Shortly after Federal Hocking High School was forced to cancel its 2019 football season with four games remaining, head coach Jeff Ditty met with school administrators to discuss what the future held.
“We had to make a decision,” Ditty said. “We either cancel the program, or we pump full investment into it to move it forward. The decision was made that they didn’t want to get rid of the program, so we were going to move it forward.”
With the support of the school behind him, Ditty came up with a plan to try and revitalize Federal Hocking’s football program.
Ditty took over the Lancers’ program in the spring of 2019, and had Federal Hocking at 1-5 when low numbers in the program forced the cancelation of the season.
“Starting in October, we put together a plan, not just addressing player participation and recruitment, but ultimately what’s going to put us in the best position to help grow the program,” Ditty said.
Federal Hocking approached the Tri-Valley Conference about dropping football from league competition for a two-year period. Ditty said the league was supportive of the idea.
“Looking at our schedule, the league has had a lot of competitive football teams in it, and we just weren’t at that level of competition where we can be competitive on a week in and week out basis, especially with the participation rate that we had,” Ditty said.
The Lancers will essentially play as an independent for the next two seasons in an effort to build up their numbers.
Federal Hocking has had fewer than 30 players on its team for most of the last decade. The Lancers had to cancel a 2018 regular season game against Fort Frye when not enough healthy players were available.
The Lancers were ultimately able to finish out that ‘18 campaign, but faced the same issues last fall. Federal Hocking dealt with a fluctuating roster, ultimately deciding after a week six loss to Belpre that the final games couldn’t be played, only 13 healthy players remained.
“We were literally going to be in this week-to-week scenario,” Ditty said, back in October. “We weren’t sure how each week was going to play out. We thought it was the best move at that point to cancel the remaining portion of the season.”
Going forward, Ditty and the Lancers have put together a complete 10-game schedule that they hope will lead to better competition, and therefore better participation numbers.
“We approached the league, told them what we were thinking which was could we step away and make a break so we could structure a schedule that both aligned with our participation and our competition level,” Ditty said. “It gives us room to rebuild and grow and after talking to the league, they were extremely supportive of it.”
The Lancers will again open the season against Hundred. They travel to West Virginia and defeated the Hornets 28-20 in last year’s season opener, ending a 40-game losing streak.
Federal Hocking was unable to build off of that win however, as it lost its next five games by an average score of 43-7.
Instead of jumping into a full TVC-Hocking slate, the Lancers instead will face West Virginia schools in Paden City and Hannan. Manchester, Ridgedale, Grove City Christian and the Columbus Crusaders are also new additions to the schedule.
Hundred went 2-8 last season, while Hannan was 1-9 and Paden City 3-7. Manchester was 2-8, Grove City Christian and Ridgedale were both were both 3-6.
“We thought that it allowed us to maximize our potential for success from a competitive standpoint on Friday nights, but it also allowed us the flexibility to plan a competition level to allow not just our participation, but even our competitive compacity to grow so that we could step back in a two-year period of time and be a completive program in the TVC again.”
The Lancers will still play Miller and Wahama, two schools that will depart from the TVC at the completion of the school year.
“They were there on our schedule last year, but as they dropped from the league, we evaluated each team, talked with the other coaching staffs and where it made sense, we kept them,” Ditty said.
Belpre was the only TVC-Hocking team that was unable to fill the hole in its schedule created by Federal Hocking’s decision. Ditty said they didn’t want to leave any of the TVC teams short on games, so the Lancers will still travel to take on the Golden Eagles in a week-four contest.
Federal Hocking — which won consecutive league titles in 2005 and 2006 — has struggled to find its footing in recent years on the gridiron in the TVC-Hocking. The Lancers have lost 40 league games in a row — if you count three forfeit losses last season — with its last TVC-Hocking win coming against Waterford on Oct. 24, 2014.
All of those on-the-field losses have come by double figures.
Ditty said building up the lower levels of the program is most essential to long-term success, as the Lancers will still try and play TVC teams with a JV schedule.
Of course, the hope is to have enough players to play JV football. The Lancers haven’t been able to the last few seasons, meaning younger players are either forced into varsity action too early, or simply don’t play for a season or two.
“We didn’t have the opportunities to play,” Ditty said. “By changing the competition level of our schedule and by adding more opportunities to play — adding that JV schedule in, changing the schedule at the varsity level — we’re hoping to create a very diverse playing opportunity for kids at all ages. So by the time we get kids that are sophomores and juniors, they’ve had a lot of experience with game play, which we hadn’t had before.”
Ditty said the ultimate goal is to be able to rejoin a TVC schedule for the 2022 season.
In the meantime, Federal Hocking will not appear in the regional computer point ratings for at least the 2020 season. The school notified the OHSAA that it was altering its schedule, and did not want to be considered for possible postseason play by the state.
“We didn’t want there to be any thinking that we changed our schedule because we wanted to find a better way to get into the playoffs,” Ditty said. “That was not the case at all. Our sole focus is on the growth of the program, getting it stable and getting it competitive.”
Ditty said the response within the school had been positive, that more kids were showing up to workouts in the months since football season ended.
“We were having players that haven’t played for a year or two coming back and engaging with the program,” Ditty said. “We had students who had never played before expressing interest in moving forward with the program. I was extremely excited with the movement that we had with our offseason.”
That progress has temporarily stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHSAA has shut down school facilities across the state to any athletic workouts.
Unable to workout at the school since early March, Ditty said the coaches have still been in communication with the athletes.
“We put together home-based workouts that we could deliver to the kids, stuff that didn’t require the weight room,” he said. “Hopefully it was a strong alternative, but we wanted to keep some sense of normalcy and consistency from what we had built on.”
Ditty admits to being concerned about the future of the program. It’s up in the air as to when face-to-face workouts would be permitted again, or even if a high school football season will take place this fall.
“We don’t know what the future is going to hold,” he said. “We’re still positive that we’re going to be able to keep the traction and strides that we made, but at this point I genuinely have a concern about what the impact will be on our program with player participation come fall.”
If the season is able to start on time, the Lancers would kick if off with an August 28th home game against Hundred.
Federal Hocking would also scrimmage Trinity Christian on Aug. 15, and Fairfield Christian on Aug. 22.