Life takes a ‘big twist’ for new Derry football coach as he aims to rebuild program

Wednesday, July 27, 2022 | 7:03 PM

Derry football coach Mike Arone enters his first season looking for passionate players. Not just any old players, but dependable kids with a run-through-the-wall mentality.

They could be guys who’ve played in the past or guys who’ve never played. It doesn’t matter to Arone, but they’ve got to be guys who care.

“Volunteers?” he said, offering a soft snicker.

“We’re going to be here.”

More often than not, he mentions such subtleties as “accountability” and “coachability” while peddling a team-first mentality to anyone who’s interested. The idea is to turn around Derry’s football fortunes and get the Trojans back on a successful track, where they’d recently been in contention annually for a WPIAL playoff berth.

“We want to build a culture. We’re expecting everyone to set a culture in the weight room and hold each other accountable,” he said. “You have to hold yourselves accountable. We want to have the mentality that we’re just trying to be there in the fourth quarter. We tell them, ‘Give us everything you have. Go out and compete.’”

In a unanimous vote in January, Derry hired Arone to replace Vince Skillings, who was dismissed as coach of the Trojans with two games remaining in the 2021 season.

Skillings, a 1977 Derry graduate and a former football and track standout at the school who went on to play defensive back at Ohio State before experiencing a brief NFL career, departed Derry with a 2-10 record over nearly two years, beginning with the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity Derry is giving me,” Arone said at the time of his naming.

Entering his second year as associate principal at Derry, Arone, 47, previously served as a principal at Adelphoi Education Services in Indiana, while serving as co-offensive coordinator alongside head coach Greg Page at Homer-Center.

In 2017, the Wildcats won the District 6 Class A championship and advanced to the PIAA championship game, losing to WPIAL champion Jeannette, 42-12.

“He was my right-hand man on offense,” Page said. “He was very instrumental in our success along with his brother Tony, who is defensive coordinator. We’re going to miss Mike. He was tremendous with our kids, very knowledgeable. But we’re happy for him. He deserves the job as a principal and head football coach (at Derry).”

Page is a son of legendary former Laurel Valley coach Jerry Page, who died Dec. 22. The elder Page amassed a 29-year record of 206-97-5 and won three District 6-A championships at Laurel Valley, which in 2010 merged with Ligonier Valley.

Much like his father seasoned him to succeed in coaching, Greg Page was hoping his influences will carry on with Arone as a new head coach.

“I believe he’s ready,” Page said. “We did a few 7-on-7s with him the past month, and I liked the way his kids responded for him. He’s a Homer-Center guy, but this is a great opportunity for him and his family.”

The move to Derry from Homer-Center, a school 7 miles south of Indiana, was a bittersweet occasion for Arone, whose association there goes back to his days as a student, having played for the Wildcats from 1990-93.

A former quarterback, Arone went on to play briefly at Gannon University before an injury ended his career.

“Under coach Page, I’ve learned how to do things the right way,” Arone said. “It’s about wins and losses, yes, but it’s also … We want good, young men who want to be good in the community.”

Derry, which is moving down a notch in classification to 2A, played its final two games of the 2021 season in Class 3A under a coach-by-committee arrangement. It afforded Arone an opportunity to audition players for this year.

“I love coaching football, I love teaching, and I love education,” Arone said. “We’ve seen the skill level in some of the kids here. Now, it’s going to be up to us to get the ball in their hands in the right way. We do have some size.”

Arone referred to senior offensive lineman/inside linebacker Dom Patrick as “the heart-and-soul” of the team.

“He shows up 100%. I’d take 40 of him,” said Arone, who was persuaded to join Derry athletics director Brett Miller in aiding Skillings’ remaining staff to coach the team’s final two games of 2021 in what amounted to an 0-9 season.

Opponents unmercifully outscored the Trojans by a whopping 494-69.

“My life over the last year just took a big twist,” Arone said. “I’ve never had in the back of my head that I’d be a head coach. But I think this is the right move for me at this time.”

Under Skillings, Derry began a nosedive in 2020 following an impressive four-year run of playoff appearances under current Baldwin coach Tim Sweeney, including a trip to the WPIAL Class 3A championship game in 2018, where Aliquippa handled Derry, 42-19.

In six seasons, Sweeney led Derry to a 49-18 record with four WPIAL playoff appearances (4-4) from 2016-19.

The freefall that followed in just two seasons led to Skillings’ ouster after seven consecutive losses in 2021. It was then that Miller said he began to observe Arone’s “well-rounded knowledge of the game.

“It wasn’t just his knowledge of the game, not just from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but from the administrative side,” Miller said. “I had a chance to coach with him a little at the end there, and his ability to talk to the kids was off the charts. I observed a lot of that. If things got heated, he was quick to make sure everyone knew who was in charge. I think the kids appreciate that about him.”

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