Area’s new football coaches set to take on first season
By: Likitha Janga
Monday, August 14, 2017 | 7:09 PM
The Viking Jacks are back.
The pre-practice, pregame ritual that began at Mt. Pleasant under venerable coach Bill Elder in the late 1970s might not seem like a big deal to observers. But reviving the subtle exercise is new coach Jason Fazekas' nod to the past.
Fazekas opened training camp with 46 players Monday morning and immediately pointed to the program's proud tradition and his plans to uphold it.
He is one of four new head coaches in the area with others at Greensburg Central Catholic, Monessen and Connellsville.
“We're also going to put signs up in the locker room for the guys to see,” said Fazekas, 45, a former Mt. Pleasant and Clarion lineman. “We're making a connection to the past. We want to do some of the things coach Elder did years ago. I have respect for this position, and I am humbled to have it.”
During one stretch, Mt. Pleasant played in the WPIAL championship game three times in four seasons and won Class AAA titles in 1983 and '86.
Fazekas, known affectionately as “Coach Fuzz,” took over for Bo Ruffner, who resigned after nine seasons. When Fazekas was hired, Ruffner said, “The program is in good hands.” That is because Fazekas was an assistant for 14 years and knows the program inside and out. He and defensive coordinator Bob Gumbita are the staff's elder statesmen.
Fazekas has overseen the weight-training program for years.
“We're not going to lower expectations,” Fazekas said. “It's not going to be easy. We need to get good at what we do, and the kids need to understand the history of this program.”
The Vikings have made the WPIAL playoffs eight consecutive seasons and have not had a losing season since 2008 (4-6).
The Vikings went 7-4 last season but lost to eventual WPIAL and PIAA champion Beaver Falls in the Class 3A quarterfinals, which was the first round with the smaller, eight-team bracket.
Once Fazekas implements details, he believes he can keep the Vikings in the playoff chase in the Class 3A Interstate Conference.
“There are many logistical things. You need to make sure everyone, the coaches and the kids, are on the same page,” Fazekas said. “Routine will become our tradition.”
While pride was the focus on opening day of camp at Mt. Pleasant, conditioning continues to be the name of the game at Greensburg Central Catholic, where new coach Aaron Smetanka increased summer workouts to help get his team ready for camp.
It's not uncommon for Smetanka, 28, to jump right into the drills and demonstrate. The former standout quarterback at North Catholic, St. Vincent and on the indoor circuit, trains athletes for a living. His enthusiasm has energized a young group.
“Our guys have shown up and worked all summer,” Smetanka said. “We have a lot of young guys, but they want to put in the time to get better.”
Greensburg Central went 2-8 last season and ended a streak of 13 consecutive playoff appearances. The team has not won a playoff game since 2011.
“We want to get things back to the way they were,” Smetanka said.
As a Monessen graduate, first-year head coach Mikey Blainefield knows there are some traditions already in place at his alma mater. But he wants to instill new ones and he forges a relationship with his team.
Case in point: Monday's camp-opening workout. Blanefield opened with a pop quiz — a conditioning test — and had freshmen recite the school's “Ode to the Greyhound” poem.
“These are things we're implementing now,” said Blainefield, an assistant the last two years under Joe Salvino. “And I am stressing academics here. A lot of athletes come out of Monessen but not a lot of college athletes come out of Monessen. We're going to have study halls in place so the kids can keep their grades up.”
Blanefield, a former defensive back at Georgetown, has seen an increase in numbers. His player-total matches his age: 31.
“We had 18 at this time last year,” he said. “I am fortunate to be in this position. I'm still close with some of the guys who have been here before, so I am getting a lot of help from the assistant coaches. The arrow is pointing up.”
Monessen was the top-ranked Class A team in the state in 2004 when Blainefield was a senior. The Greyhounds lost to Springdale in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Last season, the Greyhounds finished 1-9, the worst mark in program history, and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
A former local standout receiver also is learning the ropes in his first head-coaching job. Marko Thomas, a playmaker at Penn-Trafford in the late 1990s, is the new coach at Connellsville.
He said he doesn't mind the 45-minute drive from his home in Trafford because he isn't the only team member with the fervor to start the season.
“We have some great kids out here, and they have committed to the program,” said Thomas, 36, who was a star wideout at Geneva. “I want to try and get this program back to where it used to be.”
Thomas is Connellsville's eighth coach in 17 years. Like Smetanka, he played arena ball for a short time before getting the itch to coach. Injuries closed the book on his playing career.
Thomas has been an assistant at Penn-Trafford, Hempfield, Yough, and Franklin Regional.
While it has made the playoffs in recent years, Connellsville has not had a winning record since 1998 and has not won a playoff game since 1994.
ljanga is a Tribune-Review freelancer. You can contact ljanga at [email protected].