Over the course of his life, Matt Miller has worn many hats.
The 44-year old has served in the Navy. He was a part of the first state championship football unit at Wheelersburg. He helped bring the Portsmouth Post 23 baseball program back to life. And he guided an East baseball program that once had been lost in the doldrums without an exit route into a respectable program that won a postseason game last year and came within a run of winning a sectional championship.
Now, with his Post 23 and East baseball coaching duties still very much intact, Miller will take on yet another challenge — one that involves being a leader of a football program. The Wheelersburg native, who served under James Gifford as East’s defensive coordinator, will take over the reigns of the Tartans’ football program as Miller was officially named as the school’s head football coach on Tuesday evening.
For the area lifer and sports aficionado who loves anything with a ball, however, the challenge is one that Miller doesn’t take lightly — especially considering what the East football program has developed into over the last several seasons.
“It’s an honor, and I’m very appreciative of the board, the interviewers, and all of the people who had the trust in me to take over this program,” Miller said. “It’s a top-notch program that has been to the playoffs in each of the last three years. That’s the only school in Scioto County, besides Wheelersburg, that has done that. There’s big shoes to fill, but I hope to continue on and build the program.”
The credentials for Miller, a 1992 graduate from Wheelersburg, are certainly as high as you’ll find.
In addition to the state title that he won with the Pirates, the man that they called “Bud” led the East baseball program to its first postseason victory since 2011, and just its second in 10 years, with a 5-3 victory over Western in the Division IV, Southeast I District Sectional Semifinals last May.
And on the gridiron, the East Tartans’ defensive unit has improved dramatically as Miller has helped lead a defensive transformation in Sciotoville.
Over the past four years, the Tartans went from giving up 34.7 points per contest in 2014 and 31.5 points in 2015 to 15.7 points per affair in 2016 and 19.5 points per contest in 2017 as Miller developed Braiden Haney and Ethan Gifford into All-District and All-State caliber talents, which certainly didn’t hurt the 44-year old’s case, especially considering where East had been defensively earlier in the decade. Not surprisingly, the hire was widely popular.
“The community support’s been great,” Miller said. “Social media is a wonder. I posted (a Facebook status) on Tuesday evening, and got an outpouring of support throughout the county from friends that I know and different coaches who have reached out. I’m very appreciative of that. The kids are excited, too. They seem to be happy and very appreciative. We had a quick meeting where I addressed my thoughts and told them that I was basically excited and ready to get going.”
Still, maintaining, and even building on the success that James Gifford has developed with East won’t be easy.
The Tartans lose just seven seniors from a 36-man roster, but four of those seniors, including Gifford, West Virginia University freshman Blaine Scott, Brady Douthat, and J.D. Hatcher, earned All-District honors while Douthat, Hatcher, Gifford, Ethan Carver and Devon Stevens were standout two-way players for East. Sam King was also a critical component to East’s wide receiving corps and, along with Gifford, Douthat, Scott, and Stevens, provided excellent leadership for the 9-3 football team that garnered the school’s first playoff win.
But while Miller will have to replace a lot of production, there is talent that is being slept on. Kyle Flannery, Tommy Lambert, Mackie Kingery, and Trace Smith each return to give the Tartans sizeable depth in the backfield. Trenten Bond returns on the line to anchor East in the offensive trenches. And defensively, Haney — who has already collected 37 sacks in his high school football career in just two years — leads another potentially nasty defense that is also spearheaded by Chandler Carver (58 tackles), Kingery (53 tackles), Flannery (three interceptions), and Chase Coyle.
“We lost a lot,” Miller said. “We lost a lot of leaders, excellent football players, and individuals. With that, we have big shoes to fill, but I’m confident in the younger kids. Some of them, last year, got some experience on the varsity level either in mop-up duty or when somebody needed a break, so we’ve got some experience there. I’m confident in their ability to pick things up and go where we left off.”
Each of those players, especially on the defensive end, will basically be staying in the regular 4-4 (or 44) package that East ran last season. The offensive scheme, however, looks like it will be more wide-open than in years past.
“Defensively, we’ll stay in pretty much the same look,” Miller said. “We may add in a few wrinkles to it here and there. Offensively, we’re looking at being a little more diverse. We’re looking to incorporate a couple of formations and different sets that will make us a more diverse team as far as our options go with opening things up a little bit.”
Overall, there’s no question that East will be shooting to take the football program to heights that haven’t been reached before, as James Gifford did when the Piketon native led the Tartans to that thrilling 12-6 victory over Waterford last November. But as with Gifford, the expectations are going to be high outside of the football field, as well.
“My expectations are that we’re going to work,” Miller said. “If we’re respectful and we go about things the right way, good things will happen. That’s the standard that I plan to hold these guys to. If they don’t take care of their business, they’re going to know about it, whether it’s from the school to the way that they work in the weight room. Everything’s going to be top-to-bottom, clear-cut, this is how we do things. This is how we prepare. The sad reality is that less than one percent of all high school athletes will go to play college, and pro football, at the highest level. So we’re not going to prepare kids just for the football season; we’re going to prepare kids for life, because if we don’t, the kids will get smacked in the face. We’re just trying to say, ‘Hey, this is how you do things the right way.’”