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Prep football: Middletown’s Simpson era begins Friday night against Western Hills

Don Simpson has been talking about a new day in Middletown High School football, and it’s just about here.

The Middies, 1-19 over the last two seasons, will kick off the 2018 campaign at home Friday night against Western Hills.

“It seems like just yesterday I was in the weight room yelling about 100 days. Now Week 1 is finally here,” said Simpson, in his first head coaching position after stops at Norwood, Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, Deer Park and Princeton.

“I think Aug. 24 is going to be the coming-out party for this group to say, ‘This is the new look. This is what we’ve been working on since January.’ I think it’s going to be a special day for Middletown football.”

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Senior quarterback Jarrenn Thomas said the new coach and the team are unified in their goal: Change the culture and get back to winning.

“We’ve been working more, a lot more running, conditioning, everything,” Thomas said. “He just changed our mind-set, and now we’re ready to win.”

It’s been a while since Middletown won with any kind of consistency.

The last time the Middies had a winning record? That was 2011 (10-2).

The last time the Middies won their season opener? That was 2011 (32-31 over Wayne).

The last time the Middies didn’t start 0-2? That was 2013 (lost to Elder 20-14, beat Springfield 35-13).

Simpson, the defensive coordinator at Princeton last season, said a good start is critical for his crew. Middletown travels to Springboro next week before beginning Greater Miami Conference play against visiting Lakota East on Sept. 7.

“All we’ve talked about here over the last several months is, ‘Get to 1-0,’ ” Simpson said. “Right now, we’ve got a one-game season. It’s a must-win game.”

Of course, the Mustangs aren’t planning to come to Barnitz Stadium and be sacrificial lambs. Western Hills has only registered nine wins over the past four seasons, but third-year coach Armand Tatum believes his program is improving.

“We were 3-7 last year, but we were putting a better product on the field,” said Tatum, with the Mustangs taking three losses by 12 points or less. “We’re looking to mend some of our problems and put more points on the board this year.”

Western Hills is a triple-option offensive team running out of the pistol. The key figure is junior fullback Kayvon Britten, who ran for 1,255 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.

“He pops on film,” Simpson said. “He’s quick. He’s elusive. They probably want to play the game in space like we do.”

Tatum called Britten “a speed demon” and said he’s about 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds.

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“Our offseason program was awesome, and Kayvon is one of those guys that reaped the benefits of our strength program,” Tatum said. “We were 100 percent true triple last year. This year, we’re trying to evolve a little bit to fit our personnel.”

Western Hills has 12 returning starters and uses a 4-2-5 defense. Three seniors have been starting since they were freshmen — defensive lineman Reginald Taylor-Benton, wide receiver/defensive back Davarious Turner and two-way lineman David Lewis.

A lot of guys will be going both ways, though, as the Mustangs’ roster is around 30 in grades 9-12.

“We’re senior heavy, so we have a lot of game experience on the field this year,” Tatum said. “I know Middletown wants to get off to a great start with a new head coach. I’ve been in that position before. Honestly and truly, I think it’s going to be a great game. I don’t particularly see either one of us totally running over the other.”

Simpson said Middletown showed flashes of the grit he’s been seeking during its three scrimmages. He saw a lot of positives against Centerville and Northwest before the Middies got thumped by Fairfield last Friday.

“That relentless attitude is getting there, but we’re not there yet,” Simpson said. “The telltale sign from the Fairfield scrimmage was the next day, and we responded great. All the starters were back in and were like, ‘We’ve got to work harder. We want to be able to compete at that level.’

“We came out of the scrimmages with no major injuries. I think we grew as a team, and everybody kind of saw the vision of what we’re doing. I’m not overly satisfied. I’m not dissatisfied. We’re par for the course right now.”

Simpson said senior wide receiver Shandon Morris and junior defensive end Cheikh Fall have been among the Middies’ brightest stars in the preseason.

Middletown’s Gene Underhill (66) is among the defenders trying to get a handle on Hamilton’s Maleek Jarrett (8) during a game at Barnitz Stadium in Middletown on Sept. 29, 2017. Visiting Big Blue won 47-26. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY MARITZA MCKINNEY

“Shandon has really shown me that he’s a gamer,” Simpson said. “I think he’s scored in every scrimmage that we’ve had. I thought he was going to be good, but he’s exceeding my expectations so far.”

Middletown’s captains are Morris, Thomas, Sean Duckworth, Troy Vinson, Gene Underhill and Dylan McFaddin.

Friday will be the first varsity start for Thomas, the Middies’ junior varsity QB in 2017. Thomas said his goals are 2,000 yards through the air and 500 on the ground.

“He’s been a backup for all these years, but now it’s his time. I think he’s going to be something special for us,” Simpson said. “He’s shown his big-play capability in the scrimmages. He’s got an extremely strong arm and a willingness to throw it down the field and get us out of bad situations.”

Simpson said Thomas and senior Cameron Dillingham were the first two Middies he talked to when he came in for his job interview.

“They were greeting all the candidates, and they showed me around the new facility,” Simpson said. “I asked Jarrenn what he played. He was like, ‘I was at quarterback and a little receiver, and next year I’m going to be a senior.’ So I said, ‘So you’re going to be my starting quarterback?’ He’s like, ‘Yep.’ I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to find out.’ ”

Simpson said during summer practice that sophomore Cameron Junior was expected to be the workhorse running back this year.

Junior is still very much in the mix, but Simpson said sophomore Josh Bryant and Dillingham have also stepped forward as runners, noting that Bryant might be the starter Friday.

Friday’s game

What: Western Hills (3-7 in 2017) at Middletown (1-9 in 2017), 7 p.m.

Where: Cris Carter Field at Barnitz Stadium, 1211 S. Main St., Middletown

Series: Middletown leads 2-0, winning 48-12 in 1997 and 54-12 in 1998

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