COLUMBUS GROVE – How do you replace “the class?”
That was the question Columbus Grove coach Andy Schafer heard a lot prior to the football season. In 2020, the Bulldogs, led by a host of talented seniors such as Blake Reynolds and Gabe Clement to name just a couple, were coming off a Northwest Conference title and a deep run in the playoffs.
But Schafer answered that question with an undefeated 10-0 regular season, another NWC title (the school’s fourth in a row) and another deep run in the playoffs. It earned him the 2021 Lima News Dream Team Coach of the Year honors.
“We knew we had a pretty good nucleus of kids coming back,” Schafer said. “It was a shortened season last season, but with us having the success we had, it ended up being a fairly long season. When that happens you have a lot of injuries, so you have kids that get to play when you are not expecting them to play.
“So that being said, we had a lot more experience back on the field than what people gave us credit for. I kind of knew that is what people were going to say is ‘how are you going to replace all these guys,’ but in the back of my mind I thought we had a pretty good supporting cast. We just didn’t have the kids that you normally hear because they are more blockers and tacklers than guys who stretch the field vertically.”
What Schafer also had was a senior class who had lived in the shadows of those guys, so this year’s group came in with something to prove. They did so by making school history with a fourth-straight NWC title.
Like all good coaches, Schafer was not afraid to make adjustments to his team despite past success. One of the major changes came on defense. After running the 3-4 last season, Schafer opted for the 4-3, and it paid off with the Bulldogs having one of the best defenses in school history.
During the regular season, Columbus Grove gave up an average of 8 points a contest. In seven of the Bulldogs’ games, they held the opponent to single digits. The most points scored on them this year was 21 points against Leipsic.
“On defense it always starts with trust,” Schafer said. “You have to trust the coaches. You have to trust the kids next to you. In the previous year we played a 3-4, and we changed to a 4-3 and we changed some things in our coverage. When you make changes like that, you don’t know if the kids are going to buy in and they certainly they did.
“It was the right move that we needed to do, and we had a long talk with our defensive staff this year. We didn’t feel like what we were doing was working last year, so we decided to change some things. I think those guys did a great job to get those kids to buy in. I think this is one of the best defenses in Grove’s history in talking to people around here.”
Even with an outstanding defense and offense led by running back Colin Metzger, Schafer was still concerned about the NWC due to how well most of the teams did in their nonconference games. Add the fact that the Bulldogs had a big target on their back being defending conference champs, the Bulldogs’ head coach knew it was not going to be easy to capture another crown.
“It was a really good year for the NWC especially in the first three weeks, and with that being said I didn’t know what was going to happen in the league,” Schafer said. “We told the kids every game matters, and you never know when somebody is going to knock you off.”
The Bulldogs were up to the task and dominated most of their NWC opponents except for Leipsic, which jumped on Columbus Grove early before the Bulldogs made a comeback that saw them overcome a 21-point deficit.
Schafer said that game was one of his favorites because of how the team battled back. He added it was a challenge to go unbeaten in the league because most people thought the winner of the NWC would have at least one or two lossses. That has been the case for a number of years, excluding last year in the shortened season.
In addition to winning it without a loss, it marked the fourth-straight NWC title. This is the first time in school history and only the second time in conference history. Delphos Jefferson was the other to win four consecutive titles.
“For us to win it outright in back to back years is pretty special,” Schafer added. “It has never been done in school history (winning four-straight NWC championships), and that is pretty big. You look at the rich tradition Columbus Grove has. That pretty special.”
Even though the Bulldogs did not reach the same heights as last year in the playoffs, Schafer said this year was refreshing.
“It was refreshing to be honest, and that is not the word you were probably expecting,” he said. “Coming off the COVID year, a lot of people thought that it was one of your favorite years and best years, but I was so exhausted that year with all the extra stuff. I don’t think I really could enjoy it.
“I enjoyed it afterwards, but going through it was miserable and hard on head coaches. But this year, I had fun. It was fun to be with the kids and refreshing to be normal, and I actually felt like I enjoyed it this year.”