VERMILION — With a new coach guiding an experienced roster, this may be the season Vermilion arrives in the always-powerful Sandusky Bay Conference.
Sailors’ athletic director Andy Stillman tapped 1997 Vermilion graduate Matt Kobal to lead a team that features 18 returning letterwinners, eight starters on both sides of the ball and a ton of skill position experience.
Kobal was the Sailors’ offensive coordinator for the last two seasons. Prior to his tenure with the Sailors, he served as an assistant on Amherst coach Mike Passerrello’s staff at Firelands.
“He understands what Vermilion is like, understands the traditions and knows a lot of people in the community so he has a lot of support,” Stillman said of Kobal, who was an offensive lineman on the last Sailors’ team to qualify for the OHSAA Playoffs. “He also understands exactly where this program is right know and knows what it will take as this program continues to grow.”
His first order of business, so to speak, was to begin at the very beginning. Kobal has stressed the importance of the district’s youth football program and has taken steps to help the younger players feel like they play an important role in the varsity program.
His varsity players go to the grade school and middle school practices. They are connecting with the younger players, trying to create an inclusive atmosphere from first grade on up.
“I remember being a little kid and always looking up to the high school players,” senior lineman Tyler Bath said. “They were like super heroes to me. Coach really wants us to get involved with the little kids. We stay and watch their scrimmages, support them and give them high-fives and that kind of thing.
“I know when I was a little kid I would have been freaking out if the high school players had taken that kind of an interest in my football team. I think it’s awesome.”
Caine Zannoni, who will be a fourth-year starter at running back for the Sailors this season, thinks what Kobal has done to get the young players on board is critical.
“That part of what Coach Kobal I doing has been the most fundamental thing,” Zannoni said. “We’ve got to get everyone, from the itty-bitty guys playing football to the seniors going out, we’ve got to get them all on the same page.
“I think Coach Kobal moving the little guys over to watch our varsity practices and telling us to go to their practices and scrimmages makes everyone in the whole program better.
“Coach Kobal is a big stickler on being a good person off the field. He wants us to be role models to the younger guys, and I try to see myself as a positive role model for these young guys.
“You can feel the impact you make by just saying ‘hi’ or by just playing catch with them. It makes their day.”
The Sailors’ coaching staff also features familiar faces to the players as Kobal brought other coaches from other sports on board.
At many schools there can be competition between the different coaches as they seek complete dedication from their players. Kobal is taking a different approach…one geared towards overall success at Vermilion High School.
“I hired a lot of varsity coaches from other sports,” he said. “My defensive coordinator, Jeff Keck, is the head baseball coach. Dave Domonkos is the head track coach at Vermilion. Our kicking coach is the soccer coach…we just want to get a school our size to share as many athletes as we can to build a successful athletic program.”
Seth Hurd, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior, will enter his second year as the starting quarterback.
“We look for him to take the next step in his second season as a starter,” Kobal said of Hurd. “Last year, as a sophomore, he had his ups and downs. This year we’re looking for him to be more patient and to take what the defense is giving him.
“If he can avoid turnovers and make smart decisions we will do well because him making the correct reads and decisions will dictate how our offense goes in our spread system.”
Bath expects a big year from Hurd.
“Seth is one of the most competitive players on the team,” Bath said. “He’s all about going all-out, 100 percent of the time. If he sees someone slacking he gets on them. Seth is a great leader and a great quarterback.
“He makes his reads real well and is real quick on his feet. He’s smart with his calls and is football-savvy. He’s the kind of player everyone wants as a teammate.”
Zannoni rushed for 740 yards last season and despite being undersized at 5-8, 180 pounds, is more of a bruiser than a back that runs away from contact.
“Caine is one of the toughest kids I’ve ever met,” Bath said. “I’ve played football with him for as long as I remember and when he runs the ball he just goes at it and keeps pounding until the guy across from him has had enough.”
Zannoni looks forward to running behind an offensive line that has three returning starters and has spent the majority of the off-season getting stronger in the weight room.
“Those guys are awesome,” he said of the line. “I’ve seen them grow more than any other unit on the team. They’ve grown exponentially. A lot of those guys are my closer friends and working in tandem with them to create a good offense is something I hope is going to pay off in a big way.”
Hurd will also have a talented, experienced array of receivers to choose from when not sticking the ball into Zannoni’s belly.
“We have a lot of veteran wide receivers coming back,” Kobal said. “Jonah Pfeil is going to be a three-year starter, Luke Pena will be a two-year starter, Davis McDaniel is a two-year starter and Addison Painter has played a lot.
“We have a couple of other players getting in there, Hunter Hickman and Ashton Bath, that will rotate in and out when we go four or five-wide.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Sailors fans will see a different kind of system than they have grown used to. Not only is the team switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, it is looking to become as physically imposing as possible.
“Our defense is going to have a lot of movement and a lot of blitzes, along with a lot of different coverages to confuse the other teams,” Kobal said. “We’re going to try to disguise our blitzes, which we hope will help us.
“I really challenged our defense for our first scrimmage, based on last year’s performance, and they responded with a very physical game. They really rose to the occasion and had a very good outing.”
During his playing days, Kobal was a fanatic in the weight room. In his two years as an assistant at Vermilion he tried to get the kids familiar with hard work with the weights. He is looking for the current group of Sailors to take on that same personality.
“I already knew the kids, so I was fairly well-prepared,” Kobal said. “I’m an offensive lineman at heart so I love the weight room, the practices and that kind of thing. That’s the stuff that really gets me fired up.”
Bath said Kobal’s experience makes a big difference.
“It’s really easy to trust someone who has been through what you are going through,” he said. “He knows how to get it done and how to set us up for success, and everyone understands and respects that.
“Since winter we’ve been working in the weight room, competing with each other…pushing weight and doing team-building activities and toughness sessions. Our internal competitions should give us a competitive edge, translating onto the football field.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or email@example.com.
CONFERENCE: Sandusky Bay Conference
2016 RECORD: 2-8, 0-6
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 18
RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (eight offense, eight defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 4
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 1997
NUMBERS GAME: 0: Though Vermilion has qualified for the OHSAA four times in school history, the Sailors have never won a football playoff game.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jonah Pfeil (6-0, 175 junior wide receiver). Pfeil is an athletic receiver with speed to burn. A defensive stopper on Kurt Habermehl’s basketball team, Pfeil will be counted on to put points on the board on the football field.
Aug. 25 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ... Oberlin
Sept. 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .... at Brookside
Sept. 8 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . at Firelands
Sept. 15 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .at Perkins
Sept. 22 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tiffin Columbian*
Sept. 29 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .at Oak Harbor*
Oct. 6 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .…Port Clinton*
Oct. 13 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Huron*
Oct. 20 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Edison*
Oct. 27 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .… at Shelby*
* Sandusky Bay Conference
All games at 7 p.m. unless noted
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- High school football: Mike Passerrello leaving Firelands for Amherst
- Vermilion hires longtime assistant Kobal as its football coach