Massillon Washington has an indoor practice facility that rivals those of the two NFL teams in the state. Traditional powers such as Cincinnati Moeller have weight rooms with top equipment. Dublin Coffman is just one of many schools throughout the state with an artificial turf field.
And then there is Hilliard Davidson.
The Wildcats do not have an artificial turf field. Their field, sloped like a turtle’s back, is spotted like a Dalmatian thanks to the cleat-aided divots of missing grass. The office of head coach Brian White, now in his 16th year at the school, appears to be some sort of repurposed shed or storage facility. And the weight room? Don’t even ask about the weight room.
“I read an article a couple of years ago about a team we were playing and the coach mentioned they didn’t have air conditioning in their locker room that summer because of construction,” White said. “Our kids wouldn’t know what to do with air conditioning. Our weight room has a skylight in it, so it turns into a sauna in the summer when the sun is shining through it. I would like to think it creates a little bit of toughness.”
One thing the facility does have, though, is a pair of blue Ohio-shaped signs commemorating the program’s OHSAA Division I state championships won in 2006 and 2009. The Wildcats beat Mentor, 36-35, in overtime in 2006 and three years later beat Cleveland Glenville, 16-15, during Ohio State sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones’ senior season. In both cases, Hilliard Davidson won on a two-point conversion try that was successful.
How does a school that has produced just one Ohio State signee in the last 25 years go up against the best teams in Ohio’s Division I, which currently has multiple teams ranked in the top 50 of the country?
“We’ve asked ourselves that question many times,” White said.
Buying Into The System
While many high school teams still favor the run over the pass (although that gap appears to shrink with each passing year) few programs are as run-heavy as Hilliard Davidson. An increasing number of college football coaches such as Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze are being mined through the high school ranks, and their ticket to the next level usually involves running a cutting-edge offense.
“I think some coaches are trendy and want to do the most recent thing they’ve seen at the most recent clinic,” White said. “I think some coaches are afraid of what parents might say. Coaches want to be looked upon as being smart. We’re lucky that I’m not very smart, and it keeps us in this system that works pretty well for us. We don’t care what we look like. We’re into results over appearance rather than appearance over substance.”
That’s in everyone’s best interests anyway, as the results have been consistently stellar and the appearance – well, it hasn’t. Hilliard Davidson has missed the playoffs just twice since 2000, with the most recent playoff absence coming in 2007. In that incredible 15-season span, the Wildcats have made three more state semifinal appearances in addition to the two state crowns.
The offense is one reason why. The Wildcats run the triple option, which has been known to draw the ire of parents whose children are wide receivers (adults whose kids are lucky enough to play running back or offensive line seem pretty pleased, though). White says there are no such complaints from anyone who is actually on the team, though. In order for the offense to work, everyone needs to be 100 percent committed. At Hilliard Davidson, that’s not an issue.
“One of the things that our kids do more than kids at most places, especially in today’s society, is buy into our system,” White said. “Our system is kind of antiquated. We’re still a run-first, option, Naval Academy-type team in this day and age of what Ohio State does and spreading it all out and no-huddle. I think our kids still believe in what we do.”
It starts with the quarterback, and that’s a role that junior signal caller Jack Klein has embraced. Unlike many places, where the quarterback is tasked with putting up as many points as possible and driving a relentless, no-huddle attack, Hilliard Davidson prides itself on the amount of time it’s able to waste while chewing up yardage at a steady rate.
“There’s a lot of reading keys,” Klein said. “Our goal is to take long, slow drives and do whatever it takes to drive down the field.”
When asked why he so cherishes a ball-control offense in a sport that is growing increasingly enamored with a quicker pace, White pointed to the fact that high school football has 12-minute quarters instead of the 15-minute periods used in the college and professional ranks. That makes it easier to keep the ball away from the opponent. Over the years, White can point to several instances in which his team possessed the ball for 10 minutes before crossing the goal line.
That strategy is reflected in the team’s scores. In 2013, eventual state champion Cincinnati Moeller beat the Wildcats by a 13-11 score in the state semifinals. One week later, Moeller won its second consecutive state title by downing Mentor in a 55-52 shootout. It was the highest-scoring state championship game in Division I history, and the teams broke 16 offensive or scoring-based records.
“We play teams that like to spread it out and make it look pretty,” said senior linebacker Markus Bailey, who is verbally committed to Purdue. “Our coaches always say, ‘Make it look ugly.’ We like to play hard-nosed football. Everybody knows what we’re going to do, but our demeanor is, ‘Stop us.’
“A lot of coaches say when they prepared for us on film they thought it would be a lot easier to go against our offense. They don’t know how to go against our pad level and our consistency.”
The reason for that ugliness is not something that White attempts to hide. Unlike many other elite Division I programs, Hilliard Davidson isn’t overloaded with top college prospects. It has sent just one player to Ohio State since 1988 – quarterback Steve Baird, whose career ended prematurely because of injury – and Bailey is the only current Wildcat who has issued a verbal commitment to play Division I football.
In an ironic twist, former Ohio State defensive back Nate Ebner, now with the New England Patriots, is a Hilliard Davison alum but never played football for the Wildcats, earning acclaim as a rugby player instead.
“We haven’t necessarily been blessed with a ton of Division I talent,” White said. “More of what we’ve had than anything is just really, really good high school players – kids that might not project to be the best college players but are great high school players, maybe NCAA Division III-type players.”
Relentless Work Ethic
What White does have in his locker room is a group of players who appear willing to outwork just about anyone in order to close the talent gap between themselves and the star athletes at other programs.
“I was at DeSales as an assistant for seven years,” White said. “We had a principal there who used to refer to facilities as bricks and mortar and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what the bricks and mortar are, it matters what’s inside the bricks and mortar.’” In that regard, White and the Wildcats have an advantage over many. If you plan on playing at Hilliard Davidson, you better get used to waking up before the sun rises in the offseason.
“In the offseason we have 5:30 a.m. workouts every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday,” Klein said. “Every Sunday we have agility and lifting at 7 and 9 in the morning. We’re always working hard and getting better.”
That time commitment extends to the season, as well. Because of post-practice film sessions, players rarely if ever leave before 7 p.m. On the night before games, especially during the postseason, film study can last until 8 or 8:30 p.m.
Those are moments White cherishes. Reflecting on last year’s campaign, the head coach said he wasn’t disappointed that his squad dropped a two-point loss in the state semifinals. He just wishes he could have spent another week on the practice field with a group he described as one of the best and most responsive of his career.
Those are the times when Hilliard Davidson makes up ground on more naturally talented lineups. Opposing players are often aware of elite players they line up against, having seen what they’ve done in games or camps. But opponents can’t see what the Wildcats do in practice.
“We don’t want people to think we’re good,” White said. “We don’t want to be on the radar. I think our kids embrace the underdog role. We don’t have the talent of Huber Heights Wayne, Cincinnati Moeller, Cleveland Glenville or Dublin Coffman. Is it a surprise? No, because there’s nothing special about us.”
Nothing except the end result.
OSU Signees Since 1984:
QB Steve Baird (1994)
Notable Current FBS Players
J.D. Detmer – Toledo K
Keith Heitzman – Michigan TE
Phillipie Motley – Pittsburgh DB
Kyle Payton – Kent State TE