Wright is Leading the Indians to
New Heights

If you are over 30 and have followed Columbiana County high school football, you no doubt remember the Southern Indians football program being a bottom feeder for the rest of the TCL. Perhaps the low point for the program came in the 1993 season when a teacher’s strike forced them to cancel part of their season, which was followed by a forfeiture of their final game in 2004 due to a lack of players to field a team in week 10.

“They always had tough kids. The numbers were big. In my first year at Southern Local, we had close to fifty or sixty kids out on the team. And then the bottom just fell out. Maybe I was part of it,” Chuckled former Southern and now Columbiana head coach Bob Spaite.

“The TCL was very tough. Back then United was a top dog, and Springfield Jefferson was really good. Leetonia was really good too with Danny Guido and the Brooks brothers. Crestview was the worse team back then,” Spaite added. “Southern ended up sliding into that role. They became one of the bottom feeders for a while there.”

​Fast forward thirty years and the Indians are now arguably one of the best small school programs in Northeast Ohio, and currently the top one in Columbiana County. The program has seen steady improvement starting with Alex Alberts providing some much-needed stability with five years in the program, Dan Saling, who tragically passed away, followed, and then Michael Skrinjar had some league contenders. But since 2015, the trajectory of the Indians program has steadily skyrocketed.

“It shows that it can be done,” Lisbon and former Leetonia coach Matt Altomare remarked. “There weren’t many programs that were in worse shape than what Southern was. It shows that it can be done, not without hard work, effort, attitude, and a complete buy-in from the administration, the community, coaches, and players.”

That key event in 2015 was hiring former Beaver Local and Wellsville coach Rich Wright. Wright came to the Indians after cutting his coaching teeth at Beaver Local for fourteen years where he accumulated an impressive 83-66 record including six playoff appearances.

He would then take his talents to Wellsville where he quickly turned the Tigers program around with a successful two-year stint. The Tigers would enjoy back-to-back winning seasons and consecutive playoff appearances as he went 16-7 in his tenure there.

But with the Indians, Wright came into this season with 43 wins with 28 losses, capturing two shared and one outright league title along with four consecutive playoff appearances. It didn’t come easy as the Indians suffered through a 2-8 record in Wright’s first season. Followed by a 4-6 and 5-5 record in their next two season. The Indians eventually made a jump to 9-2 in 2018 and a playoff appearance.

​“It takes a good leader, and coach Wright is a good leader,” Altomare said. “It takes a good leader to help people see his vision and help it to come to fruition.”

“You’re going to see toughness,” Altomare described a Rich Wright-coached team. “A team that is gritty and a team that is going to leave it all out on the field. They play all 48 minutes.”

This season the Indians have improved week by week as they have won two playoff games for the first time in school history. Last week they knocked off the Norwalk St. Paul Flyers, who have won a state championship and appeared in four other state championship games. This week the Indians are set to play in their first regional semi-final against another regional power in the Warren JFK Eagles.

“What Rich has done is amazing,” Spate claims. “Nobody at Southern Local will have that record. For a long time, I had the longest tenure as a head coach at five years. It was a coaching graveyard for a while.”

The style of play has been relatively the same during Wright’s coaching career. A throwback to the Woody Hayes days with hard-nosed, old-style physical football. The Indians don’t do anything fancy. They run right at their opponent and try to wear them down while utilizing a swarming defense that hits just as hard as they do on offense.

“You’re going to see toughness,” Altomare described a Rich Wright-coached team. “A team that is gritty and a team that is going to leave it all out on the field. They play all 48 minutes.”

Spaite admires the way that Wright coaches, and in some ways, wishes he could emulate that style. A style in which his players are driven to play to their fullest.

​“Rich inspires his guys. I can’t describe it. They really truly believe that they are the badest cats in the valley,” Spaite said. “I think he preaches that it’s like us against the world. He gets kids to buy in at a level that I have never been able to.”

“It’s awesome to see,” Grodhaus remarked about the Indians’ success under Wright. “He has always preached culture, and team and they are finally bringing it all together...

One person who has first-hand experience playing for coach Wright is Cam Grothaus. Grodhaus is the record holder of receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns at Southern. Following his graduation in 2020, he is now a defensive back on the Lake Erie College Storm football team.

“It was definitely a different experience for me,” Grodhaus said. “He is really a player’s coach and he plays to the strength of his players. He gave us a lot of say in what we were doing which made us play even harder for him.”

Grodhaus has many fond memories of playing for Wright but what stands out to him was quite simple. A ritual that Grodhaus and teammate Jayce Sloan shared.

​“I would sit in the front of the bus with Jayce Sloan (for road games), and we would go over the game plan every week with coach Wright. It was one of those things where we didn’t want to say we were nervous, but it was how we all worked our nerves out before the game,” Grodhaus explained.

Altomare has been a good friend of Rich Wright for many years as Matt’s dad Artie and Rich Wright have spent many hours discussing the game of football. So, Matt has watched and admired the progress that Wright has enjoyed from Beaver Local to Southern.

“I’ve followed Rich pretty closely. From 23 years ago until now. The kids enjoy playing the game of football and enjoy playing for coach Wright,” Altomare stated. “I think he enjoys what he is doing on offense, and on defense. Running the buck sweep, running the trap. His plays haven’t changed too much but there are always some different wrinkles.”

​“It’s awesome to see,” Grodhaus remarked about the Indians’ success under Wright. “He has always preached culture, and team and they are finally bringing it all together, adding to the legacy at Southern Local. As a past player of coach Wright, to watch them keep climbing and winning playoff games is awesome.”