By VINCE PELUSO
The 2012 season was certainly a low point for the Conneaut Spartans and coach Rocco Dobran.
Despite playing hard and particularly well down the stretch over the final four games, the Spartans had a winless season — 0-10.
Certainly, most observers expected improvement in 2013, after all it can’t get any worse than 0-10.
But, while improvement may have been expected, few would’ve predicted the type of turnaround Conneaut had. The Spartans win from winless to the most wins of any team in Ashtabula County as they went 6-4, closing the season with wins over county rivals Edgewood and Jefferson.
For his important part in that turnaround, Dobran is the 2013 Star Beacon Ashtabula County Coach of the Year.
“It means a lot,” Dobran said. “Especially because the coaches vote, so having their acceptance is greatly appreciated. I just have to thank them for giving me that honor.
“(The team’s success) feels good, real good. It’s good spot to be in, especially after going 0-10. This isn’t where we want to be, we want to do even more, but it’s a big improvement.”
A big improvement is a bit of an understatement.
Injuries to key players and a lack of depth plagued the Spartans over Dobran’s first two seasons as he saw his team go just 1-19 to start his tenure.
A star running back at Poland Seminary high school before going to Massillon to coach, Dobran admitted it was difficult to handle the losing early on.
But, still, he said he never lost faith in what he was trying to do at Conneaut.
“To me, it was just continuing to believe in what I was doing and what the coaching staff was doing, it felt like we were doing the right things,” he said. “I felt like we had the right philosophy it just wasn’t showing on the scoreboard. I talked with my mentors and they said if you believe in what you’re doing then keep doing it. Honestly, we didn’t stray much from those things this year other than the kids started learning the system.
“We continued to do what we did the last four games (of 2012). We made progress even though we didn’t win. We focused in the offseason on getting them mentally stronger and tough with team building exercises. We did some 7-on-7s, which I really think helped. We all stayed the same and just kept believing and what we’re doing.”
Perhaps the most important thing Dobran changed was the mental approach of his team after a disappointing 2012 season.
Dobran’s group had a great sense of team over individual, something that he felt helped carry them to the record they had.
“(The mental attitude) is something I worried about in offseason,” he said. “We struggled with going 0-10 and there was some bickering among the players about who should play where so we had a couple individual discussions. But once the summer hit, we knew we need to do whatever we had to, to build cohesiveness. We stayed together and more group activities we just did whatever we can do to get the guys together like having picnics after workouts. There was a lot of team building.
“I was surprised how the seniors took it upon to stop that attitude and say, “let the coaches coach and let’s just play. I thought there’d be more selfishness. After we beat Grand Valley, that was a big turning point and the kids started believing.”
Although Conneaut’s success was a team effort, there was no question that the emergence of quarterback Troy Colucci was a big part of that success.
While Dobran said he knew Colucci could run the ball and lead the team, he did exceed expectations as a passer.
“I knew he would be OK because he’s a very smart kid and I knew he could run the ball and make good decisions in the pass game,” he said. “But he exceeded my expectations as far as throwing for more than 1,200 yards; I didn’t know he would do that. He did a very good job overall of being unselfish and spreading the ball around and threw the ball to whoever was open.
“Having those guys around him like Sam Distelrath, Alex Gerdes to throw to then handing the ball off to C.J. Rice and R.J. Nelson, there was a lot of different things we could do, it wasn’t just all Troy. It was nice to see him spread the ball around, he really grew as a passer. There were a lot of people who said he was a running back at quarterback and he proved them wrong.”
You didn’t have to look any further than the final three games of the season to see how far the Spartans had come.
After narrowly falling to a Brookfield team that had it lost to badly in the previous two seasons, Conneaut held off Edgewood on a 2-point conversion to win in Week 9 then got past Jefferson to close out a 6-4 campaign, its first winning season in more than a decade.
“It was great to end that way, it couldn’t have been better, other than beating Brookfield,” Dobran said. “They’re two county rivals. It was a good feeling, it was good for the kids and the program. It let our kids have confidence in themselves and that is the biggest thing gong forward is to have confidence. Jefferson had beaten us pretty good in the past and to get those wins at the end consecutively, it meant a lot to the community, I was excited for the kids.
“They were great wins for the program and it felt great for our seniors to end their career with two wins against our biggest rivals.”
While those two games were certainly among the highlights of the season for Dobran, he also counted wins over Grand Valley to open the season then a big win over Pymatuning Valley for two-straight wins at the top of that list, as well.
“To me, I would say beating Grand Valley to get that positive momentum going and say, ‘hey we won, now we’re 1-0.’ That was big,” he said. “No. 2, the PV game to get two wins in a row and come off the Ledgemont win, we felt like where we gonna go from there. We had a big lead but we were still nervous at halftime, that was a situation, having a big lead at halftime that we hadn’t much. Those were two building points in season.
“Obviously, though, the best single moment was the 2-point conversion against Edgewood. Stopping them, the whole atmosphere and everything to our kids it was like winning the Super Bowl. That was a great moment, we stopped Edgewood and it was a special moment. I was impressed how they came back against Jefferson, I was afraid they’d say that was our season and I thought they’d have a letdown. But they didn’t.”
Dobran, who credited much of his success to his coaching staff and the senior class, believes the future at Conneaut is bright.
While low numbers have plagued the program in recent years, the Spartans look to have approximately 27 underclassmen next season — nearly the same number of players as they have had on their entire team in recent years.
With Colucci back, along with several key play makers, and stronger numbers, Dobran feels good about what the future holds.
“I think it’s looking really good for the future, I think winning is going to help the numbers and we’re going to get kids out of the hallway,” he said. “It’s a good situation for us to be in and things are really starting to flow in the right direction. I feel like we do lose some very key players, but the core of our team is returning. I think we had about seven sophomores who start and that’ll be the core of next year’s team.
“The more numbers we have, the more depth we’ll have and I think the successful third year (of Dobran’s tenure) should move us in the right direction. Now, it’s about how we handle success. We don’t want to just say we’re satisfied and think that that was good enough. We want the attitude that 6-4 isn’t good enough.”
And, with Dobran at the helm, it’s likely the Spartans will receive that message and continue to build on what was started in 2013.
Peluso is a sports writer for the Star Beacon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.