When Zach Gardner came on to the scene at West Holmes High School, the Knights program was in shambles, at a definitive low point in the program’s history.
Two years ago West Holmes didn’t win a game, and the school district turned its program over to Gardner, a Dover High School graduate who was having all kinds of success as the head coach at Sandy Valley.
Last season saw the Knights play competitively, and although they only won three games, Gardner’s spread offense and unlimited energy, enthusiasm and passion started to rub off on the players and the community.
His players dedicated themselves to an intense offseason workout program. They bought into everything Gardner and his staff wanted to do, and lo and behold, this past season the Knights started racking up victories that put them in position to capture a playoff spot.
With a win in week 10 over Mt. Vernon, West Holmes did exactly that, earning a playoff spot opposite of host Chagrin Falls Kenston in week 11, the week every football team fights for each season.
While the Knights didn’t get the outcome they wanted, falling 48-34 in a game that saw them with possession in a tie game with five minutes to play, the program seems to be on the verge of something special for years to come as excitement has returned to the gridiron at West Holmes.
“Our motto this year was brick by brick in terms of building this program, and these seniors have built the program, and now it is on these younger guys to take it to the next level, and they would be fools not to follow the blueprint of what these seniors have laid out for them.”
Gardner had built an incredible relationship with this impressive group of seniors, and he said he gets very emotional when talking about everything they have done for this program.
“These kids had nothing to go on, nothing to buy into,” Gardner said. “What they did was on blind faith that me and this coaching staff were moving in the right direction, and now we as coaches and the community are indebted to them for what they gave and for what they did to come out and turn this program around.”
As for turning the program around so quickly, Gardner said when this staff began two years ago, these kinds of playoff moments were exactly what they wanted to fight for.
“We want to win the league, make the tournament and win a state championship, and if we aren’t out here striving for those things, we shouldn’t be out here,” he said.
This West Holmes group, which finished the year 8-3, will have set numerous records, most of them on offense, where quarterback Bridger Cline threw for a school-record 35 touchdowns and 2,874 passing yards. Shane Jones broke his own school record, hauling in 19 touchdown passes while snaring 63 passes for 1,138 yards. Grady Hay caught 59 passes for 1,054 yards. Defensively Ryan O’Donnell recorded double-digit sacks on the season while senior linebackers Carrick Miller and Josh Baldridge ran wild in the middle of the West Holmes defense.
Considering the short time it took to turn the program around, it was somewhat amazing to see the Knights lining up for a playoff game in two short years under Gardner’s leadership.
“It’s all about these kids,” Gardner said, heaping all of the praise on his players. “They are the ones who committed to this program day after day, and they are the ones who came in during the offseason and did every single thing we asked of them. They showed amazing courage and belief in each other, and they never questioned anything we did. They just stepped up and delivered, and this community should be extremely proud of everything they were able to accomplish.”