QB Tom Zetts, LB James Terry and head coach Jon Heacock look back
By JOHN HARRIS
Former Youngstown State quarterback Tom Zetts said there will be a reunion of sorts at Saturday’s YSU-Wofford FCS quarterfinal game at Stambaugh Stadium.
Zetts, a Boardman High product and starting quarterback on the Penguins’ last playoff team in 2006, will be in attendance. “Absolutely, I’m going to be there,” said Zetts, who expects to be joined at the game by other former teammates, including tight end Derrick Bush. Another member of the 2006 team, linebacker James Terry, also plans to attend.
“When YSU beat Jacksonville State [last week], I said, ‘If they put some things together, they can make it to the championship game,’ ” said Zetts, who holds the Penguins’ record for most consecutive starts by a quarterback with 47. “The word is people are coming out to see what this team is all about.”
Similarities between the 2006 and 2016 teams include strong defenses, productive offenses and veteran leadership.
In 2006, the Penguins built on the motivation of not qualifying for the playoffs the previous year despite finishing in a three-way tie for the conference championship.
“To say it was a motivating factor is an incredible understatement,” Zetts said. “We had the whole team up in the DeBartolo Room in the press box. When they called the 16th [playoff] team and it wasn’t us, hearts just sunk and tears started falling. There was anger, there was frustration. Especially when two teams we tied with got in. The next year, we were outright conference champs and that gave us the automatic bid.”
The Penguins would not be denied in 2006.
“I just think our guys weren’t going to leave it in the committee’s hands [in 2006],” said Jon Heacock, who coached the Penguins from 2001-09 ad is now the defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Iowa State.
Not only did the Penguins win the Gateway Conference championship outright, they advanced all the way to the FCS semifinals before losing to eventual national champion Appalachian State, finishing with an 11-3 record.
“We had a veteran team and all those things it takes to be a conference champion that year and then get to the playoffs,” Heacock said.
“We were a talented team. There was tailback Marcus Mason (who rushed for 1,847 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2006). We had an outstanding quarterback, Tommy Zetts, who down the stretch was playing incredible. We had a veteran crew, a really good football team throughout the year and just got better as it went along. It was a lot of fun.”
Terry said it was a tight group,
“The thing I remember most is the camaraderie,” said Terry, a Virginia native who works as a software engineer for Comcast. “That team really jelled. The team atmosphere was great, that’s why we were so good that year. We had the best individuals at the best spots who knew how to work together on and off the field.”
Terry and Zetts both credited Heacock with creating a winning environment.
“It starts at the top. He was always there for us,” Terry said. “He coached us on and off the field to be stand-up guys. His commitment to us as a whole and not just football brought us together so much.”
“Coach Heacock would say, `It’s not about you,’ when guys were trying to make it about them. That message was heard three and four years by the guys on that team. I’m a teacher now and I tell my students, ‘It’s not about you,’ ” said Zetts, who teaches math at Boardman High. “Looking back, that was a selfless team with a lot of trust in the coaching staff and trust in each other that we were going to get it done, however we got it done.”
Likewise, this year’s Penguins followed the lead of second-year coach Bo Pelini.
After last year’s 5-6 finish, players re-dedicated themselves in the offseason and have evolved into a dangerous team that’s playing with a high level of confidence and a nothing-to-lose, team-first mindset.
Terry said he understands the range of emotions the Penguins are experiencing.
“It was amazing. It was one of those things where you’re like in awe, you know?” he said. “We were practicing on Thanksgiving. Most people would be sad, but it was a blessing to be one of those teams out of so many to still be able to practice. To be able to extend the season and spend more time with your team made it special. To lose was unfortunate, but it was an experience in itself.”
It’s an experience that Heacock knows is much appreciated by Mahoning Valley fans with fond remembrances of the Penguins’ four national championships.
“I know how important the playoffs are in that town,” said Heacock, who was assistant on all four YSU national championship teams in the 1990s, “I wish Coach Pelini well and that they get behind them and they do their thing.”