Mike Hallett knew when he arrived at Heidelberg in 2007 that he wanted to recruit local talent.
But the Heidelberg coach just didn't think he'd be able to, at least not right away.
"The issue was, when I first got here, recruiting locally was going to be tough because whereas a kid in Cleveland or Columbus or Dayton or wherever, they didn't hear about Heidelberg a whole lot ... kids locally saw it every week in the paper," Hallett said.
And what those kids read about Heidelberg's football program wasn't good.
When Hallett arrived at the school, the Student Princes had endured a 36-game losing streak.
"I thought the recruitment of local kids would take a little longer, because of the history," Hallett said. "We were gonna have to change the perception of what our program was all about."
Now, with Heidelberg approaching its first playoff game in 40 years, the Student Princes boast a roster filled with area athletes making big contributions.
There's Dawson Gore, a Bellevue graduate who has emerged as a standout linebacker and team leader. A senior, Gore was injured while playing brilliantly at Mount Union, and missed the last two games of the regular season. But the former Redman said he expects to play in Saturday's playoff game against Wittenberg.
There's senior fullback Aaron Kapelka. Once a star rusher at Hopewell-Loudon for then-coach Brian Colatruglio on some excellent Chieftain teams, Kapelka has emerged as one of the Ohio Athletic Conference's best blockers, clearing paths for running backs like Cartel Brooks and Bryan Lacey.
Brooks, himself a Galion graduate, has become one of the best backs in the country, a hair under 1,300 rushing yards on the season, with 16 touchdowns.
Defensive back Austin Bentz, a Columbian grad has emerged as a standout player on special teams, while Tyler Johnson, a Seneca East grad, has seen time on the HU offensive line. Another TC grad Carter Mullins has played on the defensive line.
And there are others just starting their collegiate careers.
Gore said area players tend to have some things in common.
"I'm a local, I've never really been about the show," said Gore, who has three sacks and seven tackles for a loss this season. "I've always been kind of humble, and I feel like a lot of guys in this area are hard workers and they take pride in it just like I do. We've always had a hard working mentality here, and I think a lot of guys in this area are blue collar workers. We have a lot of guys on this team who work hard, and I think that's what's got us to where we are today."
Hard work also defines Kapelka, who Hallett has referred to in the past as the best fullback in the league. As is the nature of fullbacks in this day and age, Kapelka doesn't light up the stat sheet. He just blocks and blocks while Brooks and others do.
"It's all about just knowing your role on this team," Kapelka said. "Knowing your role on this team and taking pride in your role are what makes this team run."
Bentz also has had to transition, from a receiver to a defensive back, and then to a special teams standout.
"I had to re-do everything and start on a clean slate," Bentz said. "There's people who are going to be ahead of me who are going to play, so I accepted the fact that I have a certain role that I have to play on special teams, and I'm gonna do whatever I can to fulfill that role."
Kapelka and Bentz were asked what made them choose Heidelberg, since they grew up in a time when the Student Princes were struggling.
"Just listening to Hallett talk, he really gave me faith that we were going to get here someday," Kapelka said. "Really, to tell you the truth, I didn't have very many options, I wasn't recruited highly by a lot of other people, and this was definitely the best fit for me."
Bentz, a standout at TC, said he also wasn't highly recruited.
"When I came here for my visit, I noticed that Hallett was really big into the team being like a big family, and I'm really big into that as well," he said. "Once I saw the family perspective, that really (drew) me in."
That family meant bringing some players with past rivalries together. Brooks, Gore and Bentz all played against each other in the Northern Ohio League; Kapelka and Johnson met in MAL games.
Kapelka also remembered playoff battles with tight end Brett Wiedemann when the latter played at Norwalk St. Paul.
"I always give him (grief) for taking him out every year," Kapelka said. "I don't think it's that big of a deal. They're our teammates now. What we did in high school doesn't matter that much anymore."
"You've just got to (feel) fortunate that we have these guys on our team now," Bentz said. "You figure you could be going up against Cartel Brooks, but he's here as your teammate."
All part of a team that will play Wittenberg Saturday in a playoff game.
"It's kind of cool; there's a lot of good talent around here," Kapelka said. "The better we do here, the local kids can see the success we're having and see the experiences we're having, and want to join."