Despite injuries, setbacks, and challenging schedules, coaches for all six diocesan high schools football teams are hopeful for improved records and births in the playoffs.
As the mid-season mark approaches, the combined record for the six schools—Ursuline High School (Youngstown), Cardinal Mooney High School (Youngstown), John F. Kennedy High School (Warren), Canton Central Catholic, Saint John School (Ashtabula) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Louisville)—stands at 11-13. Yet all the coaches—including two first-year head coaches—contend that their respective teams are improving each week.
Below is the mid-season gridiron report for St. Thomas Aquinas High School. You can find detailed reports on the other schools here: Ursuline High School, Cardinal Mooney High School, John F. Kennedy High School, Canton Central Catholic and Saint John School.
St. Thomas Aquinas football team starts on road to revive gridiron success tradition
The St. Thomas Aquinas High School football team has a proud tradition but in recent years has experienced some lean seasons and difficulty in gathering players.
Aquinas’ new coach, Kevin Henderson, is working to change all that but knows that it will require time and effort on everyone’s part.
Henderson, who comes with years of coaching experience both in high school and at Walsh University, knew that when he signed on as head coach at Aquinas.
“I just felt that it would be a challenge, but it would be an opportunity. I love helping kids and I’ve never been afraid of a challenge,” Henderson noted.
“I met with them June 6 when I started,” Henderson said. “I told them my expectations and what they could expect from me” and found the meeting positive.
“There were people who didn’t think that we’d be able to field a team this year,” Henderson said. Yet they have managed to assemble a 25-player roster and have played four games but are still looking for that initial win.
“I’m looking at a group of young men who are committed to St. Thomas and to football,” Henderson said.
Henderson cited Luke Gordan, a senior offensive lineman and outside linebacker. “He’s one of the mainstays. He‘ll play anywhere we ask him to.”
At quarterback, Aquinas started with Nick Allen, a senior transfer. After Allen was injured in the East Canton game, Henderson went with Cal Stewart, a freshman. Allen’s status is week to week.
Da’Mari Maynard is playing as wide receiver and defensive back. “He’s been quite impressive at those positions and just about every place else we ask him to play,” said Henderson, who also praised Maynard’s leadership.
Henderson also spoke of Mattai McCleskey, a junior lineman, who he described as a “silent leader committed to helping St. Thomas’ success.”
Another junior making an impact is D.J. Downing, a wide receiver and defensive back. “He also has played some running back and scored a touchdown at our last game.”
Henderson however is fully aware of the challenges he faces. Aquinas lost their first four games to Youngstown Campbell Memorial, Smithville, Niles Mineral Ridge and East Canton. Remaining opponents include three Portage County schools—Windham, Rootstown and Ravenna Southeast—John F. Kennedy High School, Mogadore and crosstown rival Canton Central Catholic.
Aquinas competes in Region 25 in the Division VII of the Ohio High school Athletic Association (OHSAA). On this year’s schedule, “there were eight teams that qualified for the playoffs last year,” including seven that are in higher divisions than Aquinas.
“We’re young, very inexperienced” with a limited number of athletes participating in the program, said Henderson. “They are learning new skills and techniques.”
Still, Henderson said, his goal is “to get these young men stronger over a period so that we can become more competitive and eventually a highly competitive football team.”
“If we can stay healthy to continue to get stronger in the weight room and in the field,” Henderson said. “If you practice it often enough and slow the game down, you can be proactive rather than reactive.”
A Canton native, Henderson graduated from Canton Timken High School before going on to serve in the U.S. Air Force and later pursuing coaching. Henderson also studied and coached at Walsh University, where he earned a bachelor’s in business management and a master’s of education.
In addition to coaching, Henderson serves at Aquinas as dean of students and director of student success.