Friday night belonged to guys like Jacob Campbell, Travis Sexton, Riley Gibbs and the rest of the 2017 Black River football team, which played its heart out before falling 40-16 to South Range in the Division V, Region 17 final at Northwest High’s Dr. Martin Smilek Stadium.
Thirty-two years ago, it was guys like Dave Savick, Chad McComas, Jim Worden, Tim Channel, Larry Ensign and Duane Clement who starred as the Pirates reached the D-IV regional championship, where they fell 18-0 to St. Thomas Aquinas.
The one constant was Mr. Al Young, as likable, entertaining and motivating a coach as you’ll ever meet.
Having just finished his 28th season as head coach, in 1985 Young was student teaching at Black River, the school he graduated from five years earlier, and in his first season as an assistant to Matt Stoll.
Now Medina County’s career leader with 192 victories against 105 losses following an outstanding 11-2 season — the second-seeded Pirates trailed top-seeded South Range just 19-16 at halftime — how much longer the 55-year-old Young will continue to coach is unclear.
For selfish reasons — the guy is the most colorful, cooperative and enjoyable interview you’ll ever find — here’s hoping he never calls it quits. The man is such a pro’s pro he even took time to address 13-0 South Range after the game, telling the Raiders they had two more games to play and were capable of winning a state title.
There are, however, two big factors in play. Twin children Morgan, a volleyball player, and Mitchell, a lineman for the football team, are Black River juniors.
As much as he still loves coaching, part of Young wants to be a normal dad cheering in the stands at every game or match, something he hasn’t always been able to do for his daughter and something he’s never done while coaching his son in high school.
Truth be told, retiring from coaching has been a year-to-year decision for Young for some time. And this, his 33rd season with the football program, is no different.
It’s a decision Young will spend the next several weeks — if not months — contemplating.
“When I step away, I’ll step away for good,” he said. “It would be unfair to the new staff to have me hanging around.”
Before we talk anymore about the present or future, though, let’s first take a trip down Memory Lane.
Young was a 23-year-old fresh out of Iowa Wesleyan back in 1985, when Savick, Worden, McComas and Co. reeled off 11 straight wins before falling to Aquinas (only eight teams in each division made the playoffs in those days), which won another game before falling to future Ohio State running back Carlos Snow and Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education in the state championship.
I was a 24-year-old fairly fresh out of the University of Akron back in those days, and those Pirates remain my favorite county football team to this day.
Part of that is due to nostalgia, as long-ago days are often looked back upon favorably. But part is also due to how hard-working, tough and likable those players were. I still keep in contact with a handful of them through Facebook, and they possess those same qualities as adults.
If you will indulge me a bit longer, about 10 or 12 years ago I wrote a column about the great things kids sometimes say, and included was a quote that went something like this: “It was Rambo ball. It was blood and guts.” I did not identify the speaker, and that night my phone rang at work.
“Mr. Noland,” the caller said, “by any chance do you remember who said the quote you wrote about today?”
I told him I did, and he asked me not to give the name until he put me on speaker. Only when I said “Larry Ensign” did I learn it was him, hanging out with a group of disbelieving friends now in their late 30s, who was on the other end of the line.
The guffaws I heard in the background were loud, but also a reminder of how long-lasting high school sports memories are. Years from now, the 2017 Pirates of Campbell, Sexton, Gibbs and Co. will realize that.
If they don’t already — and many of them do — they’ll also realize just how fortunate they were to play for Young, who delegates more to his assistants these days but remains as committed and caring as ever.
“He’s just one of the guys,” said current Black River offensive coordinator Matt Stafford, who transferred from Northwestern in 1999 to play for Young as a senior. “He is our leader, but he doesn’t put himself on that pedestal of, ‘I’m the boss.’ He makes you feel welcome; he makes you feel important. He’ll give you more responsibility when you show you’ve earned it.”
Not only that, Young will laugh with you, scream with you, even cry with you after every game. Then he’ll have you and the rest of his coaches over to his parents’ place in Spencer Township for hamburgers and hotdogs.
“He’s just a great guy,” Stafford said. “He’s more of a friend than he is a mentor or coach, even though he’s both those things. He’s a guy you’re always going to have a relationship with.”
Need proof? Kyle Clark, a 2004 Black River graduate, now serves as Young’s defensive coordinator, and virtually all other assistants also graduated from the school.
That’s because Young not only was born to coach, he was born to coach at Black River.
“It’s a family atmosphere,” Stafford said. “I noticed it when I first walked into Black River to inquire about transferring here. It’s a laid-back atmosphere. There’s tons of humor and there’s great community support. Football is important here and the kids are hard-working, down-to-earth kids.”
Part of that is due to the Black River community. Part of that is due to great parents. But part of that also is due to Young, though he’ll never tell you that.
Not one to live in the past, Young also will never tell you he played linebacker as a sophomore on the 1977 Black River team that captured The Associated Press Class A state poll championship. Nor will he tell you he was a darn good running back in his glory days.
But he’ll spend all day telling you stories about the kids he’s coached. Like Jeremy Linden, Jesse Power and Seth Hendershot, who helped the Pirates reach the D-V regional final in 1999. Like Clark, Stefan Mullins and Jared Willis, who led Black River to a regional final in 2003.
And especially guys like Campbell, Sexton, Gibbs, Alex Vormelker, Riley Bartolic, Cole Haswell, Spencer Constable, Jeff Owen and so many others that made the 2017 season so memorable.
“They were leaders and they all worked hard,” Young said. “They’re tough and dedicated.”
As proud as Young was of his players, the seniors — and underclassmen as well, pending his decision about whether to keep coaching — were equally proud to have had the privilege of playing for him.
“I couldn’t ask for a better coach,” said the beastly, do-everything Campbell, who had a long embrace with Young after the game. “He’s been there for us through the ups and downs. He never batted an eye. He pushed us to be better football players and better in life.”
That kind of relationship with his players is why Young has never applied for another teaching or coaching job. As close as he came was the early 2000s, when he was contacted by Ashland High about its vacant football job.
Young went through the interview process and was offered the position, but thought things over and said, “No thanks.”
The Black River community was home. Always has been, always will be.
“It’s where I grew up,” Young said. “The people and the community make it a great atmosphere. I just like the rural setting.
“People always ask me, ‘If you had it to do all over again, wouldn’t it have been fun to go somewhere else?’ Sure, it would have been fun. But, gosh, I can’t argue with all the fun I’ve had here.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @RickNoland on Twitter.