COLUMBIANA-When the Columbiana football team walked off the field last Oct. 5, the Clippers had just completed a hard-fought 14-7 win over Leetonia to move their record to 6-1. The players and coaches could hardly have imagined what was coming next.
The following week, a rash of skill-position injuries finally caught up to the Clippers in a 20-8 loss to Lowellville. Two more losses (to McDonald and Western Reserve) followed to close out the year, and 2013 did not bring immediate relief. With new faces all over the roster, Columbiana lost its first four games-stretching the losing streak to seven-before blowing out Southern 36-6 last Friday to snap the skid. It was nearly a year to the day since their last win.
"Any win at this stage is a big win," Columbiana coach Bob Spaite said. "There is no question that we've struggled. We began the year with so much inexperience while also trying to implement a new offense. Last week, I felt we began to put it together. It would have been great to have started off week one like we are playing now."
The recent rough patch has only magnified the program's consistency over the years.
The last time Columbiana dropped seven in a row was the fall of 1990 when they lost four straight to start the season after a four game losing streak to end 1989.
This year's 0-4 start was Columbiana's worst since 1998. Spaite hasn't had a losing season since 1996 when the Clippers went 4-6. Given that track record, the past year has been a tough one for the 20-year head coach to take.
"It was hard for me to swallow," Spaite said. "Going into last week's game the streak was starting to weigh on the coaching staff. I don't think it was on the players' minds as much as ours. We felt we gave two games away earlier this year and just could have played better overall. It felt great to break through."
Spaite entered this season knowing he was facing perhaps the toughest challenge of his career. On offense, the Clippers needed to replace nearly 100 percent of their production from 2012. Senior R.J. Rankin was the only returning player with any varsity carries or receptions. Freshman Mitch Davidson won a four-way battle in training camp to take the reins at quarterback, becoming the first freshman ever to start under center for Spaite. Defensively, in addition to breaking in three new linebackers, the Clippers also had three starting defensive backs who had never taken a varsity snap.
"This is probably the most inexperienced football team I have ever coached," Spaite said. "We have a whole bunch of players in key spots for us who have, for one reason or another, never played varsity football before. Except for the lines, there were huge holes all over the place."
The result was a disjointed start to the year in which the Clippers played well for stretches, but made critical mental errors down the stretch in one-point losses to Bridgeport and Leetonia. The back-to-back defeats caused tensions to spill over in a locker room unaccustomed to such frustration. Two days after falling to the Bears, a team meeting was called where many issues were ironed out.
"After the Leetonia game there was some locker room friction," senior linebacker Steve Kurilla said. "The meeting was great because there were some arguments that needed settled. We got some things figured out and since then we've been more on the same page as a team."
Though Columbiana fell 35-7 to Steubenville Central a week later, senior lineman Mike Buzzard saw a noticeable change. In their conference opener, the Clippers held Inter-Tri County League upper tier contender Springfield scoreless for three quarters before falling late 9-0. Their first win followed a week later.
"Tempers were starting to flare after the Leetonia game, but the week after that was a turning point for us," Buzzard said. "Defensively, I feel we are getting better and better each week. We aren't hesitating anymore and are doing a better job being instinctive and flying to the ball."
The offense, behind Davidson has also been progressing. The freshman had the best performance of his young career against Southern Local, rushing for 147 yards and throwing for 151 more.
"I'm proud of Mitch. He's done a lot better than I thought he would," Kurilla said. "He is very smart and has a lot of athletic ability. He's also stepped in and been a great leader for us."
At 1-4, the Clippers are well out of playoff contention, but the players and coaches feel this team can still leave a mark on Columbiana's proud history.
"I think we are a lot better than our record," Buzzard said. "We didn't play to the best of our abilities early in the season, but we're coming along every week. The rest of the year I don't think we should be looked at as a typical 1-4 team."