CHARLOTTESVILLE – Less than a decade after leading perennial high school football power Cathedral to a state championship, Jim O’Hara is at it again.
It’s different at Eastern Hancock. Not better. Not worse. Just different. O’Hara, 56, knew that when he took the job in December 2013. Eastern Hancock, while no stranger to football success (it won a state title in 1985, appeared in the Class A state finals two years ago and owns 10 sectional titles), isn’t known for producing football talent like Cathedral.
But the job seems to suit O’Hara, whose 2A second-ranked Royals (10-0) play at No. 8 Howe (7-3) in a Sectional 38 semifinal showdown on Friday.
“It’s trust and love,” O’Hara said of the keys to Eastern Hancock’s success. “You win on the practice field. We’re not all the way there yet. But the kids have started to trust each other.”
And they trust him. Austin Smith, a senior receiver with 724 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches, attributes most of the team’s success to a belief in one another and the system.
And the four-letter word that most high school kids have a difficult time saying.
“We love each other now,” Smith said. “(O’Hara) put a big emphasis on brotherhood, and we have each other’s backs. We believe in what he’s saying and he knows how to get our attention.”
Senior outside linebacker Owen Hunt put it in other words, in the most loving way possible. “He’s a crazy old guy,” Hunt said of O’Hara. “But he knows how to connect to us.”
Spending a lunch hour with O’Hara offers insight into his relationship with his players and students. When a visitor takes a seat near his desk in the weight room, he tells his students his probation officer has arrived for their monthly visit.
One-liners and quips like this are the norm. When his players are asked about them, they glance at one another and laugh.
“He’s comical,” senior linebacker Cole Cochard said. “I think we could write a list down and give it to you.”
O’Hara didn’t necessarily expect the career arc that has taken him to Eastern Hancock, a rural school of 416 students at the latest Indiana High School Athletic Association classification. O’Hara was a standout quarterback at Cathedral, playing on the 1976 3A state runner-up team (there were three classes at the time) and went on to help the University of Dayton to the 1980 NCAA Division III national title.
He returned to Cathedral as an assistant coach and helped the Irish to state titles in 1986, ’96, ’98 and ’99, sandwiched around a span as head coach at Hamilton Southeastern from 1988-93. O’Hara was named head coach at Cathedral in 2002 and stayed for six seasons, until a ruptured disc in his back caused him to resign after the ’07 season.
After working four years in sporting goods sales, O’Hara worked as an assistant at Noblesville in 2012 and Anderson in ’13 as he went back to school to renew his teaching license. O’Hara compared the difference from Cathedral to Eastern Hancock as “going from a football factory to a mom-and-pop pizza shop.”
Again, not better or worse. Just different.
“I’m older and wiser,” he said. “I’ve downsized. At Cathedral we’d practice 2½ hours, come in on Saturdays and watch tape. It was a lot. Here, the coaches don’t meet on the weekends and the kids don’t come in. I realized we don’t need to do all that to be successful.”
O’Hara admits he walked into a stable situation at Eastern Hancock. Pat Echeverria, a former Pike assistant and current Zionsville coach, led Eastern Hancock to steady improvement over three seasons, culminating with a 14-1 season and Class A state final appearance in 2013. The Royals lost 20-10 to Tri-Central in the state championship, but the program was on solid ground.
“We got along really well with ‘Coach Ech,’ ” Smith said. “He was a little younger coach. He acted like us in a way, I guess. We related well to him.”
O’Hara credits Echeverria with laying the groundwork for a successful transition. After starting 1-2 last year, the Royals finished 10-3 and won the sectional before bowing out to Lutheran 21-19 in a Class A regional.
The program moved up to 2A this year and hit the ground running to win the Mid-Indiana Football Conference. Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Lewis has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,583 yards and 18 TDs, junior running back Devin Denny has rushed for 1,280 yards and 13 TDs, and senior fullback Matt Bowman has 577 rushing yards and 496 receiving. The defense is allowing just 11.4 points a game and has shut out its past two opponents and three of four.
O’Hara has about 60 players on the team, up from 45 when he arrived. That has allowed him to platoon players on offense and defense, a luxury most programs in 2A don’t have.
“Defensively, we don’t have any superstars,” O’Hara said. “We just have 11 kids who fly to the ball and have each other’s backs.”
The Royals are small but quick.
“A guy I worked for this summer said you have to be quick to run from cornfield to cornfield like we do,” Hunt said. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of corn and bean fields.”
On Friday, it’ll be something of a homecoming for O’Hara. He grew up near Tech High School and used to run the bleachers and track at Howe when he was home from college to stay in shape.
“It’s a beautiful school,” he said.
But there’s little time to get sentimental. Howe is loaded with talent, especially at the skill positions. Sophomore quarterback Justin Johnson has passed for 1,312 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 463 yards and nine TDs. Juniors Tyrell Phelps (1,113 rushing yards, 20 TDs) and Dontea Henderson (774 receiving yards, 582 rushing) are dynamic playmakers.
Howe’s three losses are by a combined 14 points and all to larger schools.
“We have to swarm to the ball and not give up the big play,” Cochard said. “We’re excited. We’ve played good teams but not with the speed and athletes that Howe has.”
O’Hara has a different perspective than he did a decade ago at Cathedral, in more ways than one. During games, he coaches upstairs from the box overlooking the field instead of on the sideline. It gives him a better viewpoint of the game and offers relief for his bad back.
“I tried it and now I love it,” he said. “When you win, you get superstitious and don’t want to change a thing. So we’ve kept the same routine. It’s a little different.”
Different in a good way.
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.