MOUNT VERNON – It’s been six years since Mount Vernon has had a winning football team.
Last season looked promising; the Yellow Jackets won two of their first three games, and their first loss was a nailbiter at Marion Harding. But Mount Vernon proceeded to lose its next four games, and the team finished the year 3-7, good for sixth place in the seven-team Ohio Cardinal Conference.
This year, behind 17 seniors and a revamped offensive attack, the Yellow Jackets will look to turn the tide.
“I think ever since we started high school here in 2016, we’ve been having big dreams and it hasn’t happened yet,” senior defensive back Ryan Tiell said. “But we’re really hoping for it this year. I think we can make it happen. We have the team. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to be this year.”
Mount Vernon welcomes back its leading rusher from a year ago, senior Wyatt Gregory. The all-OCC honoree ran for 618 yards and seven touchdowns last season, splitting touches with then-senior Ashton Fisher, who ran for 408 yards and five scores.
With Fisher having graduated, head coach Mike Kerr said Gregory will take a majority of the hand-offs this fall. The Yellow Jackets plan to return to “more of a physical run team,” Kerr said, as Fisher played better in space and Gregory played better in the trenches.
“Last year, with Ashton, we tried to spread it out and get him the ball in space a lot. And we still want to get the ball in space, but we really want to go back to that physical identity, where we are really strong up front and coming downhill,” Kerr said.
“Wyatt Gregory comes back and he really gives us that downhill runner, and he’s a four-year contributor, smart kid. So it changes the way we’re going to spread it out, but in general, we still want to run the football and get the ball in our playmakers’ hands.”
Gregory will be flanked by a veteran receiving corps, including senior Cory Berg, who led the team with 272 receiving yards and four touchdowns last fall. Junior Gavin Moyer, who led the team with 19 catches last year, will return as well.
The quarterback situation is an interesting one for Kerr’s squad. Last year’s starter, all-Ohio selection Noah Hubbard, has graduated. Kerr said Wednesday that the Yellow Jackets will enter Week 1 with a dual-quarterback system. Senior Trey Davidson and junior Britten Long competed for the starting job this offseason, and both are expected to play Friday night. Both bring different things to the table, Kerr said.
“We think both of them will play and both of them need to be on the field,” Kerr said. “Both of them have done everything we’ve asked, so right now we’re going into Week 1 with both of those guys ready to go and just looking to see how it plays out Friday night.”
Both quarterbacks will receive quality protection from an experienced offensive line. First-team all-conference tackle Austin Kerr returns for his senior year; he did not allow a sack last season. He’ll be accompanied by fellow senior Noah Humphrey, juniors Robbie Snyder and Rayne Lynds, and sophomore Nate Stradley.
Defensively, Mount Vernon will miss Harry Ogle, who led the team in tackles last year as a senior. But the Jackets will also return three four-year contributors in Will Small, Tiell and Alex Mullins. Small recorded 67 tackles last season (second on the team) and he’ll start at middle linebacker. Tiell earned all-state recognition for his efforts at defensive back, where he tallied 53 tackles last year. Mullins notched 35 tackles last year, and he’ll start at free safety for Kerr’s club on Friday night.
Junior defensive lineman Easton Groom will be back as well. He led the team in sacks last season, earning all-conference honors as a sophomore. He’ll be joined up front by Kerr, who recorded 25 tackles last year.
When things went awry for Mount Vernon last season, neither the offense nor defense seemed to be in-sync. The Yellow Jackets scored just 10 points per game in their seven losses; they were shut out twice. Defensively, they gave up 32 points per game.
Kerr believes the box scores didn’t necessarily tell the whole story last year.
“I think the big thing that we did last year was we made big mistakes at big times. And unfortunately, a lot of times, we shot ourselves in the foot,” Kerr said. “Each game, we had some momentum at times and then we would make a big mistake. And that was, a lot of times, a turning point in the game. We can’t have those things.”
The emphasis this year has been on eliminating costly errors – penalties, turnovers, lapses in communication. “I think we can compete with anybody, as long as we don’t make those big mistakes,” Kerr said.
It’s also been on staying even-keel. Kerr felt his team "got too excited about wins and too disappointed in losses” last season, and it carried over into the following weeks. The shutout loss to Lexington bled into the road loss against Ashland, and the losing streak swelled from there. Mount Vernon will need to have a shorter memory this fall, Kerr said, if it wishes to be successful.
“We’ve gotta win one day at a time,” Kerr said. “And if we win one day at a time, we’re going to be right where we want to be at the end of the season.”
The OCC will be competitive again this fall. Mansfield Senior welcomes back Michigan State commit Angelo Grose for his senior season, and the Wooster Daily Record has predicted the Tygers will win the conference outright. Wooster, last year’s champion, seems apt to reload under eighth-year head coach Doug Haas.
Both Ashland and Lexington will go through major changes – Ashland’s legendary coach Scott Valentine retired this offseason, and Lexington’s Cade Stover (Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2018) has left for Ohio State – but both teams also return a boatload of experience.
“I think it’s going to be a real competitive conference,” Kerr said, “and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens as we go forward.”
This fall, Mount Vernon will seek its first winning season since 2013. The Yellow Jackets will look to contend in the OCC and potentially challenge for their first playoff berth since 1993. It won’t be easy; turning around a program never is. They’ll need to rely on depth, determination and experience to get the job done.
“We want to try to stay in the present,” Kerr said. “If we win each day, those games are going to take care of themselves.”