Elyria High isn’t exactly what you’d call a “soccer school,” certainly not like some in eastern Lorain and and western Cuyahoga counties.
Schools like Avon, Avon Lake, Bay, Westlake, North Olmsted and Strongsville spring quickly to mind as schools that produce large numbers of soccer hopefuls.
Some of them attract significant crowds of tailgating, charcoal-grilling fans to important matches. It’s chips and diet pop in the bleachers at Pioneer Field.
Now here’s an interesting paradox.
The Strongsville girls program, which is one of the best in Ohio, has been coached by Jon Felton, a former Elyria player, for the past 17 seasons.
In that span, Mustangs teams were 292-46-29. They made the state semifinals 11 times, won four state championships and were runners-up three times. Put another way, Strongsville went undefeated in 321 of 367 matches under Felton.
After he resigned this spring, Strongsville quickly advertised the opening and drew dozens of applications from far and wide.
When the dust settled, the school board hired Todd Church, also a former Elyria High player, a former Elyria boys coach and Felton’s Strongsville assistant since 2005.
So what’s going on with Elyrians and top-shelf soccer?
Success is what’s going on, along with a solid Strongsville tradition and a feeder system that includes a community-wide youth program. It’s no coincidence that Church has been involved in Strongsville youth soccer for nearly a decade. That practice will continue.
Church said he and Felton have been close since seventh grade at Eastern Heights in Elyria. And he recognizes he has a significant act to follow.
“Jon and I have been friends for 35 years, we’ve played together and stayed in touch all that time,” Church said. “Most of my time coaching has been with him in some way, and you naturally want to emulate what successful people are doing. For sure he’s had a great deal of influence on me.
“Over the years, he has invested an enormous amount of time in the youth program. He’s known a lot of the girls who’ve come through our program since they were 5 or 6 years old. He’d train a lot of them, he’d volunteer his time to work with them. He knew them and they knew him.
“I think any great program is moved forward by tradition and history,” Church said. “He’s built over the course of 17 years a lot of great tradition and his teams have written a lot of history.
“That’s what in my mind has driven the program forward. He set very high standards, and once you get it rolling, the kids know the expectations from the time they’re very young and they aspire to be next.
“He’d always bring the high school girls back to the younger girls to train and it evolved into kind of a mentorship, which is huge. If you or I are telling these kids what to do, it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s just another old guy telling us what to do.’ Versus, you get an All-American high school girls soccer player and you have an immediate connection.”
Church, who lives in Strongsville, is a math teacher at his former school, Eastern Heights. He said he has built confidence in his coaching ability over the years and looks forward to continuing the Mustangs’ soccer tradition.
The tradition will continue as long as the community youth program remains strong, said Felton, who succeeded his wife Dawn as Mustangs coach in 1997. The following season, with her help, Strongsville won its first state championship.
“To have a good program anywhere, you need a feeder system,” Felton said. “I mean, think about Elyria softball, Keystone softball. Where do those kids come from? The feeder program. We know that as a fact and Todd works harder than anybody with the youth. He’s been in the youth program probably more than I have in the last six years.
“When I stepped aside, there was nothing I could do to get him the job,” he said. “But he was in the right place because he’s coached all these little kids’ teams. He’s done his due with that and he’s a great youth development coach. So I think if anybody’s going to carry the torch and carry it well, it’s gotta be him.”
Strongsville girls soccer is commonly ranked among the top handful in Ohio and has been ranked nationally in some polls.
“I’m a bit biased,” Felton said, “but I consider Strongsville the best program in the country. There’s not another public school (with the Mustangs’ achievements) and we’ve been around every place in the country.
“Todd knows and my wife and I know your season is not from August to November,” he added. “It’s all year round, because you’re talking to college coaches, you’re getting kids on premier clubs, you’re keeping track of those kids on those different clubs and you’re working with youth.
“So it never ends and the phone calls are nightly, and that in itself takes away time. Even at an event watching your kid, you’re on the phone, and how rude is that?”
Felton said he stepped down to spend more time with his family, which also includes sons Colin, 16, and Christian, 14, and daughters Peyton, 11, and Macy, 8. He will continue to teach at Strongsville.
He said the decision to leave coaching was not impulsive.
“I told Todd for probably three years, ‘This is my last year,’” Felton said. “This is going to free up a little more time to do stuff with the family.”
Church and his wife — also named Dawn — live in Strongsville. They have two daughters, Alyssa, 18, a Strongsville soccer player and recent graduate, and Samantha, 15, who will be a sophomore in the fall.
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A LASTIN LEGACY
Jon Felton’s record as Strongsville’s girls soccer coach
- 17 years as Mustangs coach
- 292 wins
- 4 state championships
- 11 Final Four appearances
THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
- 1998 — defeated Fairfield, 1-0
- 2002 — defeated Cincinnati St. Ursula Academy, 3-1
- 2005 — defeated St. Ursula Academy, 1-0
- 2011 — defeated Dublin Jerome, 1-0