Lofty challenge ahead


Shepas takes over Youngstown City Schools athletics

By John Bassetti

sports@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Rick Shepas says he’s been optimistic in any of the jobs he’s undertaken.

As the chief of physical development and athletics for the Youngstown City Schools, he’ll need it.

Shepas, a Cardinal Mooney graduate who recently retired as Waynesburg (Pa.) University’s winningest football coach, is faced with laying the groundwork for change and progress in a beleaguered system that’s in academic emergency.

But that’s part of the reason he took the job.

“It’s a challenge, but I look at it as an opportunity as well,” the 52-year-old said of keeping more students in the city system. “From a lot of people I talk to, there’s no one in the circle that I travel in who [is] negative about what’s going on. Everybody wants to see the Youngstown City Schools succeed. Everybody.”

That’s good news for the district and a handful of hope for Shepas, whose lofty goals are:

• To restore outside respect toward the city as well as from within by students.

• To breathe life into the neighborhood K-8 concept through athletics.

• To foster opportunities that offer promise.

Shepas will utilize available in-house resources, enlist community support and seek outside expertise.

Why did Shepas, who coached high school football at Poland (six years), Seneca Valley (two) and Massillon (seven) before 12 years at Waynesburg, take the job?

“I turned 50 two years ago and started to take a long look at what I was going to be doing in the last third and fourth quarters of my life,” Shepas said. “I’ll always be passionate about sports and passionate about football, and grateful for my opportunities, but I felt that it was time, while I was still at the right age, to make a move.”

His youngest child attends LaRoche College.

“I thought we had a great run and did some really good things [at Waynesburg], but, looking at how small college is evolving, I thought it was my time,” Shepas said. “We built the foundation of our program on Youngstown kids and, obviously, it’ll always be a player’s game.

“The success I’ve had in every situation is credited to having good players.”

Returning to Youngstown was always in the back of his mind.

“I’ve maintained strong ties with the area, no matter where I was working,” he said. “I’d been recruiting the area, so this is something I did seek out because making this change was on my mind for more than a year-and-a-half. “There were definitely relationships that I was initiating and cultivating. This just happened to be an opportunity that I thought was going to be challenging, yet have a lot of purpose in it and that’s something that’s always motivated me.”

Youngstown schools’ CEO Krish Mohip’s plan intrigues Shepas.

“With the school system making some major changes with the neighborhood K-8s, that’s where I see the purpose: trying help fulfill that mission,” Shepas said. “I see, with the after-school program that Mr. Mohip wants to run, that athletics is a perfect fit — a perfect co-curricular fit.”

His background as a recruited athlete to Youngstown State University, then as a Division III college coach who understands the recruiting process, has its benefits.

“I think I have an interesting skill set that could be of assistance,” Shepas said of his tentacles of experience that will, figuratively, touch students at various stages of growth.

“You have to prepare young student-athletes in the middle school and junior high levels [six-through-eight], so that they understand how important their high school academics are, especially when entering as freshmen.

“Those are the first things that college recruiters are going to look at when they come to recruit young kids: the preparation for them to go into high school with the right attitude,” he said.

“If they happen to be talented enough to be a Div. I or Div. II athlete, then it’s vital to understand the clearinghouse,” he said of class registration steps and proper curriculum choice. “That’s important and not just for the scholarship athletes, but for any student’s grade-point-average and test scores and don’t forget about raising fine young men and women and pride in the community.

“It’s important to raise good citizens and, from an athletic standpoint, training them appropriately to aspire to other opportunities as well.”

Shepas is also a proponent of the benefits of the city’s Early College.

“I like it, especially as a guy who has recruited small college and feels the impact of how much a college education costs,” he said. “I think the Early College opportunities and post-secondary education are going to be part of the wave of the future just to defray some of those costs.”

With all the change that’s taking place, the job of chief of physical development and athletics is going to be a situation of shared leadership and collaboration.

“I’ll definitely have a piece of the puzzle, but I want to seek out the best people I can to be involved in the process and share the responsibilities,” Shepas said. “You’ve got some people out there who are very proud of the Youngstown City Schools, so we want to change the culture in East High School and, under the direction of new principal Sonya Gordon, we want to support her as she changes the culture of the high school.

“Then, as we progress down the road, we want to seek out the experienced help of some specific people to bring Chaney High School athletics back the right way,” he said. “We’re definitely in the preparation and planning stages to, strategically, bring them back.”

With All-American Conference restructuring in flux, Shepas will be watchful.

“We’re going to pay attention to some of the decisions that are made within the conference over the next year-and-a-half or so and that may give us an indication more clearly of how and when Chaney comes back to athletics,” he said.

Shepas won’t commit to a first-year timetable for progress.

“We’re going to make some decisions here to impact the schools in the immediate future with some of the best male and female coaches who are living in the area; they’re available and they’re going to be able to bring a lot to the table,” Shepas said. “Then, we’re going to integrate ourselves with some local youth organizations and newly established mentoring groups and seek out their support to help us build some coaching staffs at the schools and in the feeder systems as well.

“To be honest, we’re going to take just one day at a time,” he said. “I’ve still got a lot of life left and lot to get done.”

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