O’Neill eager to change Avon Grove’s fortunes

Harry OíNeill steps into the Avon Grove job stressing defense and toughness. Nate Heckenberger — 21st Century Media
Avon Grove watches its JV players at a scrimmage at Octorara. Chris Barber — Avon Grove Sun

London grove >> The Avon Grove football program has a bit of an identity problem.

The combination of being the 47th biggest school in the PIAA (out of 582 schools) and being born in 2002 has created a tricky mesh of expectations.

Is Avon Grove a big school and thus, expected to compete with the other big boys around the Ches-Mont League? Or is Avon Grove a 13-year old program that needs to mature before hanging with the Downingtowns and Coatesvilles on a yearly basis is a reasonable goal?

Harry O’Neill became the Red Devils’ fifth head coach in its history back in the spring and it’s his task now to convert size into substance.

“I know what I expect and I expect to compete on a weekly basis,” O’Neill said. “I think it’s a completely different atmosphere around here. We’re the 19th biggest school in District 1 and third biggest in the Ches-Mont and we need to start acting like it. I’m not good with ‘whoa is me, we’re Avon Grove, we can’t win.’ I don’t live that way.”

O’Neill has taken the long road to West Grove, with his last stop, an eight-year run, at Unionville High. The past three seasons he served as the Indians’ defensive coordinator, leading them to a top-three finish in points allowed last season.

“I told the kids if they give me effort and attitude, I’ll fix the football stuff,” O’Neill said. “They’ve been over and above with their effort and attitude. I thought they might fight me as a new coach, but they’ve jumped all the way in and it’s been awesome.”

With his Delaware County roots and blue-collar careers, O’Neill carries with him a no-nonsense demeanor that becomes quite evident soon after meeting him. Kids buy into him because he’s honest and real, and while he’s happy to keep the mood light, things need to be done the right way or O’Neill will let you know about it.

“He seems like he’s all business,” Avon Grove senior lineman Kyle Speer said. “I think he’s got us going in a good way.”

That sort of tough love may be just what the Red Devils need. The team has dealt with more of transfers (think Brendan McLaughlin and J. T. Blyden) than it’s celebrated winning seasons. Minus the 2009 team with Jordan Harris, McLaughlin and Brandon Monk in the backfield, leading to a three-way share of the National Division title, Avon Grove has struggled to find wins.

Since ‘09, the Red Devils have gone 7-34. The defense has been a major culprit. Last season that side of the ball gave up 33.4 points and 418.5 yards per game.

“I looked at it as the easiest thing to fix is something you do best and that’s the defense,” O’Neill said. “If we fix the defense first it will keep us in games. That will lead to success quicker than trying to outscore people in our league. That’s not gonna happen.”

O’Neill took his first coaching job 30 years ago, coaching defensive backs at Williamson Trade School. A year later he took a job as defensive coordinator under former Marple Newtown coach, and current Sun Valley head man, Ray Guinta, at St. John Neumann High. He also coordinated the defense at St. James High for a season and had stints back at Williamson and then at Penncrest High when Mike Milano was the head coach.

Despite his heavy defensive resume, O’Neill will be calling the offense this fall.

“I think the guys most qualified to call an offense are experienced defensive coordinators,” O’Neill said. “Understanding what hurts us from that perspective helps me know how to attack. I thought it would be easier to run the offense and oversee the defense. Being the head guy, it’s my tombstone that my last name goes on, so if I’m going to go down, I’m gonna go down calling my own plays.”

In 2002, with his home in West Grove, O’Neill started coaching in the Avon Grove Wildcats youth football program. From 2003-2005 he was the athletic director there.

After a very successful stretch at Unionville with three division titles and six playoff appearances, O’Neill feels like he’s landed in his ideal spot.

“(Unionville coach) Pat Clark hired me in 2006 and I fit pretty good on his staff,” O’Neill said. “I never really coached in Chester County and had no roots here. This feels like home to me. I’ve lived down here and these kids are my kind of guys. They’re blue-collar, hardcore kids.”

“Sometimes it’s just timing. It just worked out and I feel like it was right and it’s a good role. I coached with some really good coaches. I learned a lot from guys like Mike Milano and Pat Clark and I try to take a little bit from everyone. At this point in my career the timing was right to take a shot.”

From a scheme standpoint, Avon Grove’s offense will have a different look. With a lot uptempo, zone runs and quick-hitting passes, O’Neill will try to establish the type of physical brand that is necessary to survive in the National Division.

“It’ll be different for me,” O’Neill said. “We played Coatesville and Bishop Shanahan (at Unionville) but it’s a big learning curve. I don’t know what to expect out there. The (American Division) was always looked down on as the little brother, but I think that’s disrespectful. The teams are better than they were given credit for. You have to prepare for every team. I think the main difference will be there are more better players on every team (in the National Division).”

There are also some very good coaches in the National, who have created or maintained traditions of excellence. For O’Neill, if the success is going to be lasting, the process will have to take some time. Weeds spring up fast and die just as quickly. It takes healthy roots to one day elevate with the other mighty oaks in the Ches-Mont.