In 2019, the Mathews High football program was at a crossroads.
Mathews opened his 19 season with an 8-man game against St. John.
In the second week of the season, the Mustangs were so devastated by injuries and a lack of players that they had to pull out of a game against Leetonia in the third quarter.
In week five, Mathews finished his game against Valley Christian with just 10 players. The following week it was forced to request an 8-man game against Windham. A Week 9 game against Lutheran East was called off, allowing Mathews to play St. John for the second time in an 8-man game.
The following year was not much different. By the third week of the season, Mathews had already withdrawn from the all-inclusive playoffs. The Mustangs ended the season with just 14 healthy players.
“We were definitely injured, we questioned the future direction of the program,” said Mathews athletic director Mike Palumbo. “Will we have the numbers to move forward? We just didn’t know what to expect from our football program.”
Looking for new direction and leadership, hiring a young, up-and-coming coach seemed like the safe bet. Someone with a new vision and new ideas.
Then came veteran coach Bill Bohren, who applied for the position at the age of 86.
“I mean, it was a no-brainer,” Palumbo said. “Here’s a guy who trained at all levels of high school and made a career of rebuilding programs. He brought a solid workforce and he brought incredible knowledge, experience and energy.
“There was no downside. There was no reason not to go with Bill.”
Tonight, Mathews is making the playoffs for the second straight year under drilling. A year ago the Mustangs finished 6-4 and then lost to Dalton in a first round game.
This year, the Mustangs finished with a regular season record of 8-2. Tonight they face Springfield in a first round match of Division VII, Region 25.
“That’s what Bill does, that’s what he’s done pretty much every place he’s trained,” Palumbo said.
A quick look at Bohren’s resume confirms Palumbo’s claim.
Bohren’s 1976 Steubenville team finished 7-1-2, Big Red’s best performance in the All-American Conference. At Lakeview, Bohren compiled a 32-18 mark. At Boardman, his Spartans were 59-26 with two Steel Valley Conference titles and a trip to the Division I State Title Game.
Salem won his first league title in 104 years under Bohren, and at Niles he won two league titles and made two trips to the playoffs – including Niles’ only regional final in 2000.
Bohren posted a 46-46 record at LaBrae, including two trips into the postseason. In the three years prior to Bohren’s arrival, the Vikings were 3-27.
When Bohren joined Mathews in 2021, half his roster consisted of freshmen. These players only trained as a team last year. Due to the lack of numbers at the lower levels, they could not plan games.
Bohren started this season with 33 players, including just three seniors. The number of juniors has grown to 25 to 30 players.
“Bill walked in and made an immediate impression,” Palumbo said. “He went to every home basketball game. He identified the athletes and made a connection to the students and their parents.
“Bill comes to school every day. His players treat him with the utmost respect. Children want to learn from him, they appreciate and admire his experience and knowledge of the game. He gets results in a phenomenal way.”
Palumbo said Bohren’s connection with his players is both genuine and long-lasting. Last year saw Bohren win his 300th game. Among those in attendance were former players from Ottowa-Glandorf, where Bohren trained in the early 1970s.
“These guys are in their 60s now and Bill knew all their names, their parents’ names, where they ate, where they hung out,” Palumbo said. “Honestly, it was fascinating. Bill brought back memories for these guys.
“Bill takes over a room with his presence.”
Niles trainer Jim Parry has worked with Bohren on and off since the mid ’90s. He served under Bohr at Niles and LaBrae. Bohren then served under Parry at Niles for three years before taking the job at Mathews.
Parry noted that Bohren’s “genuine interest in children makes them want to be part of his program.” Parry believes that Bohren’s age – he is now 88 – serves as an inspiration.
“He’s always had the respect of his players, but he gets even more loveable as he gets older,” Parry said. “Children respond to his honesty and passion. You know he doesn’t have to do this, but he’s out there training with a lot of energy. Every day he wakes up and can’t wait to get on the field.
“Bill is definitely a different breed.”
Parry says the coaching community also has the utmost respect for Bohren.
“Everywhere he goes, Bill has the ability to put together great employees because the guys want to be around him,” Parry said. “And Bill is the ultimate optimist. His team could lose by forty and he’s the first person in the dressing room to tell everyone how they’re going to play like damn next week and bounce back from the loss.
“He never deviates from his ideas and his way of thinking.”
Bohren noted that growing numbers and building a program at a small school like Mathews was “an everyday job.” When approaching potential players, he says he’s not trying to sell himself, he’s trying to sell the game of football.
“I just want the kids to see what a great game this is,” Bohren said. “Once we get players to buy into a program we rarely lose them because football is a great game.”
In addition to growing player numbers and victories, the Mathews program has seen cosmetic changes since Bohren’s arrival two years ago. Most notable are the renovations at Booster Field. There are new uniforms and what Bohren calls “premium helmets.” Then there are the little things like the players’ names on the lockers, which highlight the fact that no detail is too small for drilling to miss.
“Our sports department was willing to invest a lot of money in our program, we have to do our part to make things attractive for our players,” said Bohren.
As for tonight’s game in Springfield, Bohren concedes his Mustangs will face a daunting task against an experienced Tigers team.
“Springfield are so well trained that they are doing an incredible job selling their program,” Bohren said. “We watched a film about them on Monday and our kids were in awe at the number of players standing on the sidelines.
“Two years ago, most of our team was in junior high, just training and not playing real games. The Springfield seniors have been playing fifteen varsity games a year since their sophomore year. You are where we want to be. We’re trying to be what Springfield is.”
With that in mind, Bohren is already looking to 2023 and beyond.
“We’ve gotten better, but we’re still a long way from where we want to be, we still have a lot to do,” said Bohren. “We are still a very young team. Our numbers are growing. We improved the first year and got even better this year.
“We have to take more steps forward every year.”
Bohren’s track record, spanning nearly six decades, suggests that Mustangs will indeed continue to move in the right direction.
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