ASHLAND – Following consecutive trips to the state playoffs, Ashland High School football coach Scott Valentine isn’t resting on his laurels or letting his players get comfortable.
“Our goal every year is, number one, to go the state championship, of course, then make the playoffs and then win our conference,” Valentine said. “We realize you’ve got to go one game at a time and hopefully at the end we’re in the hunt for a lot of those things.”
In 2015, the Arrows made it through the regular season with just one loss to Ohio Cardinal Conference co-champs Wooster before falling in their first playoff game to Bay, 31-21.
Valentine and his team of coaches are putting the players through their paces during this second week of practice, working hard to make sure the Arrows can achieve those goals when October rolls around.
“You’ve got to start building now and that’s where we’re at right now,” Valentine said.
Valentine, whose record is 109-48 in 14 seasons at the helm for the Arrows, said these early practices are a good chance to see where players are at and to emphasize what the coaches expect from them.
“We talk to our kids all the time about how the things they control are knowledge-wise, what they know, and then how hard they work. So those are things we’re focused on now. Because if they know what we want them to do and they work hard, we feel we can progress and keep getting better,” Valentine said.
Heading into this season, one obvious strength for the Arrows will be having quarterback Grant Denbow under center for his third season as a starter. Denbow has passed for 4,606 yards and 42 touchdowns in two seasons as the Arrow signal caller. In 2015, Denbow threw for 1,854 yards and 17 touchdowns, and also accounted for 597 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground.
“When you’ve got a third-year starter coming back you expect them to play at a high level and to be one of your leaders,” Valentine said of his quarterback.
Denbow’s top target from a season ago, senior John Wolfe, will look to continue what he started last year, when he lead the team in receptions (51) receiving yards (677) and receiving touchdowns (5), and also tallied 3 interceptions and 64 tackles on defense. Those numbers earned the pair first-team OCC and first-team Northwest District honors after the season.
The coach said Denbow and Wolfe, who both earned Special Mention All-Ohio honors last year, are team leaders he will rely on to set the example.
“Those guys have been out there. They’ve experienced a lot of things and they’ve got to be our leaders as we go,” Valentine said.
Other top returners include seniors Donald Denbow, who accounted for 4 touchdowns in 2015; guard Tyler Newlan, who earned first-team All-OCC and second-team All-Northwest District; and Deven Bowen (6 sacks and 81 tackles).
The Arrows lost some key players from 2015, including leading rusher Lonzo Dampier (926 yards and 17 TDs), leading tackler Alex Webb (127 tackles), receiver/defensive back Cole McQuate (7 TDs, 6 INTs, 75 tackles), first-team All-Ohioan Nivlek Lewis (12 sacks, 90 tackles), and defensive lineman Scotty Valentine, who is continuing his football career at Ashland University. But Coach Valentine is optimistic he has the right pieces in place to step in and fill those holes.
“The thing about our kids is they understand sometimes there are guys who have to wait for their opportunity because there’s a guy in front of them. And now it’s their turn. So if they don’t prepare themselves to get ready and be able to step in and do that then they’re going to miss an opportunity. So we are fortunate our kids understand that. We feel we have some kids that are ready for their opportunity and hopefully that’s going to happen,” Valentine said.
A year ago, the Arrows kicked off their season with a tough 28-20 road win over Wadsworth, a team Ashland had lost four consecutive season openers against. This year, Ashland again starts its season against the Grizzlies in front of a friendly crowd at Community Stadium on Aug. 26.
Wadsworth has a new head coach this year, but he is a familiar face to Valentine and other area football fans: former Loudonville High School coach Justin Todd. Todd replaces Greg Dennison who had coached the Grizzlies for 21 years before retiring due to health issues.
Todd joined Wadsworth after one season at the helm at Mount Vernon High School, where he led them to a 5-5 record. Prior to that, he coached the Loudonville Redbirds to a 30-6 record and three playoff appearances in three seasons.
“I hear he’s doing a lot of the same stuff he did in Loudonvile and even last year in Mount Vernon,“Valentine said. “We’ll get the opportunity to see them in scrimmages a couple of times, but the first game is the first game. Number one is nerves for kids and how they’re going to respond, number two is what have you been able to get accomplished and then a lot of times you get things you haven’t seen so you just have to be able to adjust during the game and hopefully those are things we can do.”