By Matt Popchock
Perhaps the hardest thing for a student-athlete is to learn how to succeed when he or she has become accustomed to failure. This was the challenge that awaited Don Phillips when he took over the football program at Ellwood City in the summer of 2008. He embraced that challenge, and both he and the program have been better off since.
“We knew the first thing to do was to instill a sense of pride in the program, to get enthusiasm going,” Phillips recalled. “We knew it would be a process, and we knew we had to change the culture…not only to get the players to understand what we do works, but to get the community to understand that, if we’re going to be successful there’s a lot of work to do.”
That became apparent right away. The Wolverines went winless in ’08, and their losing streak, which reached 31 games, wasn’t halted until the penultimate week of the ’09 campaign, when they defeated visiting New Brighton. But in time, the loser’s mentality within the program disappeared.
“When I got here, it was always, ‘We’re going to lose.’ They expected it to happen,” Phillips said. “But we’ve reversed that, and now we expect to compete.”
Ellwood City won its first three games of the 2010 season, and, in Week 9, edged Riverside in front of a boisterous crowd for the last playoff spot in the Midwestern Conference. Last year the Wolverines replicated their 3-0 start, and ultimately, their 5-3 finish in MAC play, punctuated by a come-from-behind 31-28 win over powerful Beaver Falls in Week 8. They weren’t done there, as No. 14 seed Ellwood City rallied late to stun No. 3 seed Freeport, 33-26, for the program’s first playoff win since 1987.
Obviously the MAC Coaches’ Association didn’t need a lot of convincing when it tabbed Phillips to coach Team Pennsylvania in the 33rd annual Penn-Ohio All-Star Football Classic at Springfield High School in New Middletown, Ohio this Friday at 7:30, and neither did Phillips.
“It’s quite an honor for me, and I think I can speak for the rest of our coaches when I say it’s an honor for all of them. This is one of the longest-running rivalries involving the same communities. There’s a lot of pride on both sides…so when I was asked to be head coach, there was not even a second thought.”
The game, which is sort of a sister to the Big 33, pits the best of Beaver County–and, in a few instances, beyond–against the best of eastern Ohio. Phillips led the Pennsylvanians to a 20-9 win in 1990, and a 17-13 victory in 2001, part of a 23-9 all-time edge for PA.
Finally the Buckeye State has closed that gap as of late, winning three of the last seven, but Phillips doesn’t need to wave that same magic wand he used at Ellwood City to get his all-star team to take pride in the task that lie ahead.
“They’re going to be tough, aggressive kids who are going to play hard,” he said of the MAC youth. “There’s also going to be a real sense of camaraderie, because this will be one last opportunity for them to play together, and they’ll be playing with kids they’ve played against [for years].”
Two of the players he coached in 2011 will line up together for the last time. Dynamic tailback Kyle Crawford, who will play at Division II Mercyhurst this fall, will be accompanied by lineman Gregg Williams.
Williams (6’3″, 245 lbs.) played both ways as a senior, assuming the responsibility of clearing a path for Crawford. He’s come a long way physically, and he helped pave the way for an offense that continued to improve, averaging 26 points per game.
“Greg in particular, in the weight room, was a role model, somebody to emulate,” Phillips said.
Crawford (6’0″, 185 lbs.) ran for 1,073 yards, averaging 7.5 per carry, and his 23-yard run set up Julian Cox’s game-winning QB sneak against Freeport. He ranked fifth in WPIAL Class AA in total scoring with 22 touchdowns, which was good enough to earn him conference MVP honors, and underscore how much Ellwood City has done to re-establish itself on the gridiron.
Although Crawford, also a defensive back, is listed as a receiver, he only caught five passes all year, totaling 67 yards. Nevertheless, three of his biggest offensive plays happened through the air.
In the win over Beaver Falls, he hauled in a 40-yard TD pass from Julian Cox in the fourth quarter that put the Wolverines ahead to stay. Against the Yellowjackets he caught a crucial two-point conversion pass, then hauled in a two-yard touchdown pass, part of a 22-point fourth quarter in which Ellwood City climbed out of a 26-11 hole.
“Their athletic ability is phenomenal, and they understand the commitment it takes,” Phillips said of Crawford and Williams. “Every chance they had…to get bigger, get stronger, do things to make our program better, they were right there.”
They’ve enjoyed being part of the renaissance, and now, as they train with the rest of these chosen few for their final high school football game, they’re enjoying the reward.
“They know each other, and, after just a couple days, they’re real comfortable with each other. It’s a neat thing to watch.”
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)