Jimmy Henson has walked the path Rocco Dobran is traversing these days. It’s a pleasant, smile-inducing journey along a trail that has been blazed with guts, courage and a ton of hard work.
So Henson, the ninth-year head coach of the Jefferson Falcons (3-6), who will enter Conneaut Stadium tonight to tangle with the best-story-of-the-season Spartans, has much respect and admiration for Dobran, who has led Conneaut (5-4) to its best season in more than a generation in this, his third season at the helm.
“They are like a different team on film,” Henson, who is 7-1 in his time at Jefferson against Conneaut, said. “You can tell Coach Dobran has a plan and is implementing it, and most importantly, the players are buying in.”
Henson, who led Jefferson to a combined 15-5 record and was on the precipice of the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, said Conneaut’s players are playing with understanding and authority.
“You can tell the players have a better understanding of what they are trying to do,” he said. “And they are having fun playing football.
“We are definitely going to have to play well this week.”
Dobran, whose teams have dropped two games to Jefferson — 33-0 two years ago at Conneaut Stadium and 32-14 last fall at Falcon Pride Stadium — said the Falcons are better than their 3-6 record might indicate.
“They are a good team, that is well coached,” he said. “They play assignment football and are good at the fundamentals.”
The two teams — which will play for the 57th time in a series Conneaut leads all-time, 30-26 — are coming off opposite outcomes in Week 9.
Jefferson was hanging with an improved Girard team at 14-13 in the second quarter, only to see the Indians explode to score 41 points from that point to cruise to a 55-13 triumph.
“(Girard) is a very talented offensive team — they were the No. 1 offense in the conference last year, and returned almost all of their skill players, and are even better this year,” Henson said. “They are very good at adjusting to what you do on defense. We would have had to be more effective on offense to put some pressure on them and force them into mistakes and we weren’t able to do that.”
Meanwhile, the Spartans — whose players have seen Conneaut defeat Jefferson exactly twice in their lifetimes — earned their signature win of Dobran’s three-season tenure at the helm with a thrilling 21-20 at archrival Edgewood.
“It was a very exciting game. We played a very good first half,” Dobran said. “We had a good mix of run and pass. We hit some big plays passing and got some tough yards rushing. Troy (Colucci) did a nice job finding (Alex) Gerdes and (C.J.) Rice in the passing game, and Troy, Rice and R.J. (Nelson) shared the wealth running the ball.
“Defensively, we played very well. We gave up one big run to Riis Smith for a touchdown, which we knew could happen at any point. But we felt very good going into half with a 21-7 lead.
“The second half, we moved the ball OK at times, but could not capitalize on a score. Edgewood had no quit in them and started running the ball very well. We had a tough time stopping Riis and Anthonie Magda running behind a good offensive line. They scored with 39 seconds left and decided to go for 2, and Sam Distelrath may have made the defensive play of the year for us, tackling Smith for a loss.”
And the result was a win for the ages for a Conneaut program that has gone from one win in 2011, an 0-10 nightmare last fall to five and going for six wins this season.
“That was, by far, wthe most exciting win and possibly, the most significant win in the program since I’ve been here,” Dobran said. “For one, we beat our rival, which is always a great feeling for the kids. Second, it clinched a .500 season, and gives us an opportunity to have a winning record.
“I truly believe that will have a great impact on the future of the program. Our players are believing in themselves and the team concept.”
Henson is impressed by the Spartans.
“They run a spread offense and odd front on defense,” he said. “Their QB, Troy Colucci, is a dual-threat, with good skill players around him. On defense they control their gaps very well and make you earn every yard.
“Colucci is the leader of their team who can run and pass. Alex Gerdes is a big-play receiver, C.J. Rice plays receiver and running back and is a very explosive player. R.J. Nelson is a tough runner and their offensive line is very impressive. They know their jobs and do them very well.
“On defense, as I said earlier, their D-line controls their gaps very well and allows their linebackers to run and make plays.”
In turn, Dobran had words of praise for Jefferson, which has dropped two one-point games and a two-point verdict in a season in which it replaced 18 of 22 starters who were lost to graduation.
“Offensively, they run a spread offense — they like to spread you out and run the ball,” he said. “They run a lot of misdirection and screens.
“Defensively, they play a base 4-3 cover-2 scheme. They do a good job of freeing up their linebackers to make plays.”
Dobran has a good idea of who his Spartans must contain tonight. “Jeremiah Knight is a very talented back. He is very shifty and every time he touches the ball he breaks tackles.
“(Quarterback) Lucas Hitchcock does a nice job of moving the chains on the ground, and he does a nice job of getting the ball to Cole Erdel and Derek Parker, his go-to receivers.
“Defensively, they play well together as a unit. Josh Hall on the D-ine does a nice job of getting in the backfield, and Justin Butler at linebacker does a great job of finding the ball.”
The respective coaches had definite ideas of what must be done tonight to emerge victorious.
“Control the ball on offense, they have big play ability on offense and we would like to keep them on the sidelines,” Henson said.
“We must win the turnover battle — this will be an emotional game and we need to keep momentum on our side. We also must contain Colucci — he take make big plays with his arm and legs.
“And we need to stop the big play.”
Dobran offered a similar assessment.
“We need to be able to run the ball and use the clock, keeping their offense off the field,” he said. “We need to win the turnover battle. We had six last year (against Jefferson).
“Finally, we need to prevent the big play.”
Henson believes, despite the 3-6 record, the three could-go-either-way defeats indicates things have gone better than they may appear.
“I would, of course, like to have more wins, but I knew we would have some growing pains with all the new starters this year and we have,” he said. “We are 3-6 and four points away from being 6-3.
“We are still learning and growing as players and as a team, but I believe we are still improving and will finish strong.
“We will, as always, work on strength and speed. I think we gained this season what we needed most — experience. We now have to play like an experienced team.”
“We need to, as a whole, gain muscle weight and get better team speed,” Dobran said. “As a program, we will always prioritize faith, character, family and education.”