To be successful in high school sports, four criteria must be in place: Quality facilities, coaching consistency, talented athletes and a youth program.
In Middletown, where the district renovated Barnitz Stadium and built a state-of-art Wade E. Miller Arena on the high school campus, facilities can’t be blamed for the two worst football and boys basketball seasons in the school’s once-proud athletic history.
The football team, under Lance Engleka, who resigned after two seasons citing death threats he received on social media, finished 0-10 in 2016 and 1-9 in 2017.
The boys basketball team — for a school that has won seven state titles, but none since 1957 — was 8-16 last season and 6-16 this season heading into the Division I tournament.
Add up those two-year records of the football and boys basketball teams — the district’s marque teams — and you get 15 wins, 51 losses, a .227 winning percentage. After reviewing records for the last century, that appears to be the worst two-year, win-loss mark in Middletown High School history.
The Middie Magic, it seems, has vanished. And there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Let’s start with the coaching staffs. Middletown used to be known for its long-tenured coaches, but of late, it’s been more like a coaching carousel. There have been three football and three basketball coaches in the last five seasons.
Supporters of the program and MHS athletic director Aaron Zupka believe Darnell Hoskins, who’s completing his second season, and first-year football coach Don Simpson were the proper hires.
Lynn Darbyshire, a member of the selection committee, has been impressed by Hoskins, Hoskins’ assistant and former Dayton Dunbar coach Pete Pullen and former Miami University Middletown coach Jim Sliger, who is the freshmen coach.
“We got it right,” Darbyshire said. “Things are in place.”
But to be truly successful, these coaches — all coaches — need talented players, especially to compete in the powerful Greater Miami Conference with the likes of Colerain, Princeton, Lakota East, Lakota West and Mason.
Middletown used to churn out Division I players every year. At one time, five former Middies started on the Ohio State University football team and rosters of Division I college basketball teams were littered with Middies.
But the Middies haven’t produced a Division I basketball player since Vince Edwards signed with Purdue four years ago. Jalin Marshall, a wide receiver for the New York Jets, was the last Middie to earn a scholarship at OSU in 2014.
So where did all the players go? Middletown, once the largest school in the GMC, now has an enrollment of about 1,500, the lowest of the 10 schools in the league. The largest school, Mason, has about 3,500 students.
The biggest reason for the Middies’ athletic struggles appears to be its lack of a youth program.At one time, Middletown offered youth baseball and football leagues, but over the years, as interest waned, those leagues folded and the fields were converted for soccer. There are no baseball diamonds at Smith Park, the city’s largest park, and the youth football games have been moved to Douglass Park.
When was the last time you saw a pick-up basketball game at Douglass Park or Sunset Park?
“It’s painful at times,” said Lynn Darbyshire, a member of the selection committee for Middletown coaches who has attended most of the boys basketball games. “We are not prepared at this level to be competitive.”
For that to change, the district must retain students and attract families, Zupka said. Middletown certainly benefited when the Carter family (Butch, Cris, John, George) and Edwards family (Bill Jr. and Vince) moved to the Middletown area. More athletes are leaving Middletown than enrolling.
Zupka also wants the varsity coaches to get more involved at the lower levels.
“We have to offer more support to organizations and kids,” said Zupka, who has instructed his coaches to provide youth camps and skill development opportunities. “We got the facilities and we need to use our facilities to get kids to our doors, to engage kids at a younger level. We got to get the kids earlier. That’s our biggest challenge. Building that consistency from the bottom up. Shame on us. We got to do a better job. That’s a point of emphasis.”
He called them “gaps in areas of opportunities.”
If the athletic department does “one thing right” in the next few years, it will “get that youth infrastructure together,” Zupka said.
Then he allowed: “If we don’t take care of that it will not change.”
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