An unassuming pole barn sits behind Federal Hocking High School. The recently-new building belongs to the high school’s football team. It has the distinct smell of sweat thanks to the weight room that takes up most of the building’s floor plan. A small room sits next to the humble gym. Inside you will find a small conference table with playbooks scattered across it. You will find a white board with formations and plays drawn out. And, more often than not, you will find the Lancer’s head coach Jeff Ditty here.
Going into the 2019 season Federal Hocking High School had the weight of the world on their shoulders. They had not won a game in four consecutive seasons. Participation was reaching all time lows. That is when Federal Hocking hired Ditty to turn things around. Ditty knew that turning this team around was going to be an up-hill battle when he took the job. What he likely did not know when he took this job is that he would be more than a football coach. He would be charge of changing a culture.
You came into a program that has not won a game since 2015. What was it like coming into that culture and trying to win games?
It’s been the biggest challenge to date, and it still is. It hasn’t changed in a matter of months. What has changed, I think, is the perception of what we are doing. We didn’t have a weight room. We put [a weight room] together in two weeks. So, there was a lot of building blocks, and most of what I was focused on was not on the field. It was off the field. It wasn’t until pretty much midsummer the kids, the players, and even with them, I had to assume whatever they had learned either wasn’t ineffective or was incorrect. So, I wasn’t going to assume that there was a baseline level of knowledge. I wasn’t going to assume that there was a baseline level of commitment … I didn’t assume anything. You just kind of take it one step at a time. You fix what you can. And then when you identify things you can’t immediately address you set a plan in motion for it. On a week on and week out basis, it may be one of the toughest things I have going on in my life at this point. I love a good challenge.
What was your biggest goal for the first season?
Our season one goal is to be accountable. [In previous years] guys showed up to practice when they wanted to. They weren’t held to a standard. We have set a zero-tolerance policy … We have guys that have missed one day and have been let go. We have had guys that have had excused absences and they don’t play. In order to be effective and do your job, you have to show up. That’s life, that’s here. That is not something that has ever really been in place and we have actually lost a number of kids this year because of it. Be accountable, take care of the little things, and the wins take care of themselves.
You have talked about letting players go, but you also have spoken about participation being an issue. How have you worked around having a roster with so few players on it?
Creatively. Honestly, it’s been one of our toughest challenges. We have never had more than anywhere between 14 and 18 able bodies at any given time. Whether it has been because of injuries, discipline, accountability. Preparing a team to play with that few guys is a challenge. I think most coaches, if they have not been in that situation, sometimes ask how do you do it? We do it one player at a time. Is it the most effective method? No. Football is a game of numbers. We take it one player at a time.
This team was coming off 42 games in a row without a victory before your tenure. Then, you snapped that streak with a win your first game as head coach. What did that feel like?
I have had the question asked quite a bit. I’m not going to lie, it felt really good. But it wasn’t meaningful for me. It was just another win in my book. Now, I haven’t been here for the last four or five years. I know it was very emotional for our guys. None of them have had a football victory since they have been at this school. In some regards, I think some people didn’t know how to react. But overall it was a very positive experience … The way we won too. It was a tough game. It wasn’t a one-sided game at all. It was a dog fight for four quarters. So, I think it was very fitting that, not only did we get the first game and the first win, but that it was a fight to get it. It really helped emphasize some of the characteristics that we have adopted with the program. You have to put the work in and you have to fight if you want it.
The Lancers had to forfeit the final four games on of their season thanks to injuries. They finished the season 1-9. However, this football coach is not discouraged. He has already focused on recruiting players for next season. Jeff Ditty loves a challenge.