NEW RICHMOND — The bus engine hadn’t even cooled upon Wyoming East’s return from Oak Glen late Saturday night when the message appeared on Wyoming East’s football twitter feed: Only 260 more days until football season starts.
Obviously earlier Saturday, in the foremost tip of the northern panhandle, the 2019 season ended with a 55-13 loss to Oak Glen.
It wasn’t the ending the Warriors had hoped for, yet after combining for just seven wins over the last three seasons, who could complain?
It was a season of highs, including advancing to No. 5 in the Class AA ratings. There was the first playoff berth since 2014. There was a last-second pass from Seth Ross to Jake Bishop. There was the running of Caleb Bower, the type of running that had not been seen at East since Tank Tunstalle was in his prime. There was the late-season addition of Lydia Crook, who made 18 PATs in the final four games and became the first girl from Wyoming County to play in a varsity football game in Wyoming County.
At the center of it all was a 30-year-old head coach, Larry Thompson, who orchestrated the turnaround by changing the culture of the program and making believers out of his locker room in his first season.
When asked what was behind the program’s turnaround, you would not find a Warriors player who didn’t say it was Thompson who changed the program’s fortunes and returned it to its winning ways.
When asked about the players’ staunch belief in himself and his staff, Thompson first credits the players. Then he said he simply loves what he does.
“Well, I’m a humbled person,” Thompson said after the team beat Liberty, securing a spot in the playoff. “Other people may say otherwise but with that being said, I just love the game. I love coaching, I love these kids. I appreciate every little thing that goes into the game.”
What about next season?
The preparation will begin soon, as Thompson helped get a pair of freshman, Charlie Stewart and and Blake Cook, into the Brett Cooper All-American Game.
The two will leave on Christmas Day for Dallas, Texas.
“They basically take the best kids in the country for their size, and their age with their grade-point average and put them down in Dallas, Texas and give them a chance to play in front of big-time college coaches,” Thompson said. “I think those two are well deserving of it. Those kids are going to be grown men. They already are. I’m proud of them.”
Despite being freshmen, the two earned starts at times along the offensive line and both were the top two in the line rotation off the bench most of the season.
On a line that returns just one full-time starter, center Josh Reilley, the off-season camp will surely pay dividends as Stewart and Cook graduate to full-time starters.
“It will help them tremendously because they’ll understand the workload that is going to be put on them next year,” Thompson said. “They’ll go from making one of two starts to being on the field for every single snap. They have to mature mentally and physically. They were in eighth grade last year, so they weren’t up here with us the whole year.”
He said the honor was one for the players and the program.
“It speaks volumes of the program and those two young men,” Thompson said. “J.T. Powell of Appalachian Prep Combine had a lot to do with getting them down there. He is a very strong advocate for the kids in this state. For him to recognize Blake and Charlie’s work, their national abilities and their raw talent, that means a lot. Those young men know they have the ability to play at the next level like I know. It’s our job to get them ready and their job to show up and do what they have to do.”
Along with three linemen, the Warriors return Caleb Bower, who rushed for 2,034 yards and 26 touchdowns. He had a school-record 388 yards rushing against Independence and had 1,047 rushing in the final four games and six games over 200 rushing.
Also back is RB-LB Chase York, who had two interceptions in the playoff loss to Oak Glen and endured an injury-plagued season’ Dakota McBride who had nine sacks and 6.8 tackles; and the team’s fourth-leading tackler in Brandon Simpson (6.5 tackles).
The team will have to replace Seth Ross at quarterback, top receivers Jake Bishop and Caden Lookabill, top two tacklers in LB Clay Lester (11.8) and OL-DL
Tanner Jenkins (8.5 tackles, eight sacks, 15 tackles for a loss), DB McQuade Canada who had a team-best six interceptions and two other starters on the offensive line, Noah Francis and Isaac Perdue.