As Gandhi would say, a football team’s culture resides in the hearts and in the souls of its players – or something like that.
When the Hawken School gridders continue to work on creating a winning environment in their neck of the woods this autumn, a focal component of their success is predicated on commitment to themselves and one another.
With a brotherhood of just 22 players – four seniors, four juniors, eight sophomores and six freshmen – their devotion has to be all-inclusive, said second-year head coach Brian Stephenson.
“That’s been the biggest thing for us, is developing a culture that is committed to each other and then committed to the work that it takes to be successful on the field,” he said. “So, getting kids used to being in the weight room, understanding what it takes in the summer in terms of strength and conditioning and then just making sure that we’re being great teammates.”
On the heels of a 0-9 campaign, the Hawks are continuing to build upon their R.I.C.H. culture of relationships, intelligence, character and humility, the coach said.
But with their last win coming in 2017, Hawken School football is one of 35 programs across Ohio facing the adversity of returning from a winless season. In terms of technical execution, however, the Hawks are further ahead of where they were last year, Stephen said.
“Last year, we had to come in and really focus on the basics and really teach the kids what it meant to play varsity football,” he said. “This year, they’re further ahead, they know the system better, and a lot of it isn’t brand new to them. So, now you can play a little bit faster without having to think so much, because you know the expectations, you know the scheme, and now you actually go out and have fun.
“And that’s the big thing for us, is wanting to have fun. So, how do we simplify things so they can learn it but still go out there and execute and be competitive?”
With the graduation of do-it-all competitor John Byrne at quarterback, the Hawks will give the nod to 5-foot-11, 175-pound sophomore Terrence Robinson at signal-caller this season.
A transfer from University School, Robinson takes over the reins of an offense with six returning starters.
“He’s new to the school this year, but he’s got a cannon for an arm, and he understands our offense very well,” Stephenson said. “We’re really excited about him in terms of the season, his leadership of the offense and just the energy he brings every day out onto the field.”
In terms of play-making abilities, the Hawks’ offensive headliner is 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior running back Zach Miller, who had 121 carries for 453 yards, as well as 17 catches for 124 yards in eight games last season.
Returning at wide receiver are 5-foot-10 junior Cooper Jared, who had 11 catches for 52 yards last year, and 5-foot-9 sophomore Ryan Levine. Top newcomers, 5-foot-2 freshman Dominic Johnson will also get the green light to start as an explosive route runner, while 5-foot-10 sophomore AJ Sands will line up at tight end.
“We always want to be as balanced as possible,” Stephenson said of his offense. “We feel that this year we’re explosive in all the right places. We have a returning running back in Zach Miller, and he’s a guy who is going to do the bulk of the work in the backfield. But then we’ve got a couple of guys on the edge that are returning or new to the school that will also help us in space in terms of our passing and being more multiple.”
Jared, in particular, is wearing jersey No. 1 this campaign, which is designated for the player who best represents the R.I.C.H. culture of Hawken football, Stephenson said.
On the offensive line, Hawken returns 6-foot, 275-pound senior center Will Lindsey, a state wrestler who has started all four years on the gridiron, 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior tackle Cletus Brosovich, a third-year starter, and 6-foot, 195-pound junior tackle Zach Reitman.
Entering the first week of the season, the Hawks are eyeing a trio of top prospects to take over the two offensive-guard positions, including 135-pound senior Jackson Reineke, 205-pound freshman Tyler Gipson and 225-pound sophomore Thomas Gorenc.
Overall, Hawken has four sophomores and two freshmen starting on offense, as well as three sophomores and two freshmen starting on defense.
“Our roster is 65 percent underclassmen,” Stephenson said. “So, it’s a real young team. That’s one of the things I’ve told our coaches and our parents: we’re going to have patience with these guys because they’re freshmen and sophomores playing a varsity schedule. It’s not the easiest thing to do.
“However, these guys have been working hard all summer. They’ve been developing themselves mentally for that challenge. And they’re all excited to embrace that challenge.”
Seniors Lindsey and Brosovich, sophomore Sands and freshman Gipson will double up in the trenches as starters on the defensive line, but there are some other skilled guys who could work in at the end positions, depending on what best fits the Hawks’ scheme, Stephenson said.
Running a four-two-five hybrid on defense, Reineke and Reitman will be returning as the two mainstays at linebacker. Reineke, a 120-pound state wrestler as a junior, might not be the biggest guy, but he moves well, understands schemes and is one of the toughest guys on the team, Stephenson said.
Meanwhile, 5-foot-9, 145-pound freshman Chris Shea will be Hawken’s hybrid linebacker in its nickel package. Learning five positions, Shea is like a Swiss Army knife, Stephenson said.
“If something happens, he can jump in and step in right away and help,” the coach said. “That speaks to his football IQ and his willingness to be a team player. That helps us do a lot of different things and put guys in positions where we can engineer success for them.”
In the defensive secondary, 5-foot-11 senior Kenan Tabachnik and 5-foot-6 sophomore safety Ben Elenin return with starting experience, while Jared and 5-foot-6 sophomore cornerback Jordan Harrison will join that unit.
In particular, Tabachnik led the Hawks with 61 tackles last season.
“He’s a guy that understands the pass game very well, and he’ll also come down and hit people,” Stephenson said. “So, we’re real excited about him as a senior captain. He’s got one of the highest football IQs on the team, and he’s one of those guys where, if he sees something that he recognizes, he’s all over it very quickly, and he communicates it to the rest of the team fast.”
Back in the Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division this year, the Hawks have seven new opponents.
They will kick off their non-league schedule with a road test against Trinity at 7 p.m. Friday in Garfield Heights.