For nearly a decade, Neil Croston has been an assistant coach for three different Pymatuning Valley sports. It’s now time for him to take over his own program.
“I did, when I first started off,” Croston said. “I wanted to do some type of head job, whether it was basketball or baseball. The opportunity came. At first, I was trying to get back into football as an assistant.
“When Coach (Jason) Root resigned (from being the head football coach), some people said I should put in for the head coaching job. It was an opportunity to have my own program, so I decided to do it.”
An assistant for the football, boys basketball and baseball teams for eight years and after taking a year off, Croston, 33, is now the head football coach for the Lakers.
“I first got here nine years ago,” Croston said. “A couple of different coaches were here. I was coaching three different sports — football, basketball and baseball. That certainly kept me busy. I got married and now I have two kids. I slowly started cutting back. I am friends with (former boys basketball coach) Jeremy Huber, so I stayed with basketball to help him.
“I took a year off. I missed coaching and wanted to get back into it. I wanted to be a head coach. The opportunity was there one time before in a different sport. I didn’t know Coach Root was resigning until I saw the opening in the Star Beacon. I figured I’d take the opportunity and run my own program.”
Croston, who has a wife, Danielle, and two sons, Ryan, 3, and Sean, 2, has taught special education at PV for the last nine years.
He will draw from all of the coaches he has worked with and played for, including PV baseball coach Steve “Skipper” Urchek and Huber.
“You can take something from everybody,” Croston said. “It doesn’t matter what sport it is, you can always take it and make it your own.”
As far as football goes, he’s had a few impressive influences and he’ll continue to soak up their knowledge.
“It started back when I played in high school,” Croston said. “Joe Hamilton was my coach at Blackhawk High School. He first started coaching in the late ’70s and he’s still coaching. He has 330-some wins. He wasn’t a screamer. He was more of a motivator, but he did it in a calm way.
“Me and some of my staff met with him and sat down and he went over defenses with us. He’s one of those guys I could call back, and if he doesn’t answer, he’ll call back within 10 minutes. He’s a guy that remembers all the players that went through his program and he looks out for his guys.”
“Joe Kearney took me under his wing,” Croston said. “He taught me the basics of reading a defense as a defensive coach. He helped me to understand the game as a coach rather than as a player.”
Croston believes he has to gain his players’ trust in order to build the Lakers into the team he would like them to be.
“First, you have to gain the trust of the kids,” he said. “I’m one that I always make sure I’m honest with them. I have to adapt to the kids. Certain kids don’t like you to get in their faces and shout at them. Others like you to get on them more. Having coached basketball with Jeremy, I know who the leaders are. Most of the kids I’ll have played JV basketball for me. I even had some of them in baseball a few years ago.
“They know me. They’ve been around me. The players know I’m there for them and they can trust me.”
Part of what excites Croston about his first season is the strength he’s seen so far in the weight room.
“The senior class (is what excites me most about the team right now),” Croston said. “We had max-out day for lifting, and since I’ve been here, this is one of the strongest senior classes.
“There are three or four guys benching 260 or 275. It all starts up front, and those kids were all linemen. We plan to run the ball. Those are strong kids, but they’re not your typical linemen. They weigh like 205, but they’re strong linemen. They can really pave the way this year for the running game.”
That strength, as well as some key returning players, should help Croston use the philosophy he feels is best for the team.
“I want to run the ball 50 times a game,” Croston said. “When you don’t have to throw the ball, it makes it easier on the coaches and the players. That’s not going to be the case, obviously. We’ll have to mix it up and keep teams off balance. But until they can prove they can stop the run, that’s what we’ll do and we’ll keep doing it throughout the game.
“We have two running backs back. (Josh) Kirby will be a senior. They put him in the backfield the last few games. He had two 100-yard games back-to-back, I think Kurtis Marsh makes it a nice 1-2 punch with our tailbacks. We have those and a fullback, Nick Marshall, who’s a big strong kid, back.”
Croston is going to use a very basic, very adaptable offense with the Lakers.
“Offensively, we’ll find out,” Croston said. “We’ll have a skeleton base with multiple formations. With the kids we have and the running-back situation we have, if they’re going good, we’ll use a lot of power I.
“If that isn’t the case, we’ll use multiple sets and a quick passing game — sets with one running back or no running backs. We’ll run more counters if we’re undersized compared to the team we play. We can use so many formations and adjust from game to game without changing our offense.”
On defense, the approach will be much the same.
“We’ll attack on defense,” Croston said. “The first thing we’ll try and do is stop the run. We’ll mix up (the coverage) with zone and man. We always want to pressure the quarterback and make him make quick decisions.
“The defensive (alignment) will be a lot like we do on offense. We want the kids to have one key read. We’ll find the guy who can do one thing really well and put him in that spot.”