LIBERTY TWP. — Jon Kitna took a couple of snaps in the shotgun during a recent Lakota East High School football practice. He ran a quick pitch to a running back, and then he followed that up with a completed pass over the middle to a wide receiver.
He later jumped on the offensive line to do some blocking.
After those plays were over, the Thunderhawks turned to their new head coach and listened.
The preseason leading up to the 2023 regular season had begun in Liberty Township.
“They’re fantastic. I love these kids,” Kitna said. “They come from a place where they’re driven. They want to be great. They don’t mind being coached hard.
“We’re going to tell them the truth. But they’ve done a great job. We’ve gotten bigger and faster and stronger in the weight room this offseason, and that was the focus. We’re working hard in the weight room, but now we’re moving into the phase where we’re teaching ball. They’re learning a lot of it.”
The Thunderhawks are learning a fresh style of football than what they’ve been used to since Kitna was hired to lead the program in February after long-time coach Rick Haynes stepped down.
Since then, the vibe has changed.
“We’re looking like a completely different team,” senior tight end Derek Jackson said following a practice last week.
East went 70-65 in the 13 seasons under Haynes, and the Thunderhawks’ best finish within the Greater Miami Conference was a runner-up 9-3 record in 2014.
Lakota East finished 3-7 this past fall and missed out on making the playoffs.
“We’re going to do football at a really high level,” Kitna said back in February. “I think the kids should be excited to be here.”
Jon Kitna’s youngest son, JT Kitna — a standout quarterback who will be a junior this year — announced his verbal commitment to the University of Houston on Tuesday.
JT Kitna is expected to provide a boost in Lakota East’s offensive scheme. JT Kitna transferred from Burleson (Texas) where he threw for 2,600 yards, ran for 405 yards and had 26 passing touchdowns and seven rushing scores as a sophomore.
“He likes football,” Jon Kitna said of his son. “We’re pretty excited about what we’ve got the opportunity to do.”
When asked earlier this year what fans will see when he hits the field, JT Kitna said, “I’ll toss the ball around and use my legs to hurt the defense. You’ll see excitement.”
Lakota East will likely utilize a pro-style offense that will best fit his players, Jon Kitna said.
Kitna noted that he knew the Thunderhawks were married to the triple option under Haynes, but said he isn’t quite as knowledgeable about it.
“There are a lot of coaching philosophies out there,” Kitna said. “If I don’t know it, I don’t think I should teach it. I’m going to do what I feel we will do well and what I can teach.
“I’ve been asked a lot about that,” Kitna added of Lakota East’s potential offensive scheme. “I’ve run everything that you can think of from the pro-style stuff. That’s what I spent most of my life doing. And by that, we’re going to do what suits the young men in this program.”
There’s no middle ground to it, either, according to Kitna.
“Our job on offense is to put the ball in the endzone,” he said in February. “I don’t really care how it gets there — I really, really don’t. I have zero ego when it comes to that. As a staff, that’s what we’re trying to put together.
“We think it’s a team thing. Defensively, we’re going to attack you. We’re going to attack you on offense. We’re going to attack you on defense. We’re going to attack you on special teams. We don’t want you to ever feel like you can take a breath.
“It takes time to build it, and we’re excited and committed to the building process.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kitna said his players are competing hard to earn their starting roles come Week 1 on Aug. 18 at Centerville.
Senior Nick Fritzsche is the leader on the offensive line.
“We really like our offensive line,” Kitna said. “We feel like we’ve got eight or nine guys that can play there.”
A potential target for JT Kitna is senior wide receiver Andy Vogelmann, who had 12 receptions for 114 yards as a junior.
Senior running back Marvin Richter could see the bulk of the carries. He ran for 117 yards and a touchdown in three games a season ago. Sophomore running back Ryder Hooks, a transfer from Lebanon, could make his presence felt this season as well.
Junior linebacker Cohen Reip will lead the Thunderhawk defense. Reip had 28 total tackles last season.
“We want them to have an offensive mindset on defense, and that is to attack,” Kitna said. “When that ball is loose, it’s ours. It no longer belongs to anybody — in the air, on the ground — it’s our football. They’re really developing that mindset.”
Returning is senior defensive lineman Wyatt Pleasant, who totaled 16 tackles in eight games in 2022. Adding to the pass rush is junior defensive end Parker Elam.
“I’ve got great coaches — guys that can coach football, and that’s fun to be around,” Kitna said. “I’ve got a great staff. It’s fun to watch them work.”
Kitna made it clear when he was hired that high school, in his eyes, stems far beyond the gridiron.
“We’re a leadership factory,” he said. “When you talk about high school football in America, we believe it’s a great opportunity to instill some of the characteristics and traits that you need to be successful in life. We really try to do that. With that, it’s a transformation in coaching philosophies. We’re really trying to get to know who these young men are, who their families are, what their upbringing is like, what their dreams and aspirations are.
“We’re talking at the high school level,” Kitna added. “Let’s just give them the greatest experience they can have at this level. Now, along with that, we’re going to be excellent at football. We’re going to be a team that’s tenacious, coachable and resilient — assertive leaders.
“We don’t believe that we’re here to be served. We’re here to serve. We want to use the game of football at the highest level to try and do those things. That’s why I coach high school. I don’t want kids to lose sight of the character things that are necessary to keep us in position for success. The transformational coaching model is why I wanted to get into high school football — to use this game to instill those things.”