OXFORD — Owen King went straight to the source of the Talawanda High School football team’s struggles in recent years.
Competing for a full 48 minutes is the Brave’s primary focus in 2023, and they’ll get to embark on that journey with new head coach Andy Stuckert.
“We’re putting in the little things mainly because last year we were a little sloppy,” said King, a senior captain who will see action on both the offensive and defensive lines. “We didn’t finish games. We have to put an emphasis on finishing through — making sure that we finish through everything.”
Talawanda went 1-9 last year and 2-7 in 2021 under Jay Volker, who is now the head coach at Kentucky powerhouse Beechwood.
Stuckert is Talawanda’s third head coach in five seasons and had a 7-18 record in three years at New Miami before coming to Oxford. He said the program was left in decent shape when he took over in February.
“First and foremost, Coach Volker did a great job. They were on the verge of turning some things around,” Stuckert said. “… We hit the ground running. Every week, we’ve been getting stuff done. Our weight program is good. Our numbers are increasing. Our speed and agility program has been good, too. We’ve got to get everyone in shape.
“We’ve got a great coaching staff in place which helps,” Stuckert added. “The kids see that. They’ve been coming out and getting involved and starting to learn how they’re going to be treated. We’re excited to get a little deeper into the summer.”
The regular season is upon the Brave as they travel to Monroe on Friday to kick things off.
“One of the biggest challenges, and I think it’s anywhere you go where there hasn’t been a lot of winning going on, is you run into a mental block with the kids where they think they’re supposed to show up and not win,” Stuckert said. “We explain to them every single day — they’re the same age, the same skill level, same playing experience as every team that won a state championship last year. So we’re fighting the mental battle pretty good up here.”
But Stuckert said his players have zoned in during the offseason to combat that.
“We try to work on body language — try to compete every single day,” the coach said. “We watch film to not just correct X’s and O’s stuff, but body language. It’s just a lot about reinforcing positivity — giving them a little bit of confidence. And as any program goes, those young kids get in the weight program, and they start getting muscles. They start to get confidence anyway. Now we’re trying to get that going a little bit quicker, a little sooner.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Stuckert said he’s got the talent to put a successful product on the field. But the red flag is depth.
“We are very excited about our talent,” Stuckert said. “We are not super excited about our depth. I’ll be quite honest about that. That’s what we’ve been trying to correct.
“There’s a lot of talent on the surface here,” Stuckert added. “I know what it looks like to have some talent in the (Southwest Ohio Conference), and we certainly have that. I think you’re going to see that on the offensive side of the ball and defensive side of the ball.”
Junior Cale Leitch is entering his third year at quarterback after throwing for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. He ran for an additional 146 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns.
“He is transitioning to a new offense, but he is able to make plays with his arm and his feet,” Stuckert said of Leitch. “We are really excited to watch him play this season.”
Stuckert said King is “a big, physical road grader” on offense and will pose as a problem for offenses on the defensive line.
“We have a small senior class this year, so it’s definitely tight-knit,” King said. “We want to get it done. We just have to keep working hard. We’ve got a lot of improvement left to do.”
Senior captain Caleb Dillhoff is a “throwback linebacker who flies around the field with no regard for his body. He is aggressive and plays with a ton of emotion. He has been a lot of fun to coach.”
Dillhoff recorded 32 tackles as a junior, which is the most out of any returning player.
Others to keep an eye on are seniors Wyatt Jones (OL/DL), AJ Hainline (DB) and Brayden Glass (WR/DB); and sophomores Tad Polly (LB), Lance Cantrell (RB) and Demetrius Morris-Williams (WR/DB).
“What’s really cool about our talent — outside of our leaders, which we do have some senior leaders coming through — a lot of those talented kids that you’re going to see on the stat sheet are really young,” Stuckert said. “That’s not an excuse for anything. That’s just going to be a head-scratcher when they see somebody light up the stat sheet and they’re young. That bodes well for the future, too.”
“The thing I always fall back on is how good our staff is,” Stuckert said. “It doesn’t just stop with the football staff. The people up here love Talawanda, and you can tell because there are a lot of people who have been here for life. It’s a really unique community. It will be really fun to win up here, which is obviously the plan. Until that day happens, we can fall back on the staff that we have and the support that we have in that building. We know that they’re going to give us a shot to build it the right way. I’m pretty excited about that.”
“Everywhere we’ve been we’ve always preached toughness,” Stuckert said. “And that’s always up for debate on what that actually means. But for us, mentally and physically, we want the kids to be resilient. I think that’s probably a better word for it.”
“We’re really pushing them this year,” Stuckert said before smirking. “I got in trouble earlier this year because there were too many kids puking on the artificial turf. We’re trying to fix that with getting them in better shape.”
“We’ve got a whole new coaching staff,” Jones said. “I think this will all help us if we can just trust the processes. We also need to have blind faith for our coaches and this new system of coaching that I think will help improve our games.”