It's understandable there would have been some skepticism among Columbian's players and supporters, even if Brian Colatruglio had compiled a six-year record at Hopewell-Loudon that 99 percent of football coaches could only wish for.
Columbian had gone no worse than 7-3 after the first year of Steve Gilbert's 17-year tenure, with numerous Northern Ohio League titles several playoff appearances to boot. Upon Gilbert's retirement, instead of staying in-staff with a top assistant like Chad Long, the powers that be elected to bring in Colatruglio.
After all, a 72-9 record over six seasons, including 15-6 in the playoffs, can make quite the bullet point on a rsum.
Perhaps some thought staying in-house was the best route toward keeping a strong tradition rolling. Perhaps some wondered how much of that 72-9 record was H-L's impressive run of talent, which Derek Kidwell got going in his four prior years at the helm while Colatruglio was struggling to 11 wins in three seasons at Van Buren. Would that success translate when facing bigger schools with more talent than a majority of H-L's opponents?
Long, who now is an assistant for his alma mater at Clyde and still teaches in Tiffin City Schools, could well make a fine head football coach someday. If Clyde and Columbian each win tonight in the first-round of the Division III playoffs, Long would get to coach against the players he helped out a year ago (for what it's worth, the two teams also scrimmaged each other back in August).
But as the Tornadoes prepare for their first-round game at home against Columbus Eastmoor, having gone 9-1 while stomping through the Northern Ohio League, it's clear they're behind the man who wields the head whistle now.
"At first, we were kind of worried being he was new coach coming in; we didn't know what to expect," said senior lineman Caden Chapman, adding that he was able to gain some insight on Colatruglio's style from cousins and former H-L players Clay and Miles Chapman.
"Guys wanted to continue the tradition," said quarterback Ryan Tittle, who's flourished as a passer and secondary rushing threat in TC's version of the spread offense. "But there's no question who they want now."
Tittle said Colatruglio had him watch some H-L film from the years Tyler Brown helped lead the Chieftains to back-to-back state runner-up finishes, to better understand the timing required from many passes in the coach's offense.
"Some of those throws, the timing was so perfect I didn't think I would be able to do it," Tittle said. "He pushed us, and I'm making those throws more than I thought I'd make, putting them in a window.
"Knowing that he trusts me gives me confidence, and I trust my receivers. We've worked hard on the timing."
That's what has helped make a balanced offense successful enough to put up 422 yards per game, said receiver Jesse Hernandez, who doubles as the team's defensive leader as the safety.
"If the timing is there, you can't defend it," he said.
On defense the approach was less attack-oriented, with heavy emphasis on maintaining gap integrity and responsibilities.
"We know it's not a one-person team," Chapman said. "We all trust each other, 11 guys out there."
Colatruglio and Tittle said the team's last scrimmage at Toledo Central Catholic started to build the team's confidence in the new schemes. But a 35-7 loss at Toledo Whitmer could've brought a new wave of skepticism.
Colatruglio said that would've been natural.
"You put so much time into Week 1, all through camp, all through two-a-days you're trying to build toward that first game," he said. "You lose, and then it's just kind of natural, it's like 'Oh man, is what we're doing right? Is what we're doing good?'
"As a coaching staff, there's some things we needed to adjust and keep working on, but we knew that we were on the right track. We had a bad night; we didn't play very well. Credit to our kids and to our staff, we kept the course and the results have taken care of themselves since then."
No matter the level of confidence before the Whitmer game, the consensus is Columbian's convincing win over Kidwell's Fremont Ross team, which had just beaten Whitmer the week before, got the team behind the new regime in full throttle. The Tornadoes didn't receive much challenge from their NOL brethren.
"It was a big eye-opener for everyone," Hernandez said. "Everyone was excited, and that's all we could talk about.
"We all know (Whitmer) was great, a Division I powerhouse, and it was just all about refocusing," Tittle added. "After hearing (Ross) beat Whitmer, we figured they would have a big head. We knew if we got on 'em early we could cruise."
That 40-21 decision served as Ross' only loss going its own Division I playoff game tonight, and those those second-level computer points are a big reason Columbian gets to play at home one more time.
"I really think beating a team the quality of Ross, especially the week after they beat Whitmer," Colatruglio said, "that's really where our kids locked in and started to believe we could be a pretty special team."
Because they embraced their bright new coach, the Tornadoes have become special. A win tonight would be a fine demonstration of that.
Mike Genet is Associate Sports Editor of The Advertiser-Tribune.
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