Springfield athletic director: ‘You’ve got to believe, and you’ve got to climb that ladder every day’

South grad Dellapina long believed a combined Springfield High School would have great potential, and that school plays for the state championship Friday

Mike Dellapina played offensive guard for some solid teams at South High School in Springfield.

“We had winning records every year,” said Dellapina, who’s been the athletic director at Springfield High School since 2013. “I think we were 7-3 pretty much every season. We had some really tough battles with Centerville year in and year out. We had a first team All-Ohio running back in Bucky Vance, and we had Steve Morgan, who was a record-setting back at Toledo, on our team when I was a sophomore. We had some really strong squads, but we could just never get over that hump.”

South did not make the playoffs during Dellapina’s high school career. It was much harder to reach the postseason then. There were only five divisions, as opposed to the seven there are now. Only eight teams from each division, 40 in all, earned playoff berths. It’s more difficult to not make the playoffs these days with 16 teams from 28 regions — or 448 of the 709 football-playing schools — qualifying in 2021.

It’s still hard to win a state championship, however, and Dellapina knows what doing so would mean to his hometown. The No. 5 Springfield Wildcats (13-1) play No. 3 Lakewood St. Edward (14-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Division I state final at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.

“It’s amazing,” Dellapina said. “Every kid that ever plays high school sports, aspires to play for a state championship. I’m now in my 29th year as an athletic director. It takes a magical combination of things to happen to put yourself in contention for a state title in any sport. The schools that are able to do it on a semi-frequent basis, I have a lot of respect for them.”

No Clark County team has won a state championship since the playoff era began in 1972, though the original Springfield High School claimed titles in 1933 when it beat 11 opponents by a combined score of 315-7 and 1952 when it finished 10-0 with a 340-39 scoring margin.

This state championship game appearance is a moment years in the making for Springfield, the high school built when North and South merged in 2008. Long before that, Dellapina wondered what one Springfield High School could do on the football field, even though North was going through a downturn during his high school days. The two schools were one school until splitting up in 1960.

“They had really good players over there,” Dellapina said. “It was just one of those things. In any given year, when you looked at the kids at North and you looked at the kids at South, there were a lot of people that grew up in Springfield that said, ‘Man, if we could ever put these group of kids together, we’d be unstoppable.’ And if you look at some of the successes that both schools had, it certainly could lend support to that argument.”

South made three playoff appearances in its history (1996, 2000 and 2002) and went 3-3. North made the playoffs twice (1988 and 1992) and went 1-2.

In 2007, the last football season for North and South, the Panthers finished 3-7, and the Wildcats were 1-9. Rick Robertson, a former head coach at North and Fairmont, was named the head coach of the new school in December 2007, and the new Wildcats first competed in the 2008 season.

Springfield finished 4-6 in 2008 but improved to 6-5 the following season and made the playoffs for the first time. Led by Alabama recruit Trey DePriest, the Wildcats returned to the playoffs in 2010 and beat Hilliard Darby 22-7 for their first playoff victory before losing 9-0 to Hilliard Davidson.

Springfield then hit a rough patch, finishing 2-8 in 2011, 1-9 in 2012 and 1-9 in 2013. After winning a total of four games in three seasons, Springfield hired Maurice Douglass, who built his alma Trotwood-Madison into a state power and won a state championship in 2011.

“I knew Maurice previously,” Dellapina said, “and and when we were faced after my first year with finding a new head coach, he was honestly on my short list of people to contact because ironically enough, my first AD job was at Trotwood, so we have a common friend, one of my college teammates, and a good friend of mine, Mike Jones.”

Jones went to high school with Douglass and went to college at Wittenberg with Dellapina. They both played football for the Tigers.

“It was just one of those connections,” Dellapina said. “We had some really good candidates in the mix, but Maurice has an ability to connect and relate with kids and to really get them to believe in the possibilities of what they could be if they apply themselves. It was a good fit, and I think it really appealed to our kids because we were not in a good place at that time. We had had some really rough seasons, even though when the school first combined they did have some successful seasons under Rick Robertson. And when (Douglass) left a very successful program at his alma mater to come here, our kids’ first question was like, ‘Well, why would he do that?’ I think the belief part is the big part of it. He believed in the potential that Springfield had and made our kids believe, and that’s led to the success.”

Douglass turned down an opportunity to coach defensive backs at Vanderbilt to take the Springfield job.

“It would have been very selfish for me to take a job like that,” Douglass said in 2014. ”In my heart, God was telling me about the young men and women I would have the opportunity to work with at Springfield. They’re the same kids we had at Trotwood, who are in need of some guidance and structure. In my 13 years at Trotwood, we did some special things. But the need and the cry of the kids here in Springfield, when I walked into the building the first time in December, I knew this is where I was supposed to be at.”

Like at Trotwood-Madison, it took time for Douglass to build a winner at Springfield, which finished 2-8 in his first season and 3-7 in his second. Douglass figured it would take three years to find success, and that turned out to be the case.

Springfield finished 7-4 in 2016 and returned to the playoffs. It missed the playoffs in 2017 with a 6-4 mark but won a playoff game in 2018 for the first time in the Douglass era, beating Fairmont 19-14 in the first round. In the last three seasons, it is 11-2 in the playoffs. One more victory would prove what Dellapina and others believed years ago about the potential of a merged high school.

“As a kid growing up in Springfield with friends that went to North attending South, I was always one of those kids that believed very strongly in how strong our programs could be if we ever combined,” Dellapina said. “I’d heard about the the previous Springfield High School teams before the North and South split. It was really that fascination with the merger and the prospects of what could be that led me to take this job to begin with because I was always a believer. I think that when you’re doing anything athletically, and striving to reach the top, it starts with belief, and that’s what I’ve tried to instill in my coaches and preach to our kids. You’ve got to believe, and you’ve got to climb that ladder every day.”

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