BSB Longform: Meyer's School Back In Action

The St. John School in Ashtabula, Ohio, had fallen on hard times a few years ago. But Urban Meyer's alma mater is on the way back, and the surest sign might be the Friday Night Lights that are shining over St. John Heralds football this season.

Dom Iarocci stood in the locker room, 19 sets of eyes locked into his, delivering the kind of pregame speech that high school coaches give every Friday night around the country, a speech he’s given or heard hundreds of times in his career.

“Not no more,” he said, not yelling but speaking with a fire and determination in his voice, as though he was trying to pass on each to the young men sitting in front of him.

“Not no more! Offensive line, they want to blitz that ‘A’ gap, not no more! You know, you reach a point where you have taken enough. You guys have worked hard enough. You’ve taken it enough. Not no more! It’s our turn.”

An assistant coach closed the door to the small locker room, shutting out both the public address announcer and the opposing team next door.

“There’s a lot of people that want to see you do well. You have developed a lot of pride in the community just by having the program back. Let’s take it to the next level. Let’s win one now. But the only way to do that is to give 110 percent.

“If you’re a running back and you make 3 yards, keep going and make 4. Let them feel some pain tonight. Gang tackle on defense. Do your assignments in the secondary. And then offense, let’s move the frickin’ ball. You control the ball, they can’t beat us.”

The Ashtabula St. John Heralds, playing their first varsity season after a six-year hiatus, haven’t won a game in five previous tries, but there’s a palpable feeling in the locker room that this Oct. 17 contest against Southington Chalker could be the one. You can almost reach out and touch it as Iarocci reaches his crescendo.

“Everything is on the table for you fellas – everything! There’s no greater opportunity that you will have than you have tonight. The question is, do you want to seize it? Only you 19 guys can answer that question. But it’s ripe. It’s ripe, fellas. It’s ripe for us to bust out. It really is.

“Like I’ve told you many, many times, I’ve been around a lot of kids coaching a lot of places, but you guys have worked as hard as or harder than any of them. If anybody deserves a win, it’s you guys. It’s you guys. Nineteen of you have busted your butts since the middle of June. Remember that out there.

“No more. No more. Every time you hit one of their ball carriers, no more. Every time you run the football, no more. No mistakes. No more.”

It’s quiet in the locker room. Finally, sophomore Ryan Rivera speaks.

“How would it feel to go to homecoming tomorrow with a win?” he said. “It would feel amazing. It would feel AMAZING!”

Up in the press box, where Heralds alum and teacher Dave Rozzo is making pregame announcements over the public address system, the words “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible” are stenciled on the wall.

Over the past few years, that Walt Disney quote could describe the spirit the St. John Heralds have used while rebuilding their school and their football program against substantial odds. The quote wasn’t put there for this team, this game, this school. But it kind of feels like it was.


First Quarter
St. John receives the ball to begin the game, and things start smoothly enough. A couple of nice runs by Rivera and the Heralds move the ball into Chalker territory. Rivera, a smooth athlete with an inherent sense of how to set up running lanes and then exploit them, is finding running room. In the stands, his father, Ramon, a former Heralds player himself, videotapes the action.

But just when it looks like St. John might be able to take an early lead, the drive stalls. A first-down run is blown up in the backfield, and the Heralds don’t have the athletes to recover when they get off schedule. St. John goes for it on fourth down, but quarterback Zach Thomas is intercepted and the Wildcats return the ball past midfield.

The defense stands, though, and makes a fourth-down stop of its own. Again St. John drives into Chalker territory, but again the drive stalls as it nears the 30-yard line. The Heralds turn the ball over on downs, but they have Chalker pinned in its own territory.

• • • • •

Identity is a funny, fleeting thing.

What shapes a person in their formative years has an impact for the rest of their days. Seeing the constants from one’s early years change hurts more than it should. If what made you into the person you are disappears, were you really ever there?

For a lot of its history, Ashtabula knew what it was. It was a harbor town in the Snow Belt, the lakeshore on the east side of Cleveland often blanketed in the winter by waves of lake-effect snow. Like much of northeast Ohio, it was inhabited by families who came over from Europe – Italy, Germany, Scandinavia – and worked in the burgeoning chemical industry or in the coal and ore port where the Ashtabula River meets Lake Erie.

The town approached 25,000 residents in each census from 1950 to 1980, and it was the perfect place for a Catholic school to thrive. The St. John School opened downtown in 1953, peaking with nearly 500 students in its heyday. Rugged, tough, talented athletes – including 1982 alumnus Urban Meyer, who would be drafted by Major League Baseball and later play college football – thrived.

High school football is the common language of cities and towns across Ohio, and Ashtabula football, St. John football, used to pop on Friday nights. The Heralds often dominated the City Series and made appearances in the state championship game in 1976 and ’77. The team also reached the state semifinals in 1973 and ’82, and among the four schools that sponsored football in the city – including public schools Harbor, Edgewood and Ashtabula High – the Heralds were the most successful.

“The city was booming,” Meyer told BSB. “We were in the playoffs a lot. It was Friday night football in Ashtabula. It was awesome. I wish everybody was able to have the same experience that I was able to have.”

It wouldn’t last, though. Northeast Ohio is filled with industry cities and towns where the jobs simply faded away. Slowly but surely, Ashtabula was no different as the plants closed and the port slowed.

Population bled, falling below 20,000 in the 2010 census. The median annual income and housing prices dropped well below the state average. The unemployment rate has taken up residence among the highest in the state. Tourism – wineries and covered bridges – makes the town go now.

As the city’s fortunes suffered, so did St. John’s. Enrollment figures dropped all the way to close to 200 students for the entire school, kindergarten through 12th grade. The school dropped football in 1998, brought it back two years later, and when the numbers dipped again in the middle part of the decade, there were few options.

The school dropped out of the OHSAA and St. John football was no more, with the school joining up with nearby Grand River Academy to form a club team. What people in the area had grown up with, what had in many ways defined them, was gone.

“You hear the fans go, ‘Go Heralds!’ you didn’t hear that for however many years they didn’t have the program,” Iarocci said. “Just to hear that ‘Go Heralds!’ it’s like ‘Go Buckeyes!’ If all of a sudden there’s no Ohio State football program, nobody’s saying ‘Go Buckeyes!’ anymore. That’s not good.”

As Meyer moved across the country, having climbed to the top of his profession, he noticed what was going on. When he was hired by Ohio State in late 2011, he returned to his home state and to a high school that was a shadow of its former self.

“Mike Vrabel when he first got here, he said, ‘I’m going to go visit the head coach’s high school,’ and there was no football program,” Meyer said. “It hurt. But I got it. There’s been some economic difficulties up in that part of the state. I’m hoping northeast Ohio thrives.”

The story was the same in the public schools. Harbor High School and Ashtabula High merged into one in 2001. The football suffered. What used to be one of the highlights of the community was now the kind of thing that reminded people of what once was.

“People thought, how much more are we going to lose here?” Iarocci said.


Second Quarter
St. John didn’t just survive the first quarter, it had the statistical edge as well. It’s not impossible to think victory No. 1 might happen. They’ve taken the pregame message to heart. The defense is swarming to the ball – not no more. The offense is creating creases in the defense – not no more.

Then Chalker changes momentum in the cruelest way possible – a successful fake punt after the Heralds make a third-down stop. The dam breaks with 8:37 left in the half as a Chalker receiver runs between two Heralds defenders, catches a perfectly lofted pass and scores easily from 45 yards out.

On the Heralds’ next possession, the frustration starts to boil over. Rivera is hit in the backfield but wriggles free, only to be surrounded by more Wildcats. He spins, goes backward, reverses field, breaks another tackle – but it’s all for naught as he’s brought down for a loss. The series is a three-and-out.

Chalker quickly doubles the lead on its next possession, with a trap run going for a long touchdown. By the end of the half, it’s 21-0.

• • • • •

“People had this school dead and buried,” St. John enrollment director Keith Corlew said as he watched a pregame pep rally in the school’s tiny gymnasium Oct. 17.

Having no football was bad enough, but for an Ashtabula native like Corlew, there was a bigger issue – would the school even stay open?

By 2011, the school had been split into two campuses based on grade, and the downtown campus, which housed the older kids, was dilapidated and located in the roughest neighborhood in town. Parents would send their kids to St. John through elementary school and pull them out before seventh grade.

Nearly every year, there were rumors the school would close down. Working at Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin School in nearby Chardon and with a niece and nephew at St. John, Corlew heard the talk, would even have St. John families call to tour his school in case they needed to transfer their children.

Ray Kovacs, a Heralds alum who played with Meyer, was among them. Kovacs and his wife, Christy, the school's director of advancement, took tours of NDCL and Lake Catholic in nearby Mentor. If the school closed down, he was prepared to uproot the family and move to a different area, one closer to where the kids could get a good education. In the meantime, fellow Heralds from his era would thank him for keeping his kids in the school even when they chose to go a different direction.

“There were a lot of lean years,” Kovacs said. “I remember the one year they were uncertain if the school was going to stay open. My daughter came home and we were sitting at dinner eating – we always try to sit together and eat dinner every night – and she said, ‘Dad, my school is going to stay open.’ I thought to myself, ‘It’s going to stay open this year, but we have a bunch of years ahead of us.’ ”

Slowly but surely, though, things started to change. The turnaround began in 2011 when Sr. Maureen Burke was named the president of the school. She arrived intent to put the school first, to restore it to the place many thought it deserved in the community. She wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers to do it.

“Sister Maureen is probably one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my entire life,” said the athletics director, Nick Iarocci. “She was the breath of fresh air we needed. She makes decisions based on what’s best for the school.”

The next move came within a year. The Ashtabula City Schools made the decision to move all of its elementary school kids to a central campus and close and demolish the old schools scattered around town. St. John’s brain trust had an idea – could it purchase one of the old schools, save the city schools on the demolition cost and centralize its operations?

The answer was yes. What had been Saybrook Elementary, a few miles west of downtown and located in a residential area across the street from a church, was the new St. John School, and it was big enough to bring together the entirety of the enrollment.

“It took a bold move, and that’s what happened,” Corlew said. “It was like, ‘If we don’t do something, we might not have a school to do something with.’ ”

The changes, combined together, worked. Kids who had left after sixth grade started to stay. As enrollment grew, other parents started to get assurance that the school wouldn’t close and sent their kids to St. John as well.

The revitalization isn’t close to being done. A capital campaign for physical improvements, supported by Meyer, is thriving.

"The last three years, i was really involved in that," Meyer said. "I had some fundraisers and did some things with the school. It is heartwarming. We should have a Catholic high school in Ashtabula County."

A new cafeteria, one big enough to serve the school’s famous pasta dishes each Wednesday and homemade pizza on Fridays, opened this year, as did new tennis courts behind the school. The crown jewel will be an addition, designed by two St. John alums, that will include classrooms and a new gymnasium that is set to open in the spring.

“People now see St. John as a very real option and a very good option,” Corlew said. “It’s just snowballing. The argument five years ago for not coming here was, ‘The school is not going to be open. Well, they don’t really have a high school. Well, they don’t have football. Well, they don’t have this, they don’t have that.’ Now, we’re adding a lot of those things.

“A lot of people have said, ‘We’re not going to let this go away,’ and that’s what has happened. It’s exciting to be a part of it because we’re just doing things that people said couldn’t be done.”

Ron Chambers knows the feeling. A self-described military brat as a kid, Chambers started attending St. John in 11th grade, playing football for the Heralds in the mid-1990s. His son, also named Ron, just transferred into the school for his senior year.

Chambers says it would have been devastating for the community to see the school close. Now, the family is part of the revitalization.

“From the time we were in school, they talk about the St. John experience,” Chambers said. “They preach it, they breathe it, and you can feel it. It’s a great experience for our kids. There’s a lot of involvement from everyone – family, friends, your teachers, your coaches. It’s a life-altering experience for the better.

“Sister talks about it all the time – it’s the St. John experience. It’s very difficult for us to explain to others who haven’t been here to understand what a good feeling it is to be a part of it.”

As the school grew, football was never far from people’s minds. Someone just had to make it happen.


Third Quarter
The second half begins just as the first ended – with Chalker making the big plays that St. John cannot. Another touchdown pass makes it 28-0 early in the half, optimism fading further away.

St. John has to punt on its next possession, but Chalker fumbles the punt and the Heralds take over at the 50. On third-and-9, Thomas spies Ron Chambers running free down the middle of the field and hits him on a post pattern. Chambers is behind the defense and cannot be caught, raising the ball toward the heavens as he hits the 5 – a moment of slightly premature celebration that doesn’t matter in the end. The PAT is no good, but the Heralds are on the board with 6:47 to play in the period.

At the top of the stands, Chambers’ father pumps his fist and high-fives his family and friends, pride emanating from his face. Ramon Rivera teases him about his son’s celebration, and Chambers exhales and says, “Holy smokes.”

“Maybe this is the moment that lights the fire,” Rivera says.

Chalker moves the ball methodically on the next possession, but the Heralds defense stiffens and the Wildcats make a field goal. It’s 31-6.

• • • • •

So how do you build a high school football team from scratch?

Nick Iarocci, Dom's brother, never seemed to worry about that. He was the girls basketball coach at the school and a former football assistant coach in 2011 when a handful of sixth-graders who took part in the school’s flag football run by Mike Anderson approached him. With middle school starting, they wanted to play real football.

So did Iarocci. He immediately put together a five-year plan to bring back varsity football to St. John.

“Those kids had nowhere to turn, and there was enough of them and they asked me, so I approached Sister Maureen and basically laid out the plan to her and told her we’d have varsity football in five years if she would let me,” Iarocci said.

A noted supporter of athletics, she was in. Iarocci served as the head coach and started from the bottom, putting together a 13-person middle school team. A year later, 21 seventh- and eighth-graders played, and the team won its final game.

Last year, there were enough kids to have high school football at the junior varsity level for the first time, year three of the five-year plan, and one varsity game was played at Newbury when the Black Knights needed a homecoming game against someone they knew they could beat. But as he tried to start to put together a schedule for 2015, Iarocci noticed something – schools wanted games in 2014 as well in order to be enticed to break away from their 2015 plans.

Suddenly, the five-year plan was a four-year plan, but Iarocci never wavered. That’s not in his nature. Ask him if he’s sure the plan would work and he has a quick answer.

“One hundred percent,” Iarocci said. “There was never a doubt in my mind. Sometimes you got really discouraged, and I’m sure if you talked to me on those days, I probably would have told you, ‘Oh my goodness,’ but I always felt like we were going to get there. The support will always overcome the obstacles. Always.”

Logistically, putting together the program required a mix of old and new. The team’s old fieldhouse on the east side of town, just north of the Crow’s Nest restaurant – “Food made for Heralds, by Heralds,” Rozzo says over the PA of the eatery and bar owned by St. John alums Ron and Nick Detore – was still standing as a base of operations for practices, but almost all new protective gear and equipment were needed. The SPIRE Institute, a sparkling training center just west of Ashtabula on Interstate 90, offered up their field for home games.

Nick Iarocci coached the team for its first three years but took over AD duties from Rozzo in 2013. Coaching football, girls basketball and serving as AD, even after he retired from his 30-year job as an employee in the city’s water department, was just too much.

His brother seemed like an obvious choice. In some ways, you could call Dom a legend of the area when it comes to high school football, as he’d spent time at nearly every local school as an assistant – the Madison team he coached on in 1973 was undefeated – and served stints as the head man at both St. John and Edgewood.

Dom’s 2012 Edgewood team was among the best in recent years in Ashtabula. The Warriors made the playoffs for the first time ever, and Iarocci was rewarded by being fired. The school said it wanted to take the program in a different direction, and Iarocci thought his career was over.

Then the new St. John job opened. His brother called. He met the kids. His decision was clear.

“When I first met the kids, I still hadn’t decided whether to take the job,” he said. “They had that look in their eye like, ‘We need somebody over here to guide us,’ so I said OK. I had no idea what to expect.”

What he inherited was a team still learning the game. Going from club and junior varsity football was a step up that required time and discipline the kids weren’t used to. He had to teach some the very building blocks of football, from stances to basic techniques.

Iarocci also believes football is four years that last the rest of one’s life. He says it’s a cliché, but he’s teaching character and family in addition to football. There is a belief that the wins will come, if not this year, soon.

“I couldn’t ask for a better coach for my son,” Ramon Rivera said. “To me, Dom is the best coach, and I’m not saying it because he was my coach. You can read about everything he’s done. He’s never coached losers.”


Fourth Quarter
Neither team gets much offense going until Chalker takes over at the midway point of the period, driving from midfield to inside the 5 as time ticks down toward two minutes to play.

Iarocci has promised that the Heralds won’t quit, and he’s right. St. John makes a third-down stop at the 2, but Chalker decides to go for it on fourth down. Reuben Childs takes the handoff over the left side, powers through a tackle attempt and falls into the end zone to make it 38-6.

The game ends quickly from there as the running clock rules kick in, and the teams form the handshake lines. Iarocci delivers a quick speech near midfield and brushes aside any thoughts of Chalker running up the score with the late TD.

“We have to get better,” he tells the team.

• • • • •

Before every St. John game, junior offensive lineman Adam Fedler walks into the supermarket to buy an energy bar, and every week he gets the same response.

“The same dude asks every single Friday, ‘Who do you play today? What’s our record?’ ” Fedler said.

Experiencing such palpable support is a neat experience for the Heralds players, who have come from all sorts of backgrounds. Senior lineman Doug Warren was home-schooled but played football with the team the past couple of years. He had no hesitation enrolling full time at St. John once the program moved up to varsity. He’s the first member of his family to attend a school.

Fellow senior Josh Williams is just 5-6, 120 pounds, but the receiver/cornerback has attended St. John since first grade and wanted to wear the uniform. Fedler’s mother, Kim, is a Heralds alumna. The younger Chambers made up his own mind to transfer in to wear his father’s old uniform, and Ryan Rivera followed.

“I wanted to jump up and cheer,” Ramon says of when he learned of the decision. “As a father, it’s probably the greatest feeling I’ve had since my children were born.”

What brought them all out? The answer is simple.

Family.

“The players,” Warren said. “We’re so close. We all keep each other going, every day. If we lose, the next day we come back to school hyped up about the game on Friday again. We don’t let it get to us. We pick each other up, and the coaches help a lot. I wouldn’t want to play for any other team. We’re the biggest family.”

Things haven’t always been easy. The Heralds had 22 players for just one day of practice – the coaches and players both remarked immediately that they were able to stage 11-on-11 practice that day for the only time. The Heralds took just 14 players to Leetonia for a September loss.

The Heralds have a motto for this year, one that’s on the back of the T-shirts team members wear on a regular basis – go to 11. It’s one step beyond being a 10. With so few players, everyone is needed. Everyone must go beyond.

“None of us quit,” Williams said. “That’s what keeps us going. We’re all one.”

If the Heralds ever forget what they’re playing for, they’re reminded before each game with a pregame speech. Before the Chalker game, the honor was done by Larry Laurello, a former St. John player who now is one of the school’s major benefactors.

“Our coaches called us the first block of a building,” Fedler said. “We’re the steppingstone of what is going to be so much more. We’re the ones that stuck our necks out to be the first inexperienced team so that other kids will eventually be better than we were. We’re the ones that are making it happen.”

There will be one last chance for a win Oct. 31 at Fairport Harbor, and the game against Chalker was the last home game of the season. It was the homecoming game, with Warren and Caroline Kovacs, Ray and Christy’s daughter, earning king and queen honors. St. John families filled the bleachers. At one point, Nick Iarocci walked up the hill that leads to the parking lot, turned around and took in the moment.

“I looked out and I just looked at all the people and all the cheerleaders were performing at halftime, and I thought, ‘Holy mackerel. This dream has come true,’ ” he said.

“But it’s not fulfilled by any means. We want to continue to get better. We hope we can make the playoffs. That’s our goal. To get it accomplished is awesome, but we’re definitely not content where we’re at.”

At the end of the night, the team stayed winless. But as Corlew says, the Heralds had already won.

The Friday night lights were on, just as they were all across the state. The cheerleaders stood on the track in front of the crowd and performed their routines. A homecoming court was honored, a king and queen named. Led by 84-year-old director Tony Esposito, who donned a fedora and a sweatshirt featuring a cartoon Herald, the band played the “Heralds Fight Song.”

And 19 football players put on the St. John uniform and played 48 minutes of football, just like Urban Meyer did, just like Ray Kovacs did, just like Dave Rozzo did, just like Larry Laurello did, just like both Iarocci brothers did.

It was a Friday night in Ashtabula, and everything was the way it once was and the way it should be.


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