By Steve Ruman
In 2010, Southern High football was at a crossroads. On the field, the program was showing signs of life following decades of despair. After going 27 consecutive years without a winning season, the Indians broke through in 2006 with a 6-4 mark. The ‘07 team finished 2-8, but that was followed by seasons of 7-3 and 5-5.
However, the signs of hope were overshadowed by both instability and tragedy.
Coach Alex Albert resigned just two months prior to the start of the ‘08 season. He was replaced by Dan Saling, who coached just one season, then died unexpectedly of a heart attack in June of 2009.
Assistant Jim Brown stepped in to fill the void on a one-year basis, leaving Southern in need of its fourth coach in four years.
The program found itself begging for stability and desperate for an identity. Logic said to hire a veteran coach who could bring a soothing atmosphere to an unsettled situation.
Instead, Southern turned to Mike Skrinjar. He was just 28 years old, and without head coaching experience. He was brash. He was different. By his own admission, he didn’t fit the mold of your typical high school coach. His ponytailed hair and cutoff shirts gave a look that better fit the WWF than the ITCL.
But Skrinjar also brought a keen understanding of what Southern football had endured, and what it needed to move forward. He graduated from the school 10 years earlier, and was an assistant throughout the transitional period. He teaches in the school system, serving as an intervention specialist.
“All three previous coaches were a huge influence,” Skrinjar said. “Beginning with Alex (Albert), who took me under his wing, I learned what coaching football is all about.
“It’s more than just drawing up plays. It’s more than going out there on Friday night. It’s about brotherhood, about creating bonds. It’s about learning to overcome adversity and producing a strong work ethic. It’s about teaching life.”
These days in Salineville, it’s also about winning.
In Skrinjar’s first season in 2010, the Indians finished 8-3, which included a trip to the playoffs. Last year, they went 9-1.
Southern is currently 5-2 and ranked 12th in Division V, region 17.
“It’s like this. For a very long time, we’ve been the homecoming game for a lot of our opponents,” Skrinjar said. “Teams would bring us in, beat us down then have fun at the dance. Well, we’re out to make those dances a little more depressing.
“I have sort of a (Floyd) Mayweather mentality, which some view as conceited. To me, it’s just a belief in what I am doing and a belief in these kids. They are capable of accomplishing anything if they put their heart and soul into it.”
Under Skrinjar, the Indians haven’t just been winning, they’ve been doing it in record fashion. The playoff berth in 2010 was the first in school history. The 9-1 finish last year set a school record for most wins in a season.
The Indians have also spent 2012 rewriting the history books.
Earlier this year, senior quarterback Luke Griffith broke a school single-game passing record when he threw for 350 yards in a 35-17 win at McDonald. Griffith then became the Southern’s all-time passing leader last Friday in a 40-9 home win against Wellsville.
Griffith leads all area quarterbacks, completing 110 of 172 passes for 1,639 yards and 16 touchdowns. As a junior, he threw for 1,744 yards and 15 TDs.
Griffith credits his success to the overall mindset of the team.
“When we were freshmen, there wasn’t a lot of expectations. People here love their football, but they were pretty content with an average team,” Griffith said. “Coach Skrinjar taught us to believe in ourselves, and we just all bought into his enthusiasm.
“Things snowballed quickly, and now we don’t accept losing. We’re going to lose sometimes, but when we do, we don’t just shrug if off. We strive to get better.”
Griffith was one of three Southern players to set school records last Friday. Running back Mike McKenzie set a single-game rushing record when he ran for 315 yards on 28 carries. Kicker Steven Treadway booted a school-best 52-yard field goal.
In the earlier win over McDonald, J.J. Napierkowski pulled in 11 receptions for a single-game record 191 yards. Napierkowski (52 receptions, 749 yards, seven TDs) also owns school records for single-season and career receiving yards. He is being pursued by teammate Jared Shilot (37 receptions, 663 yards, six TDs), who last week pulled in six catches for 109 yards. Shilot is just a junior.
“If you told me that we’d be having this kind of success three years ago, I would have thought you were nuts,” Napierkowski said. “Now, we’re part of the best run in school history.”
Napierkowski insists his individual records are actually a total team effort.
“I just run my routes. Luke gets the ball to where it needs to be every time,” Napierkowski said. “Jared is such a huge weapon, defenses have to worry about him and that frees me up. And it all starts with our line. Without them, this offense goes nowhere.”
The line Napierkowski refers to is anchored by Logan Hickman, a captain and three-year starter who plays center.
Hickman said the record-setting numbers put up by his teammates is a reflection of the work and dedication which starts with Skrinjar.
“You come to practice and you hear coach Skrinjar yelling like a nut and you see him in there running plays with the team and you have to get fired up,” Hickman said. “He’s different than any other coach I’ve been around.
“People think he’s crazy, but he gets the best out of all of us. That’s what he’s all about. His goal is to always get us to believe in ourselves on and off the football field.”
Skrinjar says that as long as he is in charge of the Southern program, he will continue to coach, teach and motivate players “in the only style that works for me.” That means he will continue to show up in the school cafeteria to make sure players aren’t in separate cliques “because you can’t just be friends on Friday nights, you have to always be family.”
He’ll continue to be part cheerleader, part motivational speaker and part father figure, “because coaches who only concentrate on Xs and Os aren’t doing their job.”
And, he’ll continue to push the limits of success.
Skrinjar says his goal is to see his program reach the level obtained by neighboring Crestview (7-0) and Columbiana (6-1) — the two schools responsible for Southern’s two losses.
“I have incredible admiration and respect for what Paul Cusick has done at Crestview and what Bob Spaite has done at Columbiana,” Skrinjar said. “We want to get to where they’re at.”
Though such aspirations may have seemed unfathomable just a few short years ago, Skrinjar insists the new era of Indians’ football is here to stay.
“Not too long ago, we were lucky to get 20 or so guys out. Now we’re in the mid-30s. I want to see that number reach 50,” Skrinjar said. “For decades, losing was breeding losing in this community. Now, winning is going to breed more winning.
“I’ll give everything I’ve got to move this program forward. The players that we have are showing the same willingness. Together we can achieve the unthinkable.”
Southern will look for its sixth victory tonight when it visits Western Reserve.