The phrase “reload, not rebuild” describes the current state of the Austintown Fitch football program in coach Phil Annarella’s seventh season. After a 1-9 mark in his debut season, the Falcons have been .500 or better since, including two 9-1 regular seasons in the past three years.
Fitch (4-0) is fourth in the state in the Associated Press Division I poll and holds the top spot in the Division I, Region 1 computer ratings.
Q. How important is it to have a strong junior varsity program and how does it affect the varsity squad?
A. I have said this many times. The credit goes to our coaches at the middle school and freshman programs. They do a fabulous job of getting the kids out first and developing them. They get the kids ready for us and they do a really good job of keeping the kids out, keeping them interested and making it fun at that level.
We have a decent number to start with but attrition always takes its toll. If you keep the bulk of them out you’ve done OK. We have 30 seniors on this team which means we have depth and a bit more competition for playing time. For a school our size you would like to have 80-90 kids out and we are at that number with 83. That lends itself to more competition in practice and makes for a stronger team.
With good numbers you can play more kids. We currently have only two players going both ways consistently.
Now, we are pretty demanding. The kids know when they come out they are going to have to work hard to stay on the squad. Varsity football at the Division I level is not for everybody and kids sometimes find that out. Winning breeds winning. I don’t care who you are, you are a better coach when you have better players and we’ve had a run of good players. We’ve also had some overachievers who have done a great job continuing the Fitch tradition.
Q. Your team seems versatile enough to have success against different types of opponents. Is that the case?
A. You have to be able to do that nowadays. Our situation is a little different as an independent; we play a lot of teams we don’t have a lot of familiarity with. In a league you know how a team likes to play but we jump from Harding to Hoban to Brunswick to Dover, who throws it all over the lot. You have to be more adaptable. We have some great young men and they believe in our coaching staff. They go in there and we work on something and they buy into it right now. It’s working and hopefully it will continue to work.
Q. Is there one area of your team or program that has been a pleasant surprise?
A. Probably the biggest factor to our success, though it’s not a surprise, is the last couple of years, especially last year, we stressed the concept of playing as a unit, of playing together. It’s about us, not our competition. The kids have bought it and you see how it worked last year with the group of young men we had. They know we aren’t feeding them a line; we are doing it again this year and it is working. They care about each other and when you can get young people doing that you are a step ahead of the game. I have always said you’re going to have a star or two or three, but it is the supporting cast that determines how successful your season is and ours has been excellent.
Q. When teams are struggling, coaches face the task of keeping their kids’ heads up. Is the opposite true also? Do you have to work at tempering enthusiasm at all when your team is having success?
A. We’re kind of facing that a little this week. Always the focus is on us, especially when we’re playing a team for the first time or a team not doing well or with a poor record. We are always looking at longer-range things. We tell the kids every day they can get better or worse. We don’t talk about how our opponent is playing this week; the only thing we worry about is how we are playing. We’ve stressed that the last couple of years and the kids can see how that plays out. We do need to get better in some areas, we need to improve whether we’re facing an opponent that is 7-0 or 0-7.
Q. What about your opponent this week, Boardman?
A. I can feel for Boardman. I’ve been involved in situations like that. Our first year at Fitch we were 1-9. High school football is cyclical. You’re going to run into that, there is no way around that. There are years when your talent level and numbers are not at the level you want them. There’s nothing you can do. You just play the hand you’re dealt. The biggest thing is to stay the course the best you can and keep fighting. They are a proud and tradition-rich program and I’m sure they’ll be back on their feet again.