The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

September 21, 2013

A Bob Ettinger column: Croston calm before the storm

By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon

ANDOVER TOWNSHIP — Homecoming is always special. People who would normally have better things to do find themselves sitting on a bleacher in school colors. The electricity from the student section is of a higher wattage. The band plays a bit louder.

Yes, everybody loves homecoming.

Everybody, that is, except the football coaches.

Football coaches are left with players riding dangerously high emotions. The timing of the pregame warmup is cut short, changing the way a coach prepares his players.

Pymatuning Valley coach Neal Croston found himself in that very predicament prior to a matchup with Edgewood on Friday night at Laker Stadium.

For the average coach, and maybe some who are above-average, it can be the most stressful night of the year.

But Croston is a cool customer, outwardly, at least.

“It’s homecoming,” he said. “What are you going to do?”

After a brief stretch and some positional drills, Croston found out his team had to leave the field. It was a complete surprise to the coach that at 20 minutes after six, his team had to give way to the band for the pregame ceremony.

Croston sent the Lakers to the locker room to relax for a few minutes while he formulated a plan. The Lakers, already jacked up, could hardly sit still, waiting for the next chance to expend a bit of energy.

Ultimately, it was decided to take the team out on a small patch of grass in front of the high school where he could go over some formations with his offense.

There was a catch with that, as well.

“(Quintin) Ratliff, (Travis) Kiser and (Nick) Holt are all out there,” Croston said, referring to the crowning of the PV homecoming king and queen. “We don’t have a quarterback to run any of the offense.”

But Croston was still unfazed, ready to play the hand he was dealt. Calmly and quietly, he told junior-varsity quarterback Mitchell Skleres to stand in at the position.

Instead of running through a few plays, Croston stood in the backfield and walked the Lakers through situations and what they should do on certain plays. He answered questions here and there, but mostly it was a monologue, leaving the casual observer to wonder if what was being said would sink in with the players.

To the Lakers, Croston appeared calm and collected, as if this was how preparation for every Friday night was supposed to go. Nobody mentioned the elephant in the room.

The PV assistant coaches stood off the side, watching, saying little, content to let Croston do his thing.

Back in the locker room, the players again sat, anxiously waiting to take the field.

The sounds of metal chairs sliding across concrete, cleats clacking on the floor, shoulder pads adjusting as players squirmed. Croston’s only directive was to remain quiet and be ready for him to return and address some last-minute details with the defense.

In the coaches’ room, the mood was light. Jokes about bodily functions and pregame visits to the restroom were dropped. Then it was back to address the team.

Croston again addressed situations and formations, only this time, it was for the defenders. Again, it was a monologue with a stray question sprinkled in.

This part, at least, was status quo. Croston often uses the few moments between warmups and opening kick to address the defense.

When he finished, Croston simply said to take the field. No words of wisdom. No firing up the troops. There was little need as the everyone knew what wasn’t said.

It was homecoming. It was a big night. Croston’s message was clear without him having to deliver the words.

It was simply showtime.         

Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula. Reach him at bettinger@starbeacon.com.