LUCAS – When Lucas head coach Scott Spitler enters Canton’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium this weekend, he’ll make history.
Fans from across the state will fill the 23,000-seat facility to watch his Cubs (12-2) take on 10-time state champion Marion Local (12-2) on Saturday morning. The Cubs will make their first state title game appearance, the final stop in a playoff run that has included three dramatic finishes.
Thousands will watch as Lucas attempts to slay Goliath. There will be television cameras and pro-grade turf and trophies for the winners.
It wasn’t always like this for Spitler.
When Lucas’ head play-caller began his coaching career, he was 21 years old. He was a volunteer assistant at a high school in a one-stoplight county. He was passionate about the game and hungry to learn more, but he was nowhere near the coach he is today – the one who’s built Lucas into one of Ohio’s premier small-school programs.
That took time. It took hard work, and heartbreak, and a little bit of luck along the way.
“He’s an incredibly hard worker and he’s passionate about the program. He’s committed to doing the best job he can… He’s not set in his ways,” said Brad Burchfield, the current Bishop Hartley head coach and one of Spitler’s mentors.
“He’s driven that program to incredible heights.”
This is how Scott Spitler got here.
At 48 years old, Spitler has dedicated his life to playing, coaching, and learning more about the game of football.
But he wouldn’t say he grew up in a “football family.”
Spitler was raised in Sidney, a mid-sized, blue-collar city on the west side of Ohio. His mother worked in daycare and his stepfather was a machinist (his father left the family when he was 18 months old, so Spitler never knew him).
He and his brother played football in high school, and when Spitler enrolled at Ohio Northern University after graduation, he planned to continue his career as a lineman for four more years. But midway through his freshman season, he decided to hang up the cleats and focus full-time on his studies. Spitler majored in Industrial Technology at ONU, following a passion he’d held since high school.
Spitler enrolled in college at a young age; he was just 17 years old when he began classes at Ohio Northern, which meant he graduated at 21. He received his first teaching job at Vinton County High School shortly thereafter, and began volunteering with the football team two weeks before school started.
Spitler began as an assistant coach, helping out with the freshman, JV and varsity teams for the only high school in the county. Matt Queen, the program’s varsity head coach at the time, recalled being impressed by Spitler early on.
“Scott is a very, very intelligent person, and that’s struck me most about him,” said Queen, now an assistant coach at Southeastern High School in Chillicothe. “He’s also a gym rat because with everything that was going on, Scott was there.”
Queen also coached wrestling at Vinton County, and when he said he needed an assistant coach, Spitler eagerly jumped in. He volunteered to coach track as well. Whatever it took to get his foot in the door, Spitler did it.
“He helped out one year at an unpaid position…” Queen recalled. “He’s always involved in something. Football, wrestling, track. He was always involved in whatever was going on.”
When Spitler started his football coaching career, he was just three or four years older than some of the players. But given his size and demeanor, Queen said Spitler never struggled to gain the respect of his players.
“If you know Scott, he is an imposing individual, and when he speaks, people tend to listen,” Queen said with a chuckle. "So that wasn’t much of an issue, as far as that went.”
During his time at Vinton County, Spitler said he learned to be resourceful.
“They didn’t have a lot of the things that a lot of schools have now-a-days,” he explained. “They had very limited facilities and finances and stuff… You learned to be resourceful.”
Spitler cut his coaching teeth in Vinton County’s run-heavy system, which Queen said is similar to what Lucas runs now. The Vikings tried to control the game by limiting their opponents’ offensive possessions. Sound familiar?
Spitler also witnessed – and became a part of – a winning culture at Vinton County. The Vikings had a winning record all four years he was there, and they won two Tri-Valley Conference championships, in 1995 and 1996.
Being a part of that culture allowed Spitler to gain an understanding of what it took to be great.
“The passion down there for their athletics was evident. The community was really behind all their athletics, but football was pretty successful…” he said. “Right out of the gate, out of college, it allowed me to gain a lot of experience and learn from some good coaches above me.”
Spitler didn’t see championship-level success at every coaching stop, however.
Some allowed him to grow the hard way.
One of those stops was at Mount Vernon High School, where he coached for 10 years – first as an assistant to legendary local play-caller Brian Gastin, then as the program’s head coach.
As Gastin’s defensive coordinator near the turn of the century, Spitler experienced winning seasons. The Yellow Jackets were a perennial OCC contender, even winning the conference several times.
But when Gastin retired in 2004 and Spitler stepped into his first head coaching job, a combination of factors led to three disappointing seasons.
Mount Vernon entered a new division of the OCC after Gastin retired – one that included bigger, better schools, such as Worthington Kilbourne and Pickerington Central. At the same time, Spitler was learning how to become a head coach – everything from play-calling to program management.
“It’s the perfect storm for quite a learning experience,” he said with a chuckle.
Mount Vernon went 3-27 in Spitler’s three years as head coach. In 2005, the Yellow Jackets finished 0-10.
Times got so tough, Spitler recalled, that he thought about hanging up the whistle for good.
But he didn’t. He stuck it out, and in the end, Spitler believes the experience only made him stronger.
“What it ended up doing was, I think building that furnace or stoking that furnace a little hotter,” Spitler said. “I’m a pretty driven person, and it made me want to [get better].”
Amidst the painful losses, Spitler grew tremendously in Mount Vernon. From a coaching perspective, he gained an understanding of what he’d want in a school district, program and community at his next head coaching stop. He learned about how to manage a program, on and off the field.
He discovered the offensive style he’d eventually replicate at Lucas, run by Dublin Jerome coach Mark Hundley. Dublin Jerome, just two years old at the time, came into Mount Vernon and beat the Yellow Jackets, 56-19, on Oct. 13, 2006. Even though the Celtics were young, playing only freshmen and sophomores, they won using a simple, run-heavy scheme.
Spitler recalled how difficult the offense was to prepare for, and how effective it was given Dublin Jerome’s personnel, and he bookmarked the strategy for a later date.
“Coaching against it, it was a tremendous equalizer,” Spitler recalled. “So I kind of kept that experience in my mind and did a lot of research down the road, and when I took the Lucas job, about the second or third year into it, I just thought it fit our personnel, so we went full-boar into it.
“We run it from the youngest level of pee-wee all the way up. And now, we’re executing it at the high level, just like Dublin Jerome was when I first faced it as an opposing coach.”
Off the field, Spitler’s life changed forever in Mount Vernon. It was there where he met his wife, Tiffany, and the couple started their family.
Spitler left the Yellow Jackets in 2007 to coach alongside Burchfield, a friend and mentor, at Centerburg. The two moved to Bishop Hartley in 2008, and the following year, the head spot at Lucas opened up.
After a rough first run, Spitler would have another shot at being a varsity head coach.
He wouldn’t disappoint.
When Lucas played Harvest Prep in the state semifinals last Saturday night, Queen watched nervously from the bleachers.
He saw Spitler, once a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 21-year-old assistant, draw up the game-winning play: a lob from Logan Niswander to Riley Mounts in the corner of the end zone with 54 seconds remaining.
Queen waited his turn to congratulate Spitler on the field after the game (“I think I was probably the 99th person to shake his hand that night,” he said). But when he finally reached his former assistant, he made sure to tell him how he felt.
“I walked up to him, gave him a hug and said, ‘You’re the best play-caller I know,’” Queen said.
This meant the world to Spitler. He’s stayed in touch with his coaching mentors over the years; every week, he’ll text or call Queen, Gastin and Burchfield. He credits those three for his coaching successes today.
“I wouldn’t be the coach that I am today without the influence of those three guys,” Spitler said. “The one thing that all three of them had in common for me is they allowed me to grow as a coach. They trusted me with a lot of responsibility when I coached for them, and it allowed me to become the coach I am today.”
In his 11 years as Lucas’ head coach, Spitler has taken the Cubs from bottom-feeder to state contender. Lucas won 12 games in Spitler’s first four years at the helm; over the last four seasons, the Cubs have won 37 games, earning a trip to the playoffs each year.
“Scott’s done the best job in the history of Lucas, and that’s saying something. It isn’t about being in the state title game,” Burchfield said. “He’s had this program humming here for a long time and he’s had them really good for a long time.”
Spitler’s hard work and leadership have allowed Lucas to blossom into a regional powerhouse. He’s earned the trust of his players by showing he cares on and off the field.
Spitler’s not just a coach, he’s a father figure.
“Someone who doesn’t know Spit would look at him and be like, ‘Holy crap, that guy’s huge.’ But once you get to know him, he messes around with us and jokes around with us all the time,” junior linebacker Ethan Wallace said on Richland Source’s high school football podcast, West Fourth & Goal.
“Over the summer, he’ll invite us over and have us swim in his pool, because it’s like 90 degrees and we just got done conditioning all day. He’s actually a really nice guy.”
Naturally, Spitler deflects the credit he receives. He’s quick to thank his coaching staff, his players, and the Lucas community, which has embraced his family over the last decade-plus.
“Lucas has just been a tremendous fit for not just me, but my family. And I’ve got a great coaching staff and great kids, and we’ve just been able to build a program from the ground up,” Spitler said. “Our administration and our community’s had the patience to build it the right way, and now we’re reaping the benefits of being able to do those things.”
Spitler’s favorite part of the job isn’t winning, he said. It’s building relationships with his players. It’s the opportunity to teach young men valuable lessons, which they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
“I can tell you instance after instance from every year that I’ve coached where, to this day, I still get emails or texts or phone calls, or they stop in to say what type of impact that I had on their lives,” Spitler said. “And what they really don’t understand is they’ve had just as big an impact on my life.”
At his heart, Spitler is a teacher. It was his dream job coming out of high school, and it’s what he’s done during the day since the age of 21. Spitler taught industrial technology at Vinton County and Mount Vernon before coming to Lucas, where he serves as an engineering foundations instructor through Pioneer Career & Technology Center.
Those who know Spitler best say he’s as good a teacher as he is a football coach.
“Scott’s just a driven individual,” Queen said. “No matter what he’s doing, he’s driven and he’s gonna do a great job at whatever it is.”
What he’s best known for in Lucas, however, is his role on the sideline. Spitler has helped put the village of 593 on the map.
Queen believes that after 11 years of building, the Lucas Cubs now embody the spirit of their head coach: Tough. Driven. Willing to grind in order to get what they want.
It took Spitler more than two decades to get to this point. It took ups, and downs, and the right opportunity at the right time.
Queen couldn’t be prouder.
“I think Scott’s tenacity and his work ethic, that’s a reflection of who Lucas is,” Queen said. “That’s why they win ball games. They’re physical, they’re tenacious, and they never give up. That’s who they are, and that’s who Scott is.”