AMHERST — If he would have been asked about football at Amherst High School back in 2007, when he joined Mike Elder’s staff at Avon, Bill Fishleigh never would have expected to talk about the need to “change the culture.”
Amherst was a perennial playoff contender then, a power team in the Southwestern Conference. As one of the elite teams in Lorain County, its season-ending showdown against rival Avon Lake was always one of the area’s most anticipated games on the schedule.
Amherst has fallen on hard times. Declining enrollment numbers, coupled with a $400 pay-to-play price tag, has led to lean years.
The rest of the Southwestern Conference was not concerned with Amherst’s problems, and a 2-18 conference record during former coach Chad DiFranco’s three-year tenure was the result.
Fishleigh wants his players to look back at Amherst Football … back to when the Comets were never another team’s homecoming game.
He wants them to build on the foundation that has been in place for a long time.
“This is a blue-collar community that really supports this program,” Fishleigh said. “I want our players to understand what that means. We have three coaches on this staff that played here, that understand the bond between the football team and the community.
“I want the players to know when they are out on the field there are people in the stands that came before them and contributed to the strong tradition here at Amherst. Those people in the stands have expectations … not just for winning, but for what Comet Football is all about and how it is played. We’re working on fulfilling those expectations.”
Fishleigh knows all about turning things around. After coaching with Avon’s Mike Elder at Perry High School from 2003-05, Fishleigh was at Case Western for one season before joining Elder at Perry again as his offensive coordinator.
When Elder came to Avon in 2007 he brought Fishleigh with him. The Eagles were 4-6 the season before Elder and Fishleigh were hired, and have not had a losing season since. They went to three straight regional championship games and played for a state championship in 2011.
Fishleigh was hired at Amherst over a large pool of applicants. He is grateful for the opportunity to coach the Comets.
“This is a great situation, with great kids in a great community,” Fishleigh said. “I’m excited to get this opportunity at a Division II school that has a strong tradition. I’m looking forward to it.”
Senior Nathan Nunez, who, with the other 13 Comets seniors, is working with his third head coach in four seasons, is excited with the direction of the program.
“Things changed and I think we got to the point where we didn’t know what direction to go,” Nunez said. “They brought in Coach Fishleigh and he has us excited. We have a new coaching staff with a new approach and everything seems to be headed in a great direction.
“Plus, he’s from Avon, so you know he knows how to win. Now the players have a spark and we’ve been working really hard to get prepared for the season.”
The Comets, as usual, have a difficult schedule. The combined record of their opponents was 65-40 last season, and four of them made the playoffs.
“We have a tough schedule, but that’s what we want,” Fishleigh said. “We know what to expect and know how we have to prepare week after week.”
Nunez doesn’t think the difficult schedule is necessarily a bad thing.
“Playing against teams that have Division I college players is challenging,” he said. “It does make you a better football player. You have to improve and play at that level. It also helps if you want to play in college … even at the Division III level. Strong competition causes you to grow as a football player.”
There are open position battles across the Comets’ depth chart. With just five returning starters there are plenty of jobs available.
The quarterback position, in particular, is down to two players … senior Tyler Eaton and sophomore Nick DeJesus. Eaton was a defensive back and running back for the Comets last season while DeJesus was a starting pitcher on Amherst’s playoff-bound baseball team.
“We’re having some good position battles and the kids are working really hard,” Fishleigh said. “We’ve had a good camp and it seems like there’s a different spirit on the team and in the community. Pay-to-play seems to be getting better and our numbers are up from the last few years. … It’s an exciting time to be an Amherst Comet.”
The Comets had 53 players last season. They started with 80 this year but are at 70 now.
“We started, freshman year, with about 40 players in our class,” Nunez said. “We’re down to 14 that have been through thick and thin together. We’ve all faced adversity together. We’re brothers. I think we have the best of the best left … the best skill-wise, the best leadership-wise and the best that have grown from boys into responsible, hard-working men.
“We’ve helped each other through a lot. For a couple years people have been talking about how Amherst Football is going to be back ‘next year.’ Well, this is the year. We are going to do everything we can to turn this program around.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONFERENCE: Southwestern 2013
RECORD: 1-9 (1-5)
COACH: Bill Fishleigh (first season)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 15
RETURNING STARTERS: 6
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 7
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2008
NUMBERS GAME: 17 ... more players at the start of the season (70) than there were last year.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Sophomore quarterback Nick DeJesus is battling for the starting nod. As a freshman, DeJesus was one of the top pitchers for the Amherst varsity. He has a strong arm and a quiet demeanor, but is extremely competitive. Expect him to see time this season and make plenty of plays when he does.
Aug. 29 John Hay
Sept. 5 Midview
Sept. 12 Ellett
Sept. 19 at Berea-Midpark*
Sept. 26 at Elyria Catholic
Oct. 3 Brecksville*
Oct. 10 at Olmsted Falls*
Oct. 17 North Olmsted
Oct. 24 Westlake*
Oct. 31 at Avon Lake*
* Southwestern Conference game
All games at 7 p.m.