Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by Larry Bennet
It was a quiet, late-June evening at Amherst's Memorial Field. A few joggers were getting in a workout on the track, and the field had just been lined for an upcoming seven-on-seven with Avon. It was a far cry from the packed stands that are prevalent there for Friday night football games.
Bill Fishleigh, who had just spent seven seasons as an assistant coach with the Eagles, was delving into his new job as the head football coach at Amherst. Hired in March, Fishleigh was still getting to know his new players and had just moved his family into the community.
With official practices now underway, the new Comet boss no doubt has a firm grasp on what's in store as the 2014 season approaches. But even back in June, Fishleigh had a good feel for what lied ahead.
Once one of the standout programs in the Southwestern Conference, the Amherst program has fallen on hard times. The Comets have won just four games over the past three seasons, going 1-9 in 2013. It was Fishleigh's job to get the program back on track and bring a culture of winning back to Comet Country.
"I think right now, the biggest uphill battle we're facing is getting the players' confidence up," Fishleigh said back in June. "It's getting them to realize they're pretty good athletes and they can actually be successful at this. We also want to make sure the staff is on the same page and moving forward in that facet too.
"Theres such a will to win here right now," he continued. "We just have to change the culture and show them that they can win. We're building up the foundation for that right now. A lot of stuff might not make a lot of sense to them right now, but it will in the long run."
Fishleigh, a graduate of Perry and John Carroll, played center and defensive tackle at Perry. After graduating, he spent three years coaching at his alma mater with current Avon coach Mike Elder. He also spent one season as an assistant coach at Case Western Reserve University.
While at Avon, Fishleigh was on a staff that led the Eagles to four straight West Shore Conference championships and numerous playoff appearances. In 2011, the Eagles advanced all the way to the Division II state championship game.
While getting his Comets to that lofty level may seem a bit ambitious, Fishleigh said he and his staff were able to start building that foundation during the summer months. His staff includes former Comet and assistant Avon coach Jay Lima, who will be co-defensive coordinator alongside former Comet head coach Don Richardson.
The rest of his staff for 2014 includes offensive coordinator Ryan O'Rourke, Mike Edwards (offensive line), John Pieschalski (defensive line), Mark Kelly (running backs/linebackers) and Tom Collette (receivers/special teams).
"It's been a lot about player development and getting that senior leadership in place," Fishleigh said. "It's been about having the confidence in all those little things that go into the kind of team makeup that will be successful. That's the number one thing we worked on this summer.
"I knew a lot about the job by talking to Jay, so there haven't been any real surprises," he said. " Right now, the school is in great academic standing. It's those little things like budgets and fundraising, working through things like that. People have been supportive, but it's a struggle to get back to square one with things like equipment, end zone cameras, headsets, things that as a coach, maybe you take for granted.
"But our players have been working their tails off fundraising, and so have their parents," he said.
On the field, Fishleigh hinted that his new team might not be all that far away from turning things around.
"Just from watching the program last year, Amherst is a blue collar community with a blue collar football team," he said.
"They go out there and smack people in the mouth. There were some games last year where they were shutting people down in the run game, but they'd give up the long bomb. It seemed like there was always that one play that didn't go their way.
"Coming in, we want to build things schematically. I'm not saying things weren't done the right way schematically before, we just want to make our players more sure of what we're doing here. We want to establish our philosophy on offense, find out who our playmakers are, get them into formations and give them plays they can be successful with."
"We're going to identify some guys who we want to get the ball to. Defensively, other than the game against Brecksville they were pretty sound. We're changing the scheme of it this year a bit. I think having Coach Richardson and Coach Lima blending their ideas together will get that accomplished," he said.
Fishleigh talked about both short term and long term goals for his program. His main short term goal concerned the Comets' Week One contest with Cleveland John Hay.
"Short term, Week One is huge," he said. "Getting that first win will do so much for a team's confidence. That's one short-term goal. We've got to get past that Week One goal.
"After that with our non-conference schedule, we've got to be 3-1 in my opinion. We've got Midview, John Hay, Elyria Catholic and Akron Ellet. Moving forward, the SWC is not easy. Last year at Avon, we almost lost to Olmsted Falls, which was having a down season. It's a tough league, and you can't take a break against any team on the schedule.
"So I think having confidence and moving forward into the league with a winning non-conference mark would be tremendous," he said.
Fishleigh then took a deeper look into what he envisions for his program.
"More long term, I don't want to say we're going to be 10-0 and things like that. But in the back of my mind, that's our goal," he said.
"We're going to come out and try to win a conference championship. If we do that, we're probably going to be in the playoffs. Realistically, we need to have a winning record. In my opinion, I truly think a high school team should go .500 or better. In my career, I've only been below .500 once, and that was when I was coaching in college.
"The guy I just just left, Mike Elder, he's only been there once too, and that was at Perry. I think high school teams with good coaching and at least average players, and we have above-average players here, can be successful. You need a little luck too..
"I really want to get that first win. We've got to get things started off on the right foot," he said.
Fishleigh went on to say that he learned something very important while working under Elder.
"The one thing Coach Elder has done at Avon is that he has great people around him," Fishleigh said. "He's an assistant principal and the head football coach, which is exactly the same situation I'm going into here.
"He told me on both ends of that spectrum, you've got to have great people around you. People who are loyal and are going to work their tails off. If you don't have that, you're going to fail because you get stretched too thin. I think that was his biggest piece of advice for me.
"Him knowing me as a person, he just said 'Bill, you've done a lot of things for me. You've seen a lot of different things. Have confidence, and be the coach you can be.'
"And the catch line from him and the other coaches was 'we hope you go 9-1 next year.' That's what everybody in the Avon community said. I told them I hope they go 9-1 too," he said with a laugh, referring to the Eagles joining the SWC in 2015.
On a personal note, Fishleigh said he's been impressed with what Amherst has presented so far.
"My wife and I just moved here, and it's been nothing but great things," he said. "I think meeting the parents and all the other people involved has just reassured me that I made the right decision," he said.
"The transition has been great. There were a lot of job openings in this area, but I didn't apply for any of the other ones. The reason why I went after this job is that I knew there were great people here. Jay was already here. On top of that, with the administration, I knew Mike May and Steve Sayers from actually interviewing here a year before for the athletic director job.
"And I got to know Casey Wolf (athletic director) through the process. There are just great people here, great people all around here in Amherst," he said.
(You can follow us on Twitter @BeAFanatic. and yes, we're there on Facebook too. Give our page a like: BeAFanatic.com.)