Middletown High School football coach Lance Engleka hasn’t heard one mention among his players of last season.
He prefers it stay that way.
Last year’s 0-10 finish, Engleka believes, was more of a bi-product of an inexperienced team transitioning to a new coach — nothing that couldn’t be fixed with time. He’s already seen progress in practice and is anxious to see it come together under Friday night lights in his second season at the helm.
“Last season is last season,” Engleka said. “We are concerned with this season. We can’t go back and fix things in the past. All you can do is plan and play for the next season, which is where we are at right now. There hasn’t been any talk about trying to erase last year because that’s in the past.
“We’re a year older, a year stronger, another year into the program, and they are going to benefit from that, but we have to show it on the field and we’ve seen signs of that so far.”
With several starters back, Engleka didn’t believe any mass overhauls were needed, but the hiring of some experienced, proven assistants — including offensive coordinator Mike Schneider and defensive coordinator John Cupps — should help the players make individual jumps and the team take steps forward. Schneider is a former head coach at Miamisburg and Wayne, and Cupps is a former coordinator at Springfield, La Salle and Massillon Washington, and Engleka said both fit in well with the Middies.
Middletown returns nine starters on offense and seven on defense, despite a senior class of just 11 players.
“Everyone talks about a lot of guys coming back, but they played on an 0-10 team, so they obviously have to get better from last year to this year,” Engleka said. “We had our first scrimmage last Tuesday against Centerville and felt coming out of that there were definitely positives we saw. Obviously there are things to work on, but we were pleased with the general effort and execution and the physical aspect. We felt we were the more physical team, which is a good sign.”
Middletown ranked last in the Greater Miami Conference for both offense and defense last year, averaging a mere 10 points and 177.2 yards per game and allowing 36.1 points and 390.4 yards per game. Turnovers proved to be the biggest hindrance as the offense never could seem to get going and the defense was worn down by staying on the field so long.
Still, Engleka remains confident in the spread offense and the combination of quarterbacks Zach Maloney and Blake Marshall, who shared time last year. Maloney has the inside track to the starting job, while Marshall adds another threat at slotback and has the ability to mix things up at quarterback with a different set of skills.
“It makes us better overall when we can have them both on the field together,” Engleka said. “It allows us to get the ball in the hands of two of our better players and also gives Blake the opportunity to return punts and kicks.”
Junior wide receiver Shandon Morris (252 yards receiving) and senior running back Diondre Cooper (155 yards rushing) have been among the most improved players this summer, Engleka said, and the offense is bolstered by three returning linemen. Dylan McFadden has moved from guard to center, Nick Holland is back at tackle, and Earl Nelson is ready for a big season after starting as a freshman.
The defense is led by two returners up front as seniors Keion Williams and Ayron Thompson will plug up the middle to anchor a line featuring two new ends in the unchanged 4-3 scheme. Seniors Edward Roque and E.J. Hill, junior James Miller and freshman Cameron Junior — whose older brothers E.J. and Kyle went on to play college football — fill roles at linebacker, and the secondary received reinforcements in the transfer of junior Shawn Duckworth from Mount Healthy.
“I think our defense has a chance to be much improved,” Engleka said. “Our new defensive coordinator has done an outstanding job getting those kids to play fast and physical. From what he’s done this summer, we’ve been pretty impressive on that side of the ball.”
The Middies open the season with the first of six home games on Aug. 25 against Lima Senior. They will be looking for their first win since Oct. 30, 2015, against Princeton.
“When you play as many kids as we did last year, the No. 1 thing is to gain experience, no matter what happens on the scoreboard,” Engleka said. “They had that last year, and now we have to take that step to be better.”