GLOUSTER — It’s a classic good news-bad news situation.
On the one hand, the Trimble Tomcats return 16 starters, three All-Ohio players and five All-Southeast District honorees from a team that was 13-2 a year ago and finished in the Division VII OHSAA State Championship game.
All good right?
Well, the bad news is the Tomcats won’t get a chance to defend their Division VII, Region Region 27 title from 2018. Trimble has been moved up to Division VI, and into Region 21, because of the OHSAA competitive balance rules.
“I think it’s a stupid state rule that caught us,” long-time Trimble head coach Phil Faires bluntly stated.
Trimble will be the smallest D-VI school in the state this season. The Tomcats missed the cutoff to remain in Division VII by the slimmest of margins, and only because a handful of students — who reside in Morgan County — counted as two students each.
Trimble’s district, in northern Athens County, is nestled on the east by Morgan County. Morgan County has just one high school — Morgan HS. Several Tomcats have always attended Trimble High School despite living just on the the other side of the county line.
It makes no difference that those in question live just five minutes from Trimble High School, and reside 50 minutes away from Morgan High School. The competitive balance rules now mean those students, despite a lifetime or a decade’s worth of attending Trimble, now count as double.
It was just enough to bump the Tomcats’ football program above the threshold, out of Division VII and into an entirely different region. You can understand why some might be aggravated about it.
“We’re here with most of our kids living within a couple miles of the school. And we’re getting counted double because they live in Morgan County, which has one school for the entire county,” Faires said.
“I live in Morgan County,” he countinued, citing his residence near Bishopville, an unincorporated community just two miles east of Glouster on SR 78. “If I was a student, I’d have to open enroll.
“These kids have went to Trimble all their life, and now they count extra. I don’t understand it.”
It’s a tough break, but you won’t find many programs still in Division VII, Region 27 feeling bad about it. The Tomcats have won the region three times since 2013, landed in the D-VII state final twice in the same span, and have won at least one playoff game in seven straight seasons.
Trimble is a small-school power, and makes no excuses when it comes to football games. In true Tomcat fashion, Faires said his team has already turned the page on their new assignment and is looking forward to carving out a new niche in a new region.
“I don’t even know if half of them know it,” Faires said with his usual chuckle, referring to his players.
“And it might even help us. Some years I’ve seen where the Division VI region was a little easier than the D-VII one,” he added. “We’ll have to see how it plays out. I think the biggest difference will be in week 11. You’re going to see a better team in that first match up, even in the first round.”
The standard is the same
And make no mistake, the Tomcats are thinking of another deep playoff run, and another Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division title. Trimble cruised through the TVC last season (8-0), won a series of nail-biters in the playoffs and then fell 28-3 to McComb in the state title bout.
It was a return to the biggest stage in the sport, and one few expected after the Tomcats reached the state final in 2013.
And if there’s a team that could move up a division in Southeast Ohio, and still find big playoff success, it might be the 2019 Trimble Tomcats. They’re talented, experienced and still thrive off being told what they can’t do.
These Tomcats didn’t get fat and happy after last year’s 15-week season.
“Coaches say it all the time, but last year I was serious in that was the hardest working team I’ve ever had. And now I’m saying it again,” Faires said.
“If we don’t have the weight room open, or don’t do extra conditioning like we’re supposed to, these guys are on you. “
When the Tomcats thought a conditioning drill at Burr Oak State Park wasn’t going to happen, they let their displeasure be known. If the weight room wasn’t open when it was supposed to be, Faires heard about it.
“They want that extra work. Our practices so far have been even tougher than last year.”
It’ll begin with defense for Trimble, and why wouldn’t it? Trimble posted a school-record nine shutouts in 2018, including six in a row from weeks six through 12 and had a 26-quarter scoreless streak.
And eight starters on that defense return this fall.
In the middle is senior linebacker Sawyer Koons, a battering ram of a thumper inside, who had 136 tackles and 32 tackles for loss during the 2018 regular season. He finished 2018 as the Defensive Player of the Year in all of D-VII.
There’s more. Senior defensive end Ian Joyce — the best player in the TVC Hocking who isn’t a skill position player in 2019 — is back as an all-district first team after 102 tackles and 34 tackles for loss in the first 10 games in 2018.
Senior safety Cameron Kittle is a returning starter in the back end of the defense. Junior linebacker Todd Fouts is back beside Koons at LB. Defensive line standouts in senior Jack Nagucki, senior Zach Guffey and senior Shawn Turley will be inside on the DL.
Trimble will miss All-Ohio performer Alex Coffman (DL), key fill in LB Sam Ives, and do-everything DB Max Hooper, but has the potential to pick up close to where it left off in 2019.
Sophomore Tabor Lackey will joined the front as a defensive end. Senior Conner Wright, a part-time linebacker in 2018, could see more steady work on both sides of the ball. In the secondary, senior Landon Wisor and a trio of up-and-coming sophomores — Bryce Downs, Blake Guffey and Austin Wisor — are ready for bigger roles.
“Our guys love playing defense and take real pride in that,” Faires said. “They get mad about allowing any points.”
Tomcats still have teeth on offense
Trimble won’t have to win games 7-0 most of the year. Excluding Hooper — who had 1,269 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2018 — every big-time playmaker returns.
Kittle is more than a safety, he’s the gritty, steady and shifty quarterback that has thrived when the Tomcats go to their wishbone offense. Kittle had 1,018 yards rushing, threw for 750 yards, and accounted for 24 touchdowns on his way to Third Team All-Ohio honors.
And Wright is more than just a linebacker. The hard-running senior had 13 100-yard games in 2018, and finished the year with 1,848 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. He may have to play more defense this season, but he’s still the hammer for the offense.
“He’s going to be really tired after games this year,” Faires said.
Koons will pull double duty as the fullback. Lackey and Blake Guffey will work as tight ends and/or split ends. Both Fouts and Downs will get shots to be the third back in the full-house backfield.
On the edges. freshman Chase Carr, and Landon and Austin Wisor will give the Tomcats options down the field.
Up front, Trimble returned four starters on the offensive line. The interior remains intact with Zach Guffey — a three-year starter at center — and returning guards in Turley and Joyce. Senior Garrett Richards is a returning starter at tackle, but is out currently with an injury.
Former tight end Nagucki has quickly been inserted as a steadying force at tackle, and the Tomcats have a four-way competition for the tackle spot currently vacated by Richards’ injury. In the mix there are seniors Garrison Bush and Don Holbert, junior Ian Spencer and sophomore Conner Wooten.
For all of Kittle’s and Wright’s numbers, Faires said Trimble’s strength lies with the big guys.
“Without a doubt, our strength last year was on the offensive line,” Faires said. “With four of those guys back, we think it can be that way again.”
Blake Guffey will fill in for Hooper and Noah Rossiter as the place-kicker and punter.
The devil’s in the details
On paper, the Tomcats seem to be a shoo-in for another TVC Hocking title and another spot in the postseason despite the jump in divisions.
But to Trimble’s credit, they haven’t assumed anything. With a schedule that features just one playoff team from 2018 — in-league rival Waterford — and a host of Division VII schools, the Tomcats’ margin for error to reach the regional brackets is small.
One loss, and the Tomcats are probably okay. Two? Then the math starts to work against them.
But with so many big questions already answered — Trimble doesn’t have to worry about finding many starters or go-to players — the Tomcats will dial in on the little things that could make-or-break a game.
Faires believes he’s going to get great effort in every game. He’s already said the work ethic for the 2019 group is second to none.
The path is a new one for Trimble this fall, in terms of the postseason, but they’ll try to navigate the same way they always have.
“It’s little things really. Stay healthy. A tweak to a set or a play call there,” Faires said. “Change how we do a couple things.
“But we’re excited for this to start. We have a chance to be really good again.”