East players set sights on postseason date

The Panthers are 4-1 after the first half of their first season.



YOUNGSTOWN — For as long as he can remember, Gary Thornton’s life has revolved around football. Growing up as a coach’s son, Thornton literally grew up on the football field.

He remembers watching kids twice his age build the winning tradition of East High School football and longed to someday leave his own mark.

When the new East High was built, he was thrilled to know that he and his fellow classmates from The Rayen School would join with players from Wilson to become the newest team to represent a school that didn’t exist for the last nine years.

“It’s been a blast,” said Thornton, whose dad, Gary, is an assistant coach for East. “I was excited for the new start, the new colors and that we will be the first class to play football and graduate from the new school.

“It’s like déjà vu for me and my dad,” Thornton said. “I grew up running around on that field and now I’m practicing on it. We get to carry on the tradition from when East was real good. I’m excited that I get to end my football career where it started.”

4-1 start

Thornton reflects on the past a lot and uses what he’s seen and experienced to his advantage in order to help his team win. So far, so good, as East heads into the second half of the season at 4-1 and with the opportunity to make the playoffs.

As a running back, he tries to mold himself after his boyhood idol P.J. Mays, a former All-American at Youngstown State University and pro player with the San Diego Chargers.

After watching Mays dazzle at East, then at YSU, Thornton hoped to follow in his footsteps some day.

“No other running back existed in my mind,” Thornton said. “He was so smooth and was so quick with his feet.

“I longed to have those moves. I saw him shake off eight guys, spin past two more and high step into the end zone. That’s when I knew I wanted to play football.

While Thornton has been a big part of East High’s success in the first half of the season, he has had plenty of help from his friends. The team is very dangerous on offense with so many weapons and a solid offensive line.

Division I talent

Senior Sal Battles is the second half of East’s dynamic duo. Rotating between quarterback and running back, he likes the pressure of being one of the best players on the field.

“I like the pressure of knowing that teams are trying to stop me,” said Battles, who is a Division I college recruit. “I’ve always had that passion for football and just try to push forward and get better.

“I’m kind of a quiet type, but when it’s crunch time I’ll speak up,” Battles said. “If I get jacked up and tell the guys we have to get it done, then they know it’s important. We’ve been winning so it’s been fun so far.”

What Battles has enjoyed the most about East’s season so far is the emphasis on the team — not the individuals.

Despite a second-half schedule that includes Warren Harding and a tough Canton Central Catholic squad, he thinks East can accomplish its goal of making the Division II playoffs.

“We just have to stay together as a team,” Battles said. “Last year when we fell behind in games, we just fell apart. But this year we are staying together as a unit and patting each other on the back and not putting each other down.

“After a game, I go into the locker room and grab my cell phone and text stuff to the other guys like ‘good run or good blocking.’ We’re doing well so far.”


East coach Brian Shaner knows the road to the postseason will be tough, but he’s content with putting the season in the capable hands of Thornton, Battles and their teammates.

“It’s been fun to see these kids succeed because they’ve worked so hard and deserve it,” Shaner said.

“I think both Sal and Gary would tell you that our success has been predicated on the offensive line play,” Shaner said. “It’s the best I’ve had since coaching at Rayen and now East.

“We just can’t get complacent. Our goal was to make the playoffs and this senior group has to step up and make that happen.”