By Dave Morrison
HICO — Midland Trail coach Frank Isaacs was a typical Patriots player back in his day.
Small by football standards, weighing in at about 135 pounds. Much too small to be playing on the defensive line. Except he did just that as a sophomore.
Injuries forced him to change positions, moving to nose guard, and the result was an all-state career.
Coach Jim Martin, one of the all-time greats in a county that had more than its share of great coaches, once called Isaacs “pound for pound the best player in the state.”
All these years later, Trail is building them the same.
I think my story is right along those same lines with what we are doing now,” Isaacs said. “We aren’t that big but we are physical and we are strong.”
Isaacs recently spoke at a coaching clinic put on by Coalfields and Co.
He wasn’t speaking Xs and Os but building a program.
He was in his comfort zone.
In five years at Midland Trail Isaacs has put together a program that is 39-17. In the last three seasons Trail has made the Class A playoffs.
Three years ago the Patriots made it to the second round. Two years ago Trail went all the way to the semifinals for the first time in school history, after an undefeated regular season. The 12 wins was a school record.
Maybe the most obvious example of the program Isaacs has built came last year after a 6-5 record that ended with a loss to East Hardy in the playoffs.
The Patriots started the campaign with five would-be starters out with injuries for the season. By the East Hardy playoff game eight starters were sidelined.
Isaacs was expecting a team that could make another run at a deep playoff run.
“I thought we had a team that could make a run at the championship game but injuries really bit us last year,” Isaacs said. “What it did was allow us to play a lot of kids that had to step up probably a year before they were ready.”
To lose eight players and make a playoff run is impressive at any level.
To do it at the Class A is nearly unheard of, but can be attributed to the program that Isaacs is building at Midland Trail.
How has he done it?
Obviously, like most of his coaching brethren, it starts in the weight room.
These days that’s not as easy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Midland Trail players literally took the job home with them.
“On the last day we were together, when we found out we would be shutting down, we told the kids to take the weights home with them,” Isaacs said. “Whatever they could fit in their cars.
“Obviously, everyone is going through the same thing, and this year is going to be different. Whenever I see a workout the kids can do at home, I’ll send it out to them.”
The weight training is important for a small team.
“We like to think we are the more physical team when we take the field,” Isaacs said. “We might be the biggest team. We won’t be outworked.”
*Ability to change positions
Isaacs didn’t start out wanting to be a nose guard when he came to the school.
But he had the ability to switch and ended up being ready to play, even when he thought he wasn’t. It’s a story that has been told before.
“I remember coach Martin calling on me and going in the game against Independence (the season opener his sophomore year), and I was nervous,” Isaacs said telling the story a couple years ago. “I rushed the quarterback and I got blocked and I fell on the back of the quarterbacks leg.”
He laughed at the memory.
“Hey, I got credited with a sack.”
The same holds true in his program.
“You might not play the position you want to play but by golly your gonna be on the field,”
By Class A standards, the Patriots 42-player team is huge.
Other area Class A schools have had trouble filling the roster that full over years..
“We are fortunate to have a roster that size,” Isaacs said. “Midland Trail is a football school. Kids come up wanting to play high school football. We had 28 players letter last season. A lot of Class A schools don’t have 28 players on their roster.”
Since 2016 the program has had over 40 players (41 in 2016, 48 in 2017, 52 in 2018, 51 in 2019 and 42 last year).
Midland Trail once had the benefit of two feeder programs until Nuttall Middle School closed over a decade ago.
But the Patriots have a top notch youth league in the New Haven Patriots.
“Back in my days we had the New River Cowboys, now it’s the New RIver Patriots and those guys are doing a great job with that program. They’ve had over 100 kids involved,” Isaacs said. “I know in the past they had to turn players away because they simply had too many players.”
*Player role models
Back in the day, before every game was on television and social media made player opinions national knowledge – also known as social branding – the local Friday Night Lights players were community heroes.
In some places, it remains to this day.
“Back when I was playing I had John Dixon,” Isaacs said. “These kids look up to the guys ahead of them. A couple years ago, when we had the Great Wall of Hico offensive line, those guys behind them looked up to those guys. Now they are in the situation where they have young guys looking at them. Our backs used to look at Thomas Ferris like that and it gets passed down. It’s really a cool thing to watch.”
Isaacs said he likes to share responsibility for what they have been able to accomplish with the guys he sees every day.
“I have a lot of great assistants who are all-in on building the program and who make my job a lot easier,” Isaacs said. “These guys believe in the program and believe in what we are doing and believe in our kids.”
There are Class A programs built to last over years. Many are private schools with the advantage of being able to bring in good players. Moorefield had a long run a decade ago, a program that was built to replace and not rebuild by Alan Fiddler. That program won six titles in eight years between 1996-2003 and played in every Class A title game in that span.
In fact, Isaacs said he wanted to be seen in the same light as a Wheeling Central, long a power in Class A with three straight Class A championships.
“When I got this job I wanted to build a program that would compete right away and eventually play for a state championship,” Isaacs said. “We want to mentioned with that kind of teams,the Wheeling Centrals, who are there every year.”
He has certainly laid the framework.
With those injuries of a year ago, the Patriots return eight players on offense and nine on defense.
Isaacs has developed a program that is built to last.