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By DJ Yokley


It isn’t often in life that victories are handed to us without hard work, dedication, sacrifice, or a concoction of all three.  However, these days, it seems like the only fruit being picked from life’s tree of success are the low-hanging types.

Our society has chosen often times to reward the squeakiest wheel with the grease, as opposed to those who put the work in, and grind for the greater good.

This isn’t OK.

Just as you see at the registers at your local Wal-Mart, our schools may as well be filled with “As Seen On TV” stickers.  Our classrooms, fields, and courts have been plagued with a mentality that if someone doesn’t get instant gratification for their fractional effort, they quit.  On their team, on their coaches, their teachers, their family, and most importantly: themselves.

However, we’re beginning to see a generation of leaders (Northeast Ohio is full of them) that have had enough, and are reintroducing the idea that macro work ethic and patience can result in more than just opportunity; it can be a blue print for a productive life.  As we all know, it’s the losses we incur in life and in sports that we LEARN the most from.  A great team can learn from victories, but often times the lipstick of a win will cover up the blemishes that we truly possess.   When coaches break down film after a loss, there’s a sour taste in the mouth; so coaching staffs and players (nowadays some parents) strip that tape down as far as they can to assess the damage, and try to plug up the gaps in an effort to find victory the next time out.

All of that work is put forth, and if victory is not attained, pressure builds.  As the old adage goes; pressure can create diamonds and burst pipes- we are left to decide which side of the statement we fall on.  Unfortunately nowadays, we see, hear, and recognize the latter on a more consistent basis.  We’ve seen that sometimes the challenge is too much, and the “best” route is to walk away.

Let’s rewind to 2017- where YSN was in its infancy and I had a meeting with then Athletic Director, Ed Ridgeway, and I was asking him about coverage of the Leetonia Football Team.  His response was unexpected and sobering “DJ, I would love the coverage for our team I’m just not sure we’re going to have one.”

Leetonia.  That Leetonia.  Rich in history, banners hang from the cafeteria outside the gym, and the gymnasium itself is littered with championship years on the bright white walls.  They weren’t sure they would field a team?!  I just remember saying with confidence “Well if you do, we’ll be there- win, lose, or draw.”  The middle option was all the Bears would see that year, going 0-10 and struggling through the year full of challenging numbers, injuries, and obstacles- one after the other.

They didn’t give up.

In fact, Leetonia made changes that included bringing in one of the Valley’s most tenured and respected leaders in the area- Paul Hulea to make sure the community knew that they were invested in the program, and the culture of hard work, and great effort can change the fortune for a team faster than any other route.  Coach Hulea’s influence streamlined immediate results for Leetonia, as they went 4-6 in 2018, 6-4 in 2019, and in 2020 they’d produce a 5-1 record with a share of the EOAC title.  Winning became contagious because there was a leader that believed when others didn’t, and passed the belief down from tier to tier, with a support of a community following suit.

You can tell the same story in East Palestine where the Bulldogs have faced their fair share of adversity over the years.  A program that in the late 90’s struggled mightily, until 2001-when EP fired back with an 8-2 season, followed by a TCL championship in 2002 with the likes of Smitty Kendrew, and JD Powers in the backfield.  From there, East Palestine rode the roller coaster until EP Alum, Tony Foster took the reigns in 2013.  Foster installed a lineman-like mentality in his crew that produced positive results in a timely fashion before the graduation of players like Parker Sherry, Josh Pickett, and Dom Posey.  Now the cycle has returned in Bulldog Country, but the work has not stopped.  The Bulldogs spent 722 days between victories-including some very trying losses that created disinterest from players to return on a weekly basis.  The majority stayed, and grinded through playing both ways- pushing their minds and bodies to the limit each and every week no matter the numbers in bright lights on the scoreboard.  So, when the fateful day this past Saturday presented itself in Geneva, and the Bulldogs escaped with a one-point victory over Ashtabula St. John- there was a decision to be made: continue the season or decide finish the season with a win.  After 17 weeks, not many would fault the Bulldogs for bowing out.

They didn’t give up.

In fact, East Palestine’s opponent (Windham) dropped the rest of their contests due to numbers issues themselves, and EP chose to replace them with Waterloo.  Unlike some, I’m not one to put words into Coach Foster’s mouth, but if I had to guess, there’s a lesson to be had by just simply finishing what these young men started.  Foster, who played defensive line at Washington & Jefferson after his time as a Bulldog has faced his share of adversity during his tenure, but always opts for doing what is right, no matter the scrutiny.

So many coaches, players, and parents live for the victories on Friday night.  There’s nothing like it.  However, in a world full of those groups that arrange the cards however they see fit, I challenge you reading this article to look deeper at some of the coaches we’re spoiled with in this area.  Many of them have gone through the cycles of up years, and down years.  Many of these coaches and their staffs give more time to your family than they do their own.  Some coaches make sure your child has a full stomach, when they otherwise wouldn’t.  I’ve seen coaches give rides home to players who were made to walk (rain, shine, or snow) because they know that they’re exhausted.  I’ve seen coaches become the positive role models in young men’s lives when there wasn’t one around at the time.

The real victories that should be celebrated are not necessarily the ones that represent these schools in the standings on Saturday, but the life lessons that many of the leaders bring to the table that provide life lessons well after the final whistle blows.  Every player will share a different story, quote, or memory about their time playing sports with their teammates and coaches- it will happen for years and years.  It’s the best part of the relationships we build as young adults- sharing bonds that can never be broken- for better or worse.

The two programs above will share stories as well, some glorious, some hilarious, and some will tell how they were molded by the experience.  We can each learn something from all parties involved in this article and this lesson is possible because of one thing- and one thing alone:

They didn’t give up.

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