New Derry coach Vince Skillings committed to program’s trademark ground game

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Thursday, July 16, 2020 | 3:03 PM


When Woody Hayes spoke, Vince Skillings listened.

A former Derry football star who is taking the reins of his high school alma mater as a first-year head coach, Skillings played defensive back for the legendary Hayes at Ohio State.

New coaches often bring new schemes.

When asked if Derry will deviate from its trademark ground-and-pound running game and pass the football more this season, Skillings hearkened back to his late Buckeyes mentor.

“You know who my old coach was?” Skillings said with a laugh. “He always said three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”

Referring in the latter part of that famous quote to interceptions and incompletions, the conservative Hayes was adamant about running the ball behind a strong line. That is what Derry has done with precision over the last few seasons when the program — under Tim Sweeney and his staff — became a perennial contender.

Sweeney has since left to coach at Baldwin, but Skillings is primed to carry on the tradition.

While the ingrained offensive philosophy will remain mostly the same, defense will be very high on Skillings’ priority list. He has plans to tweak that side of the ball.

“Control the ball offensively,” he said. “And dominate defensively. You do that and you’re going to win some games.”

Skillings, 61, who played in the Canadian Football League after being chosen by the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round of the 1981 NFL Draft, has served as an assistant coach at Edinboro and Cal U, along with Ligonier Valley, Westerville South (Ohio), West Oaks Academy (Fla.) and United high schools.

Derry brings him home and rekindles warm memories. He was an all-state running back and corner at Derry.

A full-circle tale is in the works for Skillings.

“I was coaching junior high kids (at United) and I always wondered how I would do if those indoctrinated players were brought to me (at the high school level),” he said. “It was nice seeing the younger guys work their way up to the varsity.

“I didn’t think I’d get the (Derry) job, to be honest. I’m thankful to God. It feels like a dream. Reality is setting in.”

Dreams can become nightmares, however, for coaches when offseason work is stalled. Like the rest of the men leading programs across the state — rookies or veterans — Skillings’ break into the head-coaching ranks has been stunted by the covid-19 era with stops and starts greeting him on a near daily basis.

“It’s been tough and hectic because of so many uncertainties,” he said. “Are we going to play? Aren’t we going to play? You hope to get a firm answer one of these days. Knowing any day the season could be over is tough. But it doesn’t matter what they decide. Our job is to prepare these young men to play football.”

Of course, Skillings has not been alone. It’s been a group effort because he retained several of Sweeney’s assistants to help maintain continuity in the program.

“Getting the majority of the old staff back was a big key,” he said. “I’ve become the student now. We want to be able to teach as much as we can in the short time we have.”

Among those back on staff are Ron Polinsky, who will take over as offensive coordinator, along with Will Haase (linemen), Ron Nicely (receivers) and Ryan Polinsky (QBs/DBs). Ron Polinsky is a former Derry head coach.

The players seem to have taken a liking to Skillings.

“He’s a very smart guy and his football IQ is astonishing,” said incoming senior Nick Detore, a wide receiver and defensive back. “He has a lot of experience in the game, and we learn something new from him every day. We’re all very excited to play under him this year.”

Derry won 49 games in six years under Sweeney and had made the WPIAL playoffs four straight times, including three trips to the semifinals. The Trojans reached the WPIAL Class 3A title game in 2018.

The Trojans went 9-3 last year, falling to Central Valley in the semis.

The big defensive change Skillings spoke of might be the challenge to which he is most looking forward. He plans for the Trojans to switch from a base 50 to a 4-3 stack, something he learned and coached at Westerville South under Rocky Pentello.

“We want to keep it simple and let guys play downhill,” he said. “It’s a defense I think we can run and have success with.”

The goal for Derry just might be to take away more passes than it throws. Stay tuned.

For now, the team is just hoping it will have a season.

“I’m confident we will,” Detore said. “We’re taking it day by day and following the correct guidelines. Just praying for the opportunity to play.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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