LAKE COUNTY, Ohio — The region East of Cleveland will have quite the representation in this year’s high school football state championship games.
We start in Kirtland, where head coach Tiger LaVerde heads out to the football field before practice at a school with around 400 students
“It’s a little stadium, but we love it. We take pride in it. The main road's right there, so people drive by all the time and say I drove by and it was 21-7, or they tell me the score. But no, it’s a great community. We have one main road that goes through town and the stadiums right on 306. So it’s a nice little high school football stadium."
The Pennsylvania native has made the program his home for 15 years, recording his 200th win this season.
“I don’t even worry about it. I just don’t want to screw this up for these kids. You know, this is a nice team and they’ve worked hard, and I want to do my best to help them, and the rest of my coaches feel the same.”
While he doesn’t brag about his achievement, he’s happy for the area to have this much success.
“I have a good relationship with almost every coach around. We have a Lake County Coaches Association, and we have a clinic every year and we get together and share our thoughts and ideas and I’m blessed to be a part of it,” said LaVerde. “It’s a blue collar region with a lot of kids that are willing to put in the time in the offseason. If you want to be successful in a sport like football, it’s such a team game. You need 25 to 35 to 45 kids that are committed year-round to be in the weight room and get after it at 6 a.m. in the morning and workout after basketball and track.”
Also in Lake County, there is Lake Catholic High School — where music is allowed at practice for the Cougars, led by coach Marty Gibbons, who’s embracing the battles of 2020.
“Oh, it was a really fun challenge, to be honest.You know, we had to really make sure we did a good job of connecting with the kids while we were quarantined in the spring and early summer, so I think everybody did a great job. Our players did a great job, our assistant coaches did an awesome job, and I think that’s a big reason why we’re here today, is because of the way we stayed connected during all those tough times.”
Unlike the other two coaches, Gibbons is only in his second year as a head coach at just 28 years-old. But he’s proud to be welcomed into the fraternity of coaches East of Cleveland.
“Everybody looks out for each other up here. I talk with a lot of coaches in the area. Even being a younger coach as well. It’s really important for me to have all those people looking out for me as well. So, I really appreciate everybody that’s been helping me on my journey here as a coach and try giving back, as well as a younger coach trying to give perspective.”
We then head to Chardon, where the players are taking the field for practice. They're led by head coach Mitch Hewitt, who's proud to lead his alma matter.
"This is a community that’s been very good to me. You know, I have four kids that are going through the school system and we have no intention to go anywhere else. I mean, we have a small little ice cream stand here that we’re proud of and we love these kids. These are homegrown kids, we don’t recruit. 98% of them have been born here, they’ve been raised here.”
As the Hilltopers warm up, Hewitt’s decade mark as head coach just happened to be the most challenging one yet.
“I would say coaching adolescent males in high school football is challenging. And then you add in 2020 and COVID and restrictions and uncertainty and everything else that the season has presented. It’s been probably the most challenging, yet rewarding season we’ve had.”
He says the tight-knit group of coaches in the region has helped the area not only have success, but a season in general.
“I call it a fraternity of misery, that we’re all fighting for our kids, and we’re trying to get our kids in a position to be able to succeed and compete, and we’re all working for the same goal. So, as much as on a Friday night we want to beat each other, we still, at the end of the day, we want to see our kids play and compete.”
And while there’s still one more game to be played, it’s a season these coaches won’t forget.
“I’m gonna remember the practices, the meetings, you know, the time spent with the kids and our assistant coaches and our community’s response to the whole season so far. It’s just been so powerful, so special for us. So, I’m gonna remember all of those things. It’s probably not going to be whether we won or lost games. It’s going to be more along the lines of the things that we did along that way that really make it memorable,” said Gibbons.
Three coaches, different towns, different stories — representing a region during an unforgettable football season.