Whittaker back where he started

WEATHERSFIELD – Believe it or not, there are people in Florida who can’t wait to come to Ohio.

Well, there’s at least one. That would be Jeff Whittaker, the longtime Liberty High School football coach who may soon hold the same position at Mineral Ridge, his alma mater.

Weathersfield school district superintendent Damon Dohar confirmed that a search committee has selected Whittaker to replace Doug Velasquez, who stepped down after this past season for personal reasons. Whittaker’s hire is still awaiting board approval, which could come at the next scheduled meeting on March 19.

Whittaker earned a 100-82 record in 17 seasons at Liberty (1995-2011), including five playoff appearances and two regional finals, before retiring in 2011. He spent the past two years relaxing near the water – Florida in the winter, a house on Lake Erie in the summer. As heavenly as that sounds to those fighting the winter vortex that’s engulfed Ohio, Whittaker battled his own demons as he sat and watched high school football in the fall.

“I’ve been off two seasons now, and each season it was a little bit harder,” he said. “The second season I started get the itch to get back in (to coaching), but I felt like it had to be an opportunity that I felt comfortable with.”

This situation couldn’t be much more “comfortable” for the 57-year-old Whittaker.

The field is named after his late brother, Edward Zale Whittaker, who played, coached and taught at Mineral Ridge before he passed away at age 39. Jeff’s first coaching stint came with the Rams in 1979, on the same staff that mentored him as a player. He then spent time at Centerburg High School, Vinton County High School, Conneaut and then Gannon University before taking over at Liberty.

“I went full circle, and it’s time to put the orange and black back on,” said Jeff, a 1974 Mineral Ridge graduate. “My brother, he was a special person and a great athlete there, and it will be an honor to coach on this field for me. When I was 17, 18 years old, I didn’t think there was another football school in the world like Mineral Ridge.”

Dohar coached with Jeff Whittaker at Liberty in 1996, and said his past experience reinforced his belief in him.

“He runs a good program,” Dohar said. “As a head coach, most kids who played for him, they relatively like him. I coached with him and I obviously thought he was a really good guy. We’re real excited that we might have him coming on board.”

Jeff inherits a team that went 5-5 in 2013 and lost 15 seniors. He spoke highly of the competition in the Inter Tri-County League, Division II – which boasts perennial powers McDonald, Western Reserve and Wellsville along with Lowellville, Jackson-Milton, Leetonia and Sebring.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Whittaker said. “They’re all good programs, and they’re going to be good.”

He said he is still assembling his staff, but he added that Tom Cornicelli and former Mineral Ridge coach Jim Pappada – who both worked with him at Liberty – have committed. Whittaker said he hasn’t yet decided on schemes for the offense and defense, but he said he may implement some new systems. At the same time, he could adopt similar terminology from what the Rams were used to last year.

“We’d like to make the transition from last year to this year as easy as possible,” he said. “It’s hard for the kids to learn a whole new language. We may be doing the same thing, but it’s called something different.

“The first thing we need to do is to get comfortable with each other and get to know each other a little bit, and as we do that, then we’ll be able to develop bonds of trust. It will come.”

That period could start a week from today when Whittaker returns from Florida, a place he can’t wait to leave.

No, seriously.

“Florida is beautiful right now, but I’m ready to get home,” said Whittaker before pausing and laughing. “You might want to ask me about that again in a week.”