TRI-COUNTY LEAGUE Protopapa may have found a home



The coach wants stability in his career and continued success on the field.
By MATT BIXENSTINE
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
EAST PALESTINE -- Football coach John Protopapa's high school coaching career has been enduring, successful -- and anything but stationary.
Since he took his first varsity coaching job in 1986, Protopapa's resume resembles that of a journeyman.
Tallmadge, Youngstown East, Poland, Rayen, Struthers, Campbell, Canfield, Girard and Lowellville. Protopapa has been at each as either head coach, defensive coordinator or a position coach in 17 seasons.
Now entering his 10th varsity coaching job and first year at East Palestine High School, Protopapa may have finally found a home.
"I would hope so," he said. "It's time for me to settle into a situation."
Good opportunity
Protopapa said the opportunity both to coach and teach at East Palestine is appealing. He taught in the Youngstown City School District for 17 years -- usually while coaching elsewhere.
"It makes a big difference to see the kids on a regular basis," he said. "[At East Palestine] I'll always be around, rather than just at games and practices."
Protopapa was hired in March to replace Brian Blevins, who left to coach at Kettering Fairmont in greater Dayton.
"It's a big adjustment," said Mitch Cyrus, senior offensive/defensive linemen. "You prepare yourself for anything to happen, and we just happen to have a great coach filling Blevin's shoes, who will pick [the program] up and run with it."
The 41-year-old coach takes the helm of a team that went 10-2 last season en route to a Tri-County League Championship. East Palestine recorded its first-ever playoff win, beating Division IV playoff opponent Black River, but has since suffered major graduation losses.
The Bulldogs have just five returning starters and nine lettermen.
"That's one of the reasons I came here," he said. "I like the idea of a challenge with a young team."
Nothing new
Protopapa has faced this challenge before. In 2000, he took over a young team at Lowellville, ultimately leading the Rockets to their first playoff win and an 11-1 mark last season. Many of Protopapa's former players from his first season at Lowellville are seniors this year.
"It was very difficult to leave [Lowellville], especially because I'd basically grown up with the kids there," he said.
Protopapa now has a similar task of nurturing his East Palestine players' development. He will have to do so without quarterback Smitty Kendrew and running back/linebacker J.D. Powers, both All-Ohio players who have graduated.
Protopapa said the Bulldogs will compensate inexperience and lack of size -- only six of his players are more than 200 pounds -- with speed, athleticism and some strategy.
While the Bulldog's defensive game plan will remain largely the same, its offensive focus will shift from passing to running, defensive coordinator Jim Young said.
Junior Brett Young and sophomore Zac Dunn will vie for playing time at quarterback.
Senior tight end/defensive end Andrew Reeves, who played quarterback last season, said the team's seniors want to prove themselves.
"We want to do just as well as we did last year and build on that if we can," Reeves said.
mbixenstine@vindy.com