On Nov. 26, 2011, undefeated Western Reserve traveled to Massillon Washington High School to play New Washington Buckeye Central in a Division VI state semifinal game.
It was the first time the program had advanced to that stage of the playoffs and the Blue Devils were, for the most part, unknown.
Then sophomores, Jon Timko and Dan Zilke were about to start in the biggest game in their school’s history. The Blue Devils fell 22-21, but that experience, at that stage, has been the driving force for a class that has done more for the football program than set a few school records.
Along with Timko and Zilke, Western Reserve’s class of 2014 includes Danny Rosati, Nick Allison, Nick Tobin, Jason Smith, Nate Cain, Josh Vuletich, Parker Clegg, Sam Steininger and Andrew Miller.
Since their freshman year, the Blue Devils have gone 44-6 overall. Much of the attention has gone to the team’s offensive success, but when watching the Blue Devils play it doesn’t take long to realize who the heart and soul of the group is.
Coach Andy Hake describes his defensive scheme as a “3-5 Blitz,” meaning three down linemen and five linebackers. This alignment allows Hake to use some creativity when dialing up blitz packages, which is just fine with his players.
“We love to blitz, that’s one of our main things,” Timko said. “We blitz a lot and change up our blitzing schemes and do things that I think other teams haven’t seen before which makes it hard.
“Our linebackers are really experienced and they play hard, so I think that’s our core.”
The other luxury Hake has is the ability to start five seniors at linebacker. The group combined for 15 tackles (seven for losses) and 2.5 sacks in last week’s 22-2 win over Norwalk St. Paul.
Maybe more important than pilling up stats is what they’ve done when the stadium lights aren’t shining. This senior class has helped not only bring success in the present, but also build a foundation for the future.
“Everyone has their own different style — some people lead by example, some people are more vocal leaders — but I think that we do kind of take [the underclassmen] under [our wing],” Zilke said. “We’ve been there, done that and they haven’t. We were freshmen once, and we learned from the seniors and upperclassmen when we were young, so we’ve just kind of carried that on and [taught] them what to do.”
That’s how most programs are built, so on the surface it doesn’t seem all that different. But considering where the program came from — a .193 winning percentage over 15 years — it’s a remarkable turnaround.
Hake points to this class as the biggest reason for it.
“Commitment to the program and seeing our program succeed in not just one year,” he said. “They played wild when they were young, so they expect other kids to play wild now and they’re forced to by the leaders. It’s a great thing.”
Timko pointed to a time long before the 2011 loss as the defining moment this senior class decided to change the culture of football at Western Reserve.
“Pee wee football,” he said. “We’ve been playing together ever since then and we’ve always been so close.”
Whenever it may have been, Hake’s sure glad to have them for at least one more game.
“They’re a great class of kids,” Hake said. “We always have great seniors, but this is a special [class]. You know, it’s been an honor to coach them and I’m blessed to have good kids.”