Avon High School – located in Avon, Ohio – plays in division two and is ranked the #21 football team in Ohio (according to MaxPreps). The Eagles are home to some great talents, including current assistant wide recievers coach for the New England Patriots Ross Douglas and current Ohio University kicker Nathanial Vakos, who missed his first PAT attempt in highschool and never missed again, going on to make 260 straight. That feat is a state and national record. This week, I had the honor of talking with Avon Eagle’s head football coach Mike Elder, and got to ask him how he got to be interested in becoming a coach, to what needs to happen to win the state championship for the first time, to overcoming the challenges the team is facing.
Coach Elder first started as a Head Coach with Indian Valley in 2000, followed by Ravenna Southeast in 2001, and then Perry (Lake County) from 2002 to 2006 before becoming Avon’s head coach. But how did he become interested in the first place? After going to the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio as a Business major, he recognized that he wanted to coach in his senior year. “Football had such an impact on my life through high school. Because of football, I went on to college. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I had coaches in high school who had great confidence in me when I didn’t really have it. They believed in me…. Football provided me with the self-confidence and the motivation to go onto college and graduate. I had some space left [in my senior year] in my last semester schedule, and I took an education class. It was an observation class, where I could get into classrooms and watched. It was at that time where I knew I wanted to teach and coach. So, I turned down some jobs in business and went back to get my teaching degree [from Cleveland State University]. As I was pursuing it, I was teaching and coaching at Alliance High School, right where Mount Union is. I think my experience with [the Mount Union football staff] is really what put me over the edge. It got me the bug, and I wanted to figure out how to make coaching part of my life.”
One of my favorite questions to ask coaches is their personal coaching philosophy. With this, there isn’t really a bad answer, but my opinion is that the best of coaches say that they to help develop their players to be adults and not as much into good players. Coach Elder is one of those coaches. “I always say ‘we coach kids, not football.’ What I mean by that is we’re good at coaching football… but that’s not our overall goal and purpose. Our goal and purpose is to develop young people. I always tell our guys that when ‘you coach kids, not football,’ it means you will coach them all. Not just the kids who are going to help you look good by performing on Friday nights and win games. [A lot of young coaches have the same problem as me, cause] when I was a young coach, I was just trying to survive, get kids lined up right and win games. Now I’m more intentional about what I do. We have about 124 kids on our Varisty team… We demand excellence from all of them and want every kid to be the best version of themselves. That’s what I am most proud of; we coach kids, not football, which means we coach them all. I don’t care if you are an All-Ohio player or on an IED, every one of those kids is coached and valued in our program. All of our coaches understand that and buy into that.”
To go with developing their players into adults, coaches usually have one specific value that they try to instill. For Coach Elder, that one is accountability. “To me, everything we do in our program is surrounded by accountability. We ask kids to get up at 5:45AM every Monday during school, and then three times a week during summer and show up for practice. They need to because they need to be accountable to their teammates, their coaches, and more importantly themselves. If you’re not going to be somewhere, you need to contact people and let them know. There’s a certain conduct in which you have to hold yourself to to play football in our program, and if you fall short of that or something happens where you don’t meet expectations, then you just need to take accountability for it, responsibility for it, and grow and learn from that stuff. We don’t make excuses and we hold each other accountable, and that is huge in our program. I think when kids leave, that’s the one thing they will do: own their own actions.”
Team-building is an ever-important factor in sustaining a winning team. Each coach has a few different ways of doing it, but the only wrong answer is not doing it at all. Luckily for Avon, Coach Elder does it year-round. “To me, that’s all done in the off-season. I think during the season, you could build commrodary. We do team meals. We’ll have a pink event for cancer awareness and bring our kids together to eat. We eat meals together every Friday before games. We will have our rivalry dinner on a Wednesday. All of our players and their parents take turns hosting get-togethers throughout the season. But the most important team-building happens in the offseason, in the weight room in the summer. We always go away to a team camp at Mount Union. This year we did not go to Mount Union, because we took a trip down to Florida. We went down to Orlando to play our first game of the season. But when you get a bunch of teenage kids on a plane together, you fly down to Florida, and stay at a hotel together, you inevitably are building some bonds. I think those are created when you put kids in adverse situations with eachother, and consistently demand from them, and they lean on eachother. That’s how it happens. It is in the weight room, and through the rigors of what we ask them to do.”
In the previous five seasons, Avon has fallen short of winning the state championship by ending in the final four each time. As an outsider, it seems like something has to give in order to win the illustrious honor. Coach Elder says that it is about “getting to that point. I remind our players that historically, we play our best football at the end of the year. But because we’ve done it historically does not mean it is going to happen. We want to be playing the best football Avon is playing come week eleven. We want to grow and get better every week. So, I do not lie to our kids. We played our rivals [last week and] beat them 42-21. They were excited and leading up to the game, I explained to them that we are nowhere we need to be to accomplish our goals [of winning the state championship]. We’re not even close, but hopefully we are good enough tonight to beat them. So they recognize that we do not care who our opponent is and who we are playing Friday night. Every day we are just trying to grow and get better as a team. We have a process in place. We need players, leaders, and seniors to buy into the idea that come every day with the mindset that this team is going to get better, you are going to get better individually, and we are going to get better collectively. I think we are doing that.”
On their press release, Avon listen six of their starters as captains. Leadership often comes as an unsung trait for players, but is very much remembered by their coaches. “In society, when people do something for you, it makes you feel good for a day or two. But when you do something for someone else, it makes you feel good forever. That is what serving leadership is. Not only are you helping somebody else and doing things for others, but inherently it is going to make you a happier person. We’re all happier when we do something for other people. So we’ve created a mentoring program, where all of our seniors are partnered up with a first, second, or third grader, and once every week (if schedule permits), go down to our elementary schools and hang out with these kids. We have a lot of youth football camps in the offseason, where our kids are there because they realize that these kids and young players are coming not to see Coach Elder, but they want to see them. [These players] are their role models and who they look up to. If you’re going to be that role model… then you have to walk the walk. You have to make good decisions and choices. In our building, we talk all the time. Our Friday night experience in Avon in unbelievable. Our student section is packed, the crowds are big. I remind our players all the time to be humble, and give credit to the marching band and just part of that to the cheerleaders, the student section, your parents, and thinking about us – not you. Because if you walk around thinking that you are better than everyone else, like it’s all about you, you will lose your supporters real quick. Nobody wants to come and support arrogance. We have got a bunch of humble kids who are just true gentleman, on and off the field.”
Every team has a weakness, just as they do a strength. For Avon, their listed weakness is the lack of depth and experience on the offensive line. To combat that, there is really only one way to combat that. “It’s continually getting kids into games and developing Friday night experience for kids… In games, we play seven to eight different guys. We find ways to rotate people in and play them. We don’t play just eleven guys on offense or eleven guys on defense. We play, on Friday night, probably sixteen to eighteen guys rotated on both sides of the ball. So by finding moments for a kid to go in, you grab their attention and their focus throughout the week, because they know they are going in the game, even if it is just for two series’. They know they are going ot play. I think that is crucial to get kids engaged, to get better and grow, when they know they are going to get to see the field. [This way,] if they are called upon in week twelve or week thirteen because of injury, it is not their first time playing on Friday night.”
On their press release, the team posts three key returning players for both sides of the ball. For offense, this includes Ethan Holbrook, Sam DeTillio, and Jakorion Caffey. Holbrook is the second-team South Western Conference wideout, racking up 10 touchdowns on 30 receptions last season. DeTillio is the third-team All-Ohio quarterback, throwing 29 touchdowns against four interceptions last year. Caffey is the second team All-Ohio runningback, rushing for 24 touchdowns and 1,478 yards in the 2021-22 season. For defense, the team lists Cam Santee, Austin Mitchell, and Gavin Ehrhardt. Santee is the first team All-County strong safety, picking up ten tackles for loss and two interceptions in the 2021 season. Mitchell is the honerable mention All-Ohio defensive lineman, accumulating six and a half sacks and 28.5 tackles last year. Ehrhardt is an honerable mention All-Ohio linebacker, placing second on the team last season with 86 tackes.