (in the weight room) four times a week in the off season. We were so far behind we went three times (a week) during the season.
“It was not an option to not be there,” Hawkins continued. “We put the weight room attendance in the newspaper and on the bulletin board at school. They bought into it and we got faster, we got stronger and we got quicker.”
But Hawkins admitted it wasn’t just the players he had to sell his program to.
“It was about parents and families making a change as well,” Hawkins said, admitting had his own children been in such a situation as he found the Tigers in he would have considered sending them to another school. “It was about the parents making a commitment and sacrifice. Buying into what we were trying to do changed everything.”
Hawkins said many of the games his Tigers played in 2007 were over by halftime. That is all behind them now.
“It’s huge,” Hawkins said of the impact on the community which has been hurt badly by the economic downturn with job losses and foreclosed homes and many more for sale dotting the landscape. “I’m just happy for the kids and their parents. The community – it’s tough times. But Galion is tough. For three hours on Friday nights they can forget about their problems. Galion is a football town.”
Hawkins said the turnaround came late in the 2007 season when his staff committed to platoon as much as possible and that put many of this year’s seniors on the field as sophomores.
“We got them some more time on the field,” Hawkins said.
One those who benefited is All-Ohio candidate Rich Ulmer who now goes two ways – as the center on offense and a linebacker on defense. Ulmer set an NOL record for career tackles with 426 and counting. The record he broke belonged to another Galion All-Ohioan, Bill Price, who played on the Tigers’ state title team.
“It’s always in the back of your head, but it’s so far out there,” Ulmer said of being 10-0, league champs and a playoff team. “The last time we beat Bellevue was ’97. I was in first grade or kindergarten.”
But Ulmer has lots of help including the league’s leading rusher. Senior Cartel Brooks ran for 1,282 yards with a per carry average of 7.3 yards. Brooks scored 24 touchdowns, 23 of them rushing, and a two-point conversion.
In last Friday’s game against Bellevue, Brooks exploded for three touchdowns and 233 yards.
What makes Brooks’ numbers even more impressive is that Hawkins admits the shifty, compact, powerful and lightning quick back was barely more than an afterthought in the team’s offensive plans when the 2009 season began.
“That’s just poor coaching on my part,” Hawkins said, noting Brooks rarely got his hands on the ball through the first three games. “We said we’ve got a special back and he’s only getting it 10 or 12 times a game. Five of our 10 games were played on cow pastures (because of weather). He’s a Barry Sanders type runner. If those numbers had been played on dry fields, his numbers would have been fantastic.”
But as Hawkins is quick to point out, the Tigers have other playmakers too. One of those is senior quarterback Jack Nicholls who took over the signal-calling duties from his older brother.
“He worked hard,” Hawkins said of Nicholls. “It’s a cliché: ‘Champions are made when no one is looking.’ That’s easier said than done. He had a great summer.”
Nicholls has completed 58 percent of his passes for 861 yards and 10 touchdowns against six interceptions.
Hawkins warns those modest numbers are deceiving.
“We didn’t throw the ball that much, but we can,” Hawkins said. “If we have to throw 25 times a game Jack will do great and we have the receivers as well.”
Hawkins says this team’s success has created some other benefits.
“You know I look at coaching as being my job not only to develop better football players, better men and better students, but also better Christians,” Hawkins said. “I thank the Lord he has given us this platform. But you know you get a different platform when you go 10-0 than when you go 1-9.”
The Tigers face the 8-2 Pemberville Eastwood Eagles this Saturday in Galion. Eastwood’s only two setbacks have been to playoff teams Patrick Henry and Genoa.
“I said three years ago we would give the Galion community something to be proud of,” Hawkins said. “And we have.”
Ulmer says he is proud of what he and his teammates have accomplished, but noted the story isn’t over yet.
“It’s kind of weird, everybody around has been talking about it,” Ulmer says of the unbeaten championship season.
Turning his thoughts to the playoffs, Ulmer added, “It’s kind of mind boggling, but in another way it’s exciting. It’s another chapter to open.”