MOUNT VERNON – A new coach can’t turn a struggling program around by himself.
He needs ‘culture guys’ – players who buy into his vision, and who encourage others to do the same. Players who trust the process through thick and thin; who are willing to keep working when the end-goal might not be visible yet.
For Mike Kerr, those guys were Will Small and Ryan Tiell.
Kerr became Mount Vernon’s head football coach four years ago. He undertook a depleted roster and a brutal schedule – the Yellow Jackets faced five playoff teams in 2016, including state semifinalist St. Francis DeSales and regional runner-up Lexington – and finished 2-8.
There were nine freshmen on the roster that year. Kerr said many – including Tiell and Small – played varsity snaps out of necessity.
“We were short-handed pretty much the entire year, so they were forced into duty as freshmen,” Kerr recalled. “And that sort of was a bad thing, but again, they got to grow.”
Despite enduring one of Mount Vernon’s roughest seasons in recent history, Small and Tiell stuck with it. As freshmen, they believed in what Kerr was trying to accomplish and they committed to making it happen. They urged others to join them.
“They became leaders almost right off the bat,” Kerr said. “I mean, you could see that these guys had a tremendous pull where they were able to bring others to them.”
As rebuilds often go, the following years weren’t easy. Mount Vernon went 4-6 in 2017, then 3-7 in 2018. There were growing pains.
But by the time Tiell and Small were seniors, the program had finally found its footing. The Yellow Jackets began last season 4-0 and finished 6-4. It was the program’s first winning season since 2013. Two of Mount Vernon’s losses came by one score, and another went to state-bound Mansfield Senior.
Even more impressive, Kerr said, was the size of last year’s senior class. After beginning in 2016 with just nine freshmen, 16 seniors played football last fall. The buy-in had reached an all-time high.
“A lot of that is due to those two guys,” Kerr said of Tiell and Small. “They went and grabbed guys and said, ‘Let’s go, let’s be a part of this. This is a good thing.’ They were able to recruit the hallways, they were able to get guys up in the weight room. They did a lot of my job for me, to be quite honest.”
That’s why Tuesday meant so much to Kerr. Tiell and Small were a part of his first four-year class, sure – but they also served as catalysts for the program’s future.
“They were the guys who were the ambassadors to the program and when I was trying to implement the culture, they were the ones that bought in and went out and sold it to others,” Kerr said. “They mean a lot to me personally, and they mean a lot to this program and this community.”
On Tuesday, Small and Tiell signed to take their football and leadership skills to the next level. Both signed with D-II Findlay University in front of teammates, coaches and family members in the high school’s auditorium.
According to Mount Vernon Athletic Director Justin Sanford, less than two percent of high school athletes nationwide sign to play college sports at the Div. I or II level each year. By making their commitments official Tuesday, Small and Tiell became a part of that two percent.
“For us, it’s a celebration,” Sanford said with a smile.
Tiell and Small plan to be roommates in college. But that may only be the beginning.
The longtime friends plan to study animal science at Findlay before attending vet school. The ultimate goal is to own a veterinary practice – preferably, Small said, together.
“We’ve always said the dream job, the perfect job, would be to have a clinic to ourselves,” Small said. “To own it together.”
Small and Tiell have long been interested in animal care. Both have been involved in 4-H and FFA from an early age. Small, who grew up on a farm, has raised cows his entire childhood. Tiell, who grew up in the city, has poured his passion into small projects.
While searching for colleges independently, they came upon the same conclusion: Findlay had what they needed in pre-vet education.
“Findlay has one of the top programs in Ohio,” Small said, “That’s what really drew us in.”
The opportunity to continue playing football didn’t hurt, either. Tiell has played since the age of 6. Small, somewhat of a late bloomer, first strapped on a helmet in eighth grade. Neither were ready to give up the sport just yet.
“My dad talked me into it, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made,” Small said. “So now that I’m a senior and high school’s over, I’m not ready for it to be over.”
“I’ve always had a love for the sport,” Tiell added. “When I was six or seven I started playing and never took a year off. It’s just always been my thing.”
Tiell and Small have known each other since seventh grade, but the thought of attending college together hadn’t entered their minds until this year. When they started looking at colleges, both asked the question: Why not?
“Some time in the last year we said, ‘Hey, you know we’re both kind of looking at the same thing, we both like football,’” Tiell recalled. “‘I don’t see why we can’t go and continue together, you know?’”
The next level
On the gridiron, Tiell and Small helped spur the rebuild at Mount Vernon. That won’t be necessary at Findlay.
Findlay hasn’t had a losing season since 2014. Since Rob Keys took over as head coach in 2011, the Oilers have gone 63-37. They’ve lost 10 games in the last three seasons, qualifying for the Div. II playoffs in 2017.
Tiell and Small will be part of a 45-man freshman class next year, competing alongside players from across the country for varsity snaps. But according to Keys, the kids from Mount Vernon just might have a shot.
Keys lauded Tiell and Small their versatility. Both played two ways in high school – Tiell started at wide receiver and defensive back, while Small played wide receiver and linebacker – and Keys said both could play a variety of positions at the next level.
He also noted their academic prowess; both Tiell and Small are involved in National Honor Society, and Keys said they “fit the mold” for what Findlay expects out of its student-athletes.
What makes Tiell and Small particularly unique, however, is their physicality on defense. Both are fundamentally sound, Keys said, which could give them a chance at playing time early on.
“I think one thing that coaches overlook at times is how well kids tackle. Everybody looks at, ‘Oh, he’s got great speed and great agility and athleticism,’ but if you can’t tackle on defense, you can’t play,” Keys said. “And both of those guys are really good tacklers.”
Tiell, listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, was named special mention All-Ohio at defensive back last season. Small, listed at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, was named second-team all-district at linebacker.
Keys envisions Small bulking up and expanding his skill set at wideout.
“I think his upside is tremendous…” Keys said. “We’ve taken some tall, long kids in the past and been able to develop them physically. I like the way he plays, he’s a physical player. He doesn’t shy away from contact.”
The coach sees Tiell as a jack-of-all trades athlete, someone whose talent will allow him to play offense, defense or special teams.
“I wouldn't just completely say he’s a defensive guy,” Keys said. “He has the ability to play on special teams as well as offense because he showed that in high school.”
In addition to being versatile, smart and technically sound, Tiell and Small can now call themselves something else: winners.
They stuck with Kerr and Mount Vernon through the tough times, and emerged as champions. This toughness, Kerr said, will always set the duo apart.
"It shows what hard work, dedication – if you put it in, what you can get out of it..." Kerr said. "I’m so proud of them."