With 46-game losing streak in the past, West Shamokin turns attention to building a winning program
Across the WPIAL, certain football programs are synonymous with winning. At places like Aliquippa and Clairton, playoff games and conference titles seem like an every-year occurrence.
But even at the most storied of programs, success had to begin somewhere.
Creating the starting point for success is the aim for West Shamokin's football program, where players see the potential for a landmark campaign in the team's 14th year at the school and 10th year as a member of the WPIAL.
In the first 13 years, the numbers haven't been pretty. The team has just 16 wins against 111 losses in its history, and since joining the WPIAL from District 9 in 2004, West Shamokin has struggled through a 46-game losing streak and won just nine games.
But three of those wins came last season, and with much of last year's roster intact, West Shamokin has a chance to continue on an upward trend.
“The kids that are here now, they weren't here for a lot of that. They have the mentality that it's behind them,” head coach Jon McCullough said. “We haven't talked about the past at all. It's dead and gone and irrelevant. Our motto is to win today.”
A common thread through many successful programs is continuity from year to year, which gives a team and a community time to develop a unique identity. Though McCullough is a first-year head coach, he was the defensive coordinator under previous head coach Josh Gilliland, and many aspects of the program have remained constant over the past five years.
But while a coaching staff can teach its players passing, blocking and tackling, winning isn't a skill that can be taught. Yet winning does have one thing in common with the fundamentals of the game: Repetition makes it much easier to do.
“Being confident is half of the battle,” McCullough said. “There was a stigma over the program, and that's the hardest thing to break. I think just trying to change the losing mindset was the biggest thing we tried to do when we first came here as coaches.
“We have a group of kids now, especially in our junior class, that doesn't like losing. A lot of them play basketball as well and they've been successful there. They also had a stretch in the junior high program where they've been really good, and that experience of winning has changed their mentality.”
Winning becomes the norm for a program at a certain point and for proof of that, West Shamokin needs to look no further than its neighbor to the west, Ford City.
Since 2001, Ford City has qualified for the playoffs nine times in 12 seasons. The Sabers also won four conference titles and three times advanced to the WPIAL semifinals during that stretch.
But things weren't always so good at Ford City. Before 2001, the school had only one other WPIAL playoff appearance, in 1987. That began to change in 1996 when John Bartolovic, who now enters his 18th season at Ford City, took over as head coach after a successful run at West Shamokin's precursor, Shannock Valley.
“When we got to Ford City, expectations weren't real high in the community,” Bartolovic said. “I remember the first game, people were saying if we had a couple good runs and made a few plays, they'd be happy with that. I was starting to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into.”
Though it would be five more years before a Bartolovic team broke into the playoffs, the Ford City turnaround was in motion from that first game, when the Sabers sprung an upset on the reigning Class AA champ, Burrell.
One of the seniors on Bartolovic's first Ford City team was current Kittanning head coach Frank Fabian, who is working a turnaround of his own after improving the Wildcats from a 1-8 team to a 4-5 club in his first season last year.
Fabian remembers that first win at Ford City being critical, not just for the season, but in getting everyone together behind Bartolovic's game plan.
“I like to think we got the ball rolling at Ford City. There was kind of a buzz because we opened against Burrell and upset them,” Fabian said. “I think you're always going to have some kids buy in and some give a little push back. As a coach, you lean on the older kids to help get people on board.”
“That win got the younger kids interested,” Bartolovic said. “Now we have a good weight program, we have the midget program running the same things we run, and there's a work ethic that runs through the program.”
At West Shamokin, the hope is that last year's three-win season was the first step to success, much in the same way the win over Burrell was for Ford City in 1996. But McCullough knows his team will have to work even harder to keep that momentum going and put distance between now and the losing ways of the past.
“Last year is last year. We don't have the losing streak hanging over our heads going into this year, but what we did means nothing going forward,” McCullough said.
“I don't want our guys looking too far ahead, but we don't want to look back. We just want to win the day each day and continue to get better. If we do that, things on Friday night will take care of themselves.”