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Canton McKinley Preview- Brinson, Jones & Hight




McKinley High School senior Ryan Brinson is a three-year starter for the Bulldogs. Their team has won three games each of the past two seasons, and they have this final chance to go out on a winning note.

McKinley players hope to turn back the clock

CANTON -- The emotion poured out.

Laughter. Tears. Triumphant yells.

Finally, the players on the McKinley High School football team tasted a meaningful victory. The Bulldogs savored every second of their 40-8 romp over archrival Massillon to close the 2003 season.

“It meant a lot to the kids, and I want them to feel that way every week, not just one week of the season,” McKinley head coach Brian Cross said.

One week was all the Bulldogs got to enjoy last season. For the seniors on this season’s McKinley team — guys who have endured back-to-back 3-7 seasons — that will not be nearly enough this fall.

“That (Massillon) game showed everybody we can come together as a team and get it done and be very dominant,” said senior tailback-safety Ryan Brinson, who is on pace to become the school’s career rushing leader. “There’s always another level that a team doesn’t know they have unless someone pushes them to it. I think we’re finally getting to that. The coaches are pushing us hard, and we’ve started to work hard and want it more.”

With 14 lettermen back, including several highly-regarded players who began their varsity careers as sophomores, these Bulldogs appear eager to turn things around. They enter the Federal League and hope to return the program to its winning ways.

McKinley will be led by a veteran cast that includes Brinson, receiver-cornerback Brad Jones and quarterback Mike Shaffer, all in their third year as starters. Brinson and Jones are receiving plenty of recruiting interest from Division I colleges, as is senior defensive end-tight end Antwon Hight.

That gives McKinley a strong core. But things will change only with a total team effort.

“I’m tired of losing,” Jones said. “Growing up, it wasn’t even a game when McKinley played some teams. A lot of guys want to get that back. Where teams come into Fawcett Stadium and they’re scared to play us, or when we go on the road and come into their house and guys are second-guessing why they’re playing us.”

Jones grew up attending all of McKinley’s games, cheering for cousins who played on powerhouse teams.

“A lot of my older cousins have said we’re starting to let the tradition die,” Jones said. “Hearing that really feels bad. To think others have built up this tradition, and we’re letting it go. We’ve got to get it back.”

Five seasons have passed since the Bulldogs won back-to-back Division I state championships in 1997-98.

Jones watched those McKinley teams several times.

“I remember just ... thinking, ‘How much are they going to win by,’ and how excited I was to watch those guys play football,” Jones said. “I saw how confident they always were and the little things they did right.”

Those teams carried a swagger that gradually has left the Bulldogs. In five seasons since, the program has had three head coaches, two playoff trips (1999, 2001) and three losing seasons.

Gone is the invincibility McKinley once felt over Federal League teams. The Bulldogs have lost seven straight against their new league rivals after dominating those teams throughout the years.

“None of those teams are going to lay down and let us roll over them. They’ve proven that the last two years,” Brinson said. “We’ve got to respect those teams and play hard. People thought we’d just take it easy, they’d be scared. That’s not what happened. We should never have let it happen.”

Cross said the only way to change things is with “the right attitude and work ethic.”

“We have enough talent to get things turned around,” he said. “It’s all about attitude and work ethic.”

That work ethic, according to some seniors, is coming around.

“This is the hardest I’ve seen any of my teams work,” said Mike Shaffer, a three-year starter at quarterback. “We’re more together than any other team I’ve been around.”

Shaffer said this is becoming a team that works its “butt off” in the weight room and in practice but still has fun together.

“The past two years, no one had any fun,” Shaffer said. “There were clashes, little cliques ... I can’t even describe how different everything’s been, enthusiasm-wise, attitude-wise, people actually showing up and working hard. It’s just completely different.”

Jones said the seniors tried to lead by example in addition to being more vocal.

“It shows out on the field,” he said, “when you have good senior leaders who are fired up and are ready to go.”

McKinley hoped to get things turned around last year when Cross took over. He came to Canton after a 16-year run at Grove City in suburban Columbus, where his teams went 114-55, winning eight league titles and going 10-0 four times.

But after a 2-0 start against overmatched, out-of-state competition, the season began to fade with two tough road losses. A 26-12 loss at Marion Harding in Week 3 was followed the next week by a tougher loss, 24-23, in overtime at Jackson. McKinley never pulled out of the downward spiral until routing Massillon 40-8 in Week 10.

“I think we lacked a lot of confidence, especially with new coaches and a new system,” Shaffer said. “People weren’t sure what they were doing, and there was a lot of hesitation.”

Shaffer sees little hesitation this season. Brinson also sees a team that knows who is in charge.

“I think coach Cross is more comfortable here and is doing stuff his way,” Brinson said. “He’s running the program the way he wants to, and he pushes us to the point where knows we can get it done. I think I’m working a lot harder this year.”

Brinson enters the season with 2,367 career yards, leaving him 581 yards shy of Adrian Brown’s all-time McKinley record of 2,948. Brinson could be the first McKinley back with three 1,000-yard seasons. But he wants more than just individual rushing records.

“We’ve got to come out every game like it’s the Massillon game,” Brinson said. “I’m playing out there like I’m looking at orange and black every game.”

Shaffer said this team is “hungry to show people that we’re going to be back.”

That hunger is a start. Cross, though, needs to see that hunger every play, every day if the Bulldogs are to restore their tradition.

“At Canton McKinley, the goal is to always make the playoffs,” Cross said. “But what I want to do now is for them to learn to compete one-on-one and as a team, and to learn to overcome adversity in football. If we do that ... we’d have an opportunity to compete for a playoff spot.”