It’s the people.
On a Monday afternoon in October, every single car in the parking lot adjacent to the football field was adorned with at least one Mentor logo sticker. Members of the girls’ soccer team, waiting for their turn to practice, killed the time by watching football practice from the track encircling the field. And on the field, coaches let players know what would happen if they didn’t pick up the intensity.
To the players being sharpened for games that won’t be played until late November and early December, contests that will define the level of success of this season, they wouldn’t have it any other way. The pressure to win at a place like Mentor is noticeable, but it’s a shared experience that starts at the top and trickles its way down to everyone else at one of the 10 largest schools in the state of Ohio.
“It’s the coaches and how deep they coach,” senior Eddie Daugherty said. “They’re in the coaching room and film room all weekend. Football season, they say, is football season. They get all the distractions and get rid of them, and it’s nice to know that they buy into everything they’re teaching us and how much they tell us to be a team and love each other and have fun playing the game. It’s nice to have that.”
“Nobody is selfish,” junior Alex Matthews added. “We’re all playing as a team and everyone knows their role.”
Because of the size of the school, the Cardinals have a deep player pool – even by the standards of the OHSAA’s Division I. The roster size reflects that, and the program looks even bigger than it is when the freshmen share the practice field with the varsity squad.
Bringing harmony to a larger group is a bigger task than doing so at a smaller program, but the additional depth also leads to better practices. Although he said that he thinks most Ohio schools including his don’t have the depth that they used to, Cardinals head coach Steve Trivisonno acknowledged that the high numbers certainly offer some benefits.
It hasn’t escaped the notice of his players, either, who might find themselves looking over their shoulders after a bad practice. Trivisonno has a fondness for putting best on best in practice and leaving the backups to face each other, but if a starter slips at all, there’s no shortage of players willing to step in and show why they should be the ones getting the top reps in practice and in the games.
“The twos are always pushing the ones,” Daugherty said. “If they don’t get it done right, someone else is always right there in their spot. It helps each person get better and better. The freshmen come up and practice with us, and it shows them what they have to do to be successful at the next level.”
The old adage that games are won on the practice field has plenty of support at Mentor. Matthews noted that practices can get chippy as players claw for playing time, and Daugherty said the intensity of the days leading up to games is done with a goal in mind.
“Our philosophy on practice is to make it hard every day so it appears easy in the game,” Daugherty said. “It never is really easy, but that’s our philosophy. They get on us every play of every practice, and we have to be at our best every time. We try to come in and work every single day.”
Unlike some schools, where intensity reigns throughout the week, Trivisonno and his assistants do back down as the game nears to keep the players as fresh as possible. The emphasis on perfection never leaves, though.
“We always try to get after it in the first half of the week and then we back down in the back half of the week to rest up a little bit,” Trivisonno said. “You have to battle. It’s not easy here. Kids aren’t pushed very hard today and they don’t have that same toughness. You have to get it out of them or you’re not going to win. We’re going to push them and get them to battle and fight and do the best they can.”
The old-school head coach of the Cardinals isn’t content to accept what he views as diminished standards for success compared to those of years past.
“That’s America today,” he said. “Everything’s soft, everything’s easy and everything’s OK. This is hard. We have to do the job we need to do to toughen them up. They have to learn to battle every day. You can’t make it easy on them. They have to learn to toughen up because everything else we do isn’t tough. We’ve got to toughen them up, and we try to get them to compete every day. That shows in the games.”
At Mentor, pitting the starters against each other is one of the preferred methods of discovering who has the competitive fire the coaches want to see out of their players.
“We go best on best and twos against twos,” Trivisonno said. “We go back and forth every day, and there’s a lot of competition. That’s what we need to get out of it, and that’s the only way to get better. If our starters go against our twos and threes, they’re going to dominate and we’re not going to get good enough. We have to get a half hour a day of going best on best.”
Being considered one of the best teams in Ohio by poll voters and one of the 50 best teams in the country according to Scout.com might be a cause for pride at some places, but the Cardinals remain grounded specifically because, in their eyes, they’ve yet to accomplish what they seek most.
“They don’t look at (the polls),” Trivisonno said. “That’s for fans. Kids don’t care who’s No. 1, and how could you tell who’s nationally the best? It doesn’t mean anything. We worry about who we’re playing and what we can control. If we can control things, we have a shot to be pretty good.
“Our expectation is the same every year. We expect to fight for a state championship. That’s our expectation. Is it lofty? Yes. In some years, it’s more lofty than other years. That’s what your goal is, and these kids have known since they were little that those are the expectations in this program – to attempt to be the best in the state of Ohio.”
Mentor has come close recently but never reached the mountaintop. The Cardinals are still waiting on their first state championship, having finished as a runner-up in 2006, 2007 and 2013. Two of those losses were especially gutting, as Mentor fell in double overtime to Hilliard Davidson in 2006 when the Wildcats went for two to win 36-35 and they lost a 55-52 barnburner to Cincinnati Moeller last fall.
The defeat at the hands of Moeller is still fresh in the minds of everyone associated with the program, and there’s no denying the motivation that it provides. The Cardinals have raced out to an 8-0 record and picked up an impressive win in the second week of the season by taking down Cleveland St. Ignatius in a 37-33 thriller.
“They’re hungry,” Trivisonno said. “They know they got beat 55-52 in a state title game. They want to win it, and that’s always motivation. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win it, but it’s always motivation. You have to keep battling after it.”
The staff is doing its best to remind the players not to lose focus. Impressive regular-season wins have been plentiful over the years at Mentor, but none of those carry the weight of a December win.
“Our receivers coach always reminds us to stay humble because we haven’t won anything yet,” Matthews said. “We haven’t won anything until Week 15.”
“There’s pressure to win, but it’s pressure we put on ourselves,” Daugherty added. “It doesn’t have anything to do with being ranked nationally. We don’t care about rankings. We never have and never will. All we care about is being the No. 1 team in Week 15.” The inability to navigate factors beyond its control is something that the staff has accepted. The injury bug strikes different teams in different years, and some squads play their best ball earlier in the season instead of in the playoffs.
“You have to get on fire at the right time, and that’s not always easy to do,” Trivisonno said. “We’ve had years where we caught fire right at the right time, and we’ve had years where we didn’t. You also have to stay healthy because if you don’t stay healthy the first part doesn’t matter. You’re not going to overcome that. That’s just the way it is.
“If you’re good, that’s great, but we’ve beat teams the last couple of years that were way better than us but we just caught fire at the right time and they had some injuries. That’s what it comes down to in football. Those are the two things that are important, and everything else doesn’t matter as much.”
If the Cardinals do find their way into Ohio Stadium for the state championship game, don’t expect any “Win one for the Gipper” speeches from Trivisonno or anyone else in the program.
“We’re a very regimented program,” he said. “We’re not big into mottos and all that. We’re about coming to work and working hard. The rest is all a bunch of garbage anyways.
“I don’t know if anything is unique as much as our kids just understand what hard work is. We’re successful because we work hard. I don’t know that we’re better than anybody, but we come to work every day and that’s half the battle.”
OSU Signees Since 1988:
TE Jason Caldwell (2000)
Notable Current FBS Players:
Kent Berger – Ohio DL
Brandon Fritts – North Carolina TE
Conner Krizancic – Minnesota WR
Kurt Laseak – Ohio DE
Tom Strobel – Michigan DE
Mitch Trubisky – North Carolina QB
Legacy Of Faust Lives On At Moeller (Aug. 27)
Hard Work Trumps All At St. Edward (Sept. 3)
Massillon History, Support Unmatched (Sept. 10)
Every Role Counts At St. Xavier (Sept. 17)
System Wins Out At Hilliard Davidson (Oct. 1)
Life Lessons Abound At Glenville (Oct. 8)