Although he was busy coaching Hamilton Township to a Division III regional runner-up finish last fall, it was easy for Nate Hillerich to notice the Pickerington High School North football team’s latest playoff run.
The Panthers’ past success — and its potential for more — has the Pickerington resident feeling “ready to roll” after being named the third coach in program history.Videos •Nate Hillerich speaks at Pickerington North after being introduced as its new football coach April 21. •An interview with Hillerich
“One thing is that this is a place that has a great tradition started, great expectations and the standards are high,” Hillerich told players shortly after being introduced as coach April 21. “That’s from former coaches and the current (administration) we have now. The thing that’s crazy about that is the 2017 team is so close. It’s on the verge of something special.
“I’m telling you, I look at the year last year, and I’m getting jacked up right now thinking about it. You’re so close to something real special. … My job is to put you in a position to win.”
Hillerich, 31, is a 2004 Groveport graduate who lives in the district along with his wife, Lindsey, and their sons, Ross, 4, and Wesley, 1.
In seven seasons at Hamilton Township, Hillerich compiled a 52-23 record and guided the Rangers to three playoff appearances.
He takes over for Tom Phillips, who led the Panthers to a 70-39 mark in 10 seasons, including their first four playoff appearances.
Phillips stepped down in late March to become director of player personnel for the University of Cincinnati football team under new coach Luke Fickell.
Last fall, despite having its starting quarterback and No. 1 running back from 2015 transfer before the season, North finished 8-4.
The Panthers earned the seventh seed for the Division I, Region 3 playoffs and upset second-seeded Hilliard Bradley 49-21 in a first-round game before falling to third-seeded Pickerington Central 38-24 in a regional semifinal.
The only time in program history that North has gotten past the second round of the playoffs was in 2012, when it lost to Cincinnati Moeller 26-21 in a state semifinal.
The Panthers went 20-20 under Tim Bahen in their first four seasons.
“It’s a great place,” Hillerich said. “(There’s a) ton of support from the administration. It’s an elite program, a place that’s won state titles in baseball and track, and they’re right on the cusp, I think, of taking that next step in football. I’m excited to be given that opportunity to lead the program.
“I’m going to bring some energy, some excitement and bring a little swagger to our team. We’re going to do things better than anybody. I’m talking Ohio, talking OCC and I’m talking Pickerington, for sure.”
Hillerich was a linebacker for Ohio Dominican University during its inaugural season in 2004 and served as a team captain for three seasons. In his senior season in 2007, ODU went 12-1 and reached a semifinal of the NAIA playoffs.
Just three years later, Hillerich landed his first head-coaching job at Hamilton Township after serving as an assistant for two seasons under former coach Bob Jacoby.
The Rangers, who had finished 0-10 in 2009, went 8-2 in his first season, falling two spots shy of a Division II, Region 7 playoff berth. He was named district Coach of the Year and shared state Coach of the Year honors.
Hamilton Township went 5-5 in 2011 but posted a winning season every year since, including going 10-3 last fall.
The Rangers lost in the first round of the Division II, Region 5 playoffs in 2014 and fell in the first round of the Division III, Region 9 playoffs in 2015.
Last season, Hamilton Township was seeded third in the Division III, Region 11 playoffs and beat sixth-seeded Chillicothe 19-6 and second-seeded Bexley 26-20 before falling to top-seeded DeSales 49-6 in the regional final.
“From what I know and have talked to him a little bit, I like him a lot,” said junior quarterback Jimmy Weirick, who was one of the OCC-Ohio Division’s co-Players of the Year last season. “(He’s) young and energetic and I think that’s exactly what we need, a great coach with great connections to the next level. He thinks highly already of me and a few others and wants us to exceed our potential personally (and) team-wise.”
Hillerich is a regional director for the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association. He also is the coordinator for the Ohio North-South All-Star Classic, which takes place Saturday, April 29, at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon.
“He brought to us things that were impressive, like a mission statement and a one-, three- and five-year vision for Pickerington North,” athletics director Molly Feesler said.