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A vision of success: Richards eager to lead Ross athletic program

The idea wheel has been spinning in Jake Richards’ head since he was approved in February as the Ross Local School District’s next athletic director.

He will officially take over for interim AD Micky Geier on Aug. 1, and the 33-year-old Richards said he’ll hit the ground sprinting.

“I didn’t predict this would happen, but this is what I’ve been working for my entire professional career,” the 2002 Ross High School graduate said. “This place is part of who I am. To be part of giving learning opportunities to our students K-through-12 is a dream come true.”

Richards will be giving up his teaching (freshman English) and coaching (track, cross country) positions to become a full-time administrator.

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“Some of my closest friends have said I’ll be crossing over to the dark side,” he said. “I’m going to miss being in the classroom and coaching. When I’m interacting with kids, it dawns on me from time to time that this is not going to happen moving forward. It’s going to be an interaction on a different level.”

Richards, who coached and taught in the Oak Hills district before returning to Ross in 2015, concedes he doesn’t have much AD experience. He has been the Ross Middle School athletic director for winter sports for three years.

“Honestly, I know the first issue that maybe some of the powers-that-be were concerned about was my lack of experience,” Richards said. “I feel like I’ve been training for this particular job for 11 years. I’ve coached various sports at multiple levels, and I think it’s a natural fit to have somebody like that step into this role.

“I believe my age is a positive, 100 percent. I’ve highlighted the energy I bring to the table and the enthusiasm I bring to this particular table at Ross.”

He is a big believer in kids being involved in a lot of different activities. Richards believes in that philosophy because he lived it at Ross.

Joe Valentine of Ross goes up for a shot over Clinton-Massie’s Trey Uetrecht during their Division II sectional boys basketball game against Clinton-Massie on Feb. 23 at Fairmont’s Trent Arena in Kettering. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

His prep athletic career included 12 varsity letters in cross country, track, soccer and football, and he won the Division I 800-meter state championship in track as a senior. He also spent time in the band playing the sousaphone.

As a senior, Richards became the first prep athlete in Ohio history to play three sports in the same season. He said cooperation from his coaches — Dick Ballard in football, Bill Buelsing in soccer and Sean Van Winkle in cross country — was the key.

“To be honest, it sounds a whole lot crazier than it actually was on a daily basis,” Richards said. “Soccer was my primary sport back then, so I practiced mostly with soccer. Then I’d go to football for 20 minutes on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday night games, then I’d show up Saturday morning and run cross country.

“If a kid comes to me now and wants to play two sports, I’m all for it, but we have to have some ground rules, a plan. I’m not sure we did that when I was a senior, so I’m grateful to those guys for allowing me to explore those opportunities.”

Fairfield guard Zahyra Bailey has her shot blocked by Ross guard Julia Nunn during the All-Butler County All-Star girls basketball game at the Hamilton Athletic Center on April 7. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY E.L. HUBBARD

Richards addressed a lot of issues during an interview this week at the school. Here are some questions and answers from that session:

• What do you want to bring to the Ross athletic program that it doesn’t have now?

“Let me start with what we do have. We have some of the best people in the business in terms of coaches, community members, a school board, other administration, teachers and, most importantly, student-athletes. We’ve got some of the best people in the world, and that hasn’t changed since I’ve been out of school.

“I think what has been lacking in Ross athletics is a vision, a goal for this program. I think getting all those great people on board and in the same direction is going to be a really powerful thing. I think we’ll take what is already at a very good level to the next level of success.

“Is that a tangible thing or a mind-set? I think it’s both. There’s a vision for Ross athletics moving forward, and it revolves around the idea of student-athletes learning through sport. With that in mind, you can start to imagine how that affects everything we do.

“So anything to do with transportation or funding or the opponents we play or the travel we do or whatever, if we have that central goal in mind as the program mission, then there’s no way we’re not going to be successful. It starts with creating a culture, and that culture then builds on itself. Success breeds success.

Brock Tatum of Ross gets a piece of the ball during a baseball game against host Edgewood on April 11 in St. Clair Township. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

“It even trickles down to the conversations that a coach has with an athlete. If that coach asks the question ‘Is this helping that student-athlete?’ and the answer is no, then obviously it’s not the right thing to do.

“The community is huge. We do get out in the community, but there’s some things we need to do to bring the community in even more. We have to build what I call branding. I know that’s more of a business term, but I see it as helping our student-athletes grow to the best that they can possibly be. There’s a leadership component to that. There’s a character component to that.

“Then there’s obviously a funding issue. That’s not unique to Ross. We’re going to pursue some more creative funding options, tapping into some of the alumni. I’ve got family members or friends who have said they want to give back, and I’m not sure there’s an avenue to do that at this point. We’re going to have a defined avenue to give back to Ross athletics.

“And infrastructure is huge in all athletic departments. When you say the word infrastructure, people automatically think facilities, and there is obviously room to grow with facilities here at Ross. I know the big one that comes up is ‘When are you going to turf the football field?’ To that I will say we are exploring all possibilities to make sure that our student-athletes have the best opportunities.

“If that means we sit down as an administration with our coaches and some of the other key stakeholders in the community, if that’s where we need to go, then that’s where we’ll go. In my mind, it’s a non-negotiable to give our kids the basic building blocks to move toward that idea of learning through sport.”

Ross quarterback Zach Arno tries to avoid Harrison defensive back Bailey Smith during their football game at Ross on Sept. 16, 2016. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY E.L. HUBBARD

• There has been talk that the Southwest Ohio Conference may not last for a long time and isn’t a great fit for Ross for multiple reasons. What are your thoughts on the school’s conference affiliation?

“There’s always going to be rumors swirling. Despite that, the SWOC is a terrific league. I know you can get into the fact that it’s an odd number of teams and creates issues in football scheduling, but I’ve gone to several of the SWOC’s AD meetings, and I can tell you that the league is healthy. I don’t see a change happening in the foreseeable future.”

• Football is a driver for many high school athletic departments, and Ross has clearly been down in recent years. How important is football success to you?

“I should start by saying that I am not a revenue sports-only kind of guy. I think my track record speaks to that. I value all sports as equally as possible. It reminds me of a quote from my college track coach. The quote was, ‘The bottom line is not the only line.’ I think that kind of ties into the question of how big football success is in the grand scheme of things.

“If you’re talking about football success as wins and losses, I think you’re missing the vast majority of the picture. I know that may be what people look at from the outside, but if that’s the measure of success, they might miss the fact that the cross country team’s been pretty daggone good or the soccer team’s been great or the basketball team had a great season or the bowling team won the league.

“Now I will also say on the flip side of that, I love Kenyon Commins. He is a fantastic football coach for us. His (1-9) record last year doesn’t look like success, but Coach Commins is building a program. His goal in Year 0 was to build a program that kids wanted to be a part of and community members bought into, and that has happened. You look at the offseason work in the work room — that’s how they refer to the weight room — and it is packed with unprecedented numbers.

Fenwick’s Alexandra Page (15) and Christy Schmitt (9) of Ross battle for the ball during their Division II sectional girls soccer game Oct. 22, 2015, at Fenwick. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

“That record is going to change, but what Coach Commins is building is far more important than that. He’s building a group of young people that are learning more about themselves every day. They’re learning more about where they fit in this world before they leave the halls of Ross High School and go out into the wider world.”

• Are you a supporter of Ross teams traveling outside the area? Maybe each team having one sizable trip per season?

“I would be in favor of that as long as it’s done right. Take our baseball team for instance. They went down to Tennessee over spring break. They played some games, and they all stayed in one of those chalet-type places.

“Those kids learned so much from that opportunity. They wouldn’t have learned that much staying at home and playing games or even taking a day trip to Columbus. Having the opportunity to make a trip like that is a very powerful way to increase the learning opportunities that we give our student-athletes.”

• The Ross-Badin rivalry has come back to life across the board after a long hiatus. How do you see that situation and are you in favor of continuing to play Badin in all sports?

“I’m all for it. I think the way the Badin-Ross thing happened this past year was the model of how it should happen. To my knowledge, it hasn’t turned ugly on the playing field or in the community. You see our football coaches getting together for a fundraiser before the big event. You see our cross country teams being great co-competitors off the course.

Badin’s John Hetterich jumps up for a header between Ross defenders Adam McCandless (left) and Michael Carroll (right) during the first half of their Division II sectional boys soccer game Oct. 20, 2016, at Monroe. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

“I see that becoming a much bigger production in the sense that we will continue to play them in sports, but we will also continue to join together with them to do good things in our community because it’s a shared community. If we come together to do meaningful things in the community, that to me is what interscholastic sports should be about. So I hope it continues, and I hope Badin feels the same way about that.”

• A recent ruling by the Ohio High School Athletic Association will extend the baseball season by a week in 2019. Some administrators have expressed concern about supervision issues with sports continuing even longer after school lets out for the year. What are your thoughts on that?

“In my mind that’s an easy answer, and that’s culture. The culture that has learning through sport at its heart doesn’t allow for the stuff that those people are worried about. The reality is most of our spring tournaments already extend past the end of school for most schools.

“Now sometimes kids are an unpredictable bunch. Everybody understands that. But I see this as a good thing. From our perspective, our coaches and student-athletes know what it is to be a Ross Ram. They know what our brand says, so when they go far and wide as a team wearing the maroon and gold, they know how they’re supposed to act. The culture demands that of them.”

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